Voices in Education

Showing up in Color
Recently, I watched a livestream broadcast hosted by the Black Teacher Project, one of a number of initiatives outside of preK–12 schools and the academy that are designed as safe spaces for educators to provide professional development and guidance for each other.[1] This particular session, entitled “Elder Wisdom: Teaching through Turbulent Times,” featured four seasoned (read baby boomer) African American preK–12 educators who work in a variety of subject areas and roles. The live audience was primarily early career teachers of color (read millennials) eager to share their perspectives and challenges. It was no surprise that the experiences recounted by the “elders” were framed by the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s and those of the newly minted teachers reflected today’s turbulent social and political environment. However, it was amazing that despite their lived experiences in starkly different generations, there are similarities situated around color.

In reflecting on his journey as a math teacher, one “elder” in a somewhat joking manner stated, “Showing up Black, I’m an expert.” The group laughed and it needed no further explanation. The value of a racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse teaching force to preK–12-students in general and to students of color in particular is well documented.[2] Given the rapidly increasing diverse student population, new teachers of color are highly sought after by many states and districts. African American, Latino, Asian American-Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native teachers’ ways of knowing are culturally informed, and very valuable yet they are often prepared and work in homogenized environments that stifle their contributions. Once educators, young or old, show up in the school building with skin tones other than White and/or the ability to speak a language other than English, they are often expected to hoist student achievement to new heights while simultaneously responding to administrator and peer requests to translate parental concerns or intervene in a fight. In essence, they are perceived as a charmed cohort or silver bullet who, with little effort and minimal resources or collegial support, can provide meaningful instruction as well as mediate the culturally sensitive issues facing their students.[3]  

The elder teacher’s comment suggests that often times the way teachers look is more important than what they actually know and need to fine tune their craft and enhance student learning. The shortcomings of this ill-conceived notion are evidenced in the edited book Millennial Teachers of Color. Here, contributors from the baby boomer, Generation X, and millennial generations offer research and information that explains why they teach despite bearing the “invisible tax” of managing important school base issues,[4] and why so many new teachers of color may leave the classroom sooner than hoped and expected.
[2] Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, “The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority Versus White Teachers Educational Researcher,” Educational Researcher, 45 (2016):7, 407-420.
[3] Anthony L. Brown, Mary E. Dilworth, and Keffrelyn D. Brown, “Understanding the Black Teacher Through Metaphor,” Urban Review https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-018-0451-3;  Socorro G. Herrera and Amanda R. Morales, “Understanding ‘Me’ Within ‘Generation Me’: The Meaning Perspectives Held Toward and by Millennial Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Teachers,” in  Millennial Teachers of Color, ed. M. Dilworth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018).

About the Author: Mary E. Dilworth is a former senior vice-president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. She currently serves as an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions, and is the editor of Millennial Teachers of Color (Harvard Education Press, 2018).