Learning is about making connections – not just between, say, a math concept and its real-life applications – but between teachers and students. Race sometimes gets in the way of that. In CMS, most teachers are white but most students are African-American or Latino. The district is trying to recruit more teachers of color, but it’s not easy-going.
In four years, someone like Omar Lipscomb will be a prime target for district recruiters. Lipscomb is an African-American senior at North Rowan High and wants to be a special education teacher. Only 5 percent of teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are African-American men.
Lipscomp says growing up assisting his brother, who is autistic, helped convince him that teaching is the job for him. But he says another reason he wants to be a teacher is because “I rarely see an African-American teacher and I feel like we need more African-American teachers because people really don’t look at African Americans the same and I feel if we had more positive role models it could really make a difference.”
In North Carolina, black, Latino, Asian and Native Americans represent only about 18 percent of public school teachers, whereas children of color account for half of the state’s students. That closely reflects national numbers. As for CMS, people of color make up a third of teachers, while that describes 71 percent of students.
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“Race is not an indicator of how effective someone is as an instructor but in terms of connecting with a student, it’s important,” said James Ford, North Carolina’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. He now works for the Public School Forum of North Carolina and trains other teachers. Ford taught at Garinger High School where like him, most of the students are African-American.
“It’s a cultural experience. You bring a wealth of ideas, norms and shared experiences to class and so when kids see that you can make that cultural connection, not only am I black, but I listen to Hip Hop, I can speak Ebonics, those things resonate,” Ford said.
Recent studies show that African-American students do slightly better academically when they have teachers of their own race. Ford says he saw this first-hand. He also observed how black students got frustrated when they didn’t think their white teachers understood them. He said oftentimes, they did not.
“I’ve been in environments where they’ve said what’s wrong with our black girls. They say they’re loud and I said if by being loud you mean being louder than you’re accustomed to, that may be some that’s culturally defined,” Ford said. “People communicate in different frequencies, black folks have their way of communicating and white folks have their way of communicating and so, unless it’s disrupting instruction, you may have to unpack and honor that.”
In CMS about 25 percent of teachers are African-American, whereas 40 percent of CMS students are black. The gap is even larger when it comes to Hispanics, a growing student population. Only about 3 percent of CMS teachers are Hispanic compared to 22 percent of students.
A district human resources director Rakeda Leaks, said CMS is working hard to recruit teachers but it’s not easy.
“At times it can be frustrating but it’s just a pipeline shortage, so all districts are vying for the same small number of teachers out there, so it can be competitive,” Leaks said.
Leaks said they are recruiting Latino teachers in Florida and other states with large Latino populations. They’ve also enlisted the help of an international recruiting firm to attract teachers of color around the globe. In addition, they are targeting education majors at historically black colleges and universities.
“We make sure they’re aware of opportunities in our district where we have large black populations in a subset of schools with low income and many students respond to that because they are mission driven and they want to make an immediate impact,” Leaks said.
These are good steps said Lisa Merriweather, UNC Charlotte’s education department diversity chair but she says more needs to be done.
“If that’s all you’re doing, maybe you’re just checking the box, we went here, we tried, but it has to be intentional, ongoing and not one in and one out,” Merriweather said. “If you want to show those commitments and be successful, it has to be a sustained effort.”
The number of African-American teachers dropped significantly after desegregation. Forty thousand teachers lost their jobs in the South when many black schools closed and the formerly all-white schools refused to hire them. Of course, today many other professional job opportunities are open to African-Americans and fewer are going into teaching. For those who do go, as with many teachers, pay is one reason they leave. According to a Center for American Progress report, another is because they feel isolated or unsupported.
Latarsha Roberts-Hoefer almost left teaching because of that. At Cato Middle College High School where she works is one of five CMS schools that only have one African-American teacher. Five others have no teachers of color at all.
“I don’t know if anybody realized I was the only African-American basically alone in a corner room,” she said. “I could see the closeness among them. They started calling each by their first name and I called them by their last name and they called me by my last name. I had a teacher request I call her by her last name.”
Roberts-Hoefer, who’s been at Cato for five years, says she stayed because she felt her students of color need her. These days, things are better partly because she has a black principal who she says is supportive.
But at this point, no one expects the teacher of color shortage to change much in coming years, especially since there are so few candidates in the pipeline.
Fewer people in general are going into education. Enrollment in the UNC system’s schools of education is down 30 percent since 2010. Last year, Johnson C. Smith closed its’ education department, partly due to a lack of interest. At UNC Charlotte’s school of education, only about 18 percent of last year’s graduates were people of color.
(This story was updated on Feb. 15, 2016, to remove an erroneous reference to a Duke University study about discipline of black students by white teachers.)