EDUCATION POLICYMAKERS and politicians say they are concerned about a growing educator shortage bearing down on our public schools. But for years, our students of color have been crying out about the lack of educators who look like them.
The state’s education establishment and individual school district administrators, who are responsible for hiring educators, in general have a dismal track record when it comes to attracting and retaining educators of color. Our years of classroom experience bear out what numerous studies have shown – students of color benefit when at least some of their classes are taught by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) educators and when they see Black and brown professionals working in their schools. We have also seen the positive impact on white students when they have BIPOC educators.
While we value diversity, we also recognize that students and educators need an overall strategy to foster knowledge and empathy about the myriad experiences and backgrounds – including racial, ethnic, class and gender differences – that we bring as individuals into our schools. The bridges among cultures that we can build in a diversified school are what really matter.
Because of the urgent need to increase diversity in the ranks of public school educators, we testified recently in support of two bills – S.311 and S.286 – that would create additional and alternative pathways into the teaching profession in Massachusetts and establish programs to recruit educators of color.
We shared two stories in our respective testimony to the Legislature:
- In Pembroke, a school will likely lose a BIPOC educator – one of two in the building – because of the cost and time required to complete the state’s licensure exams, which are administered in English. This is a world languages educator, teaching her first language, and who has previously taught in another country. She is fluent in three languages, including Arabic. In the two years that she has been in our district, working under an emergency license, she has made deep connections with families who also speak Arabic. The state’s restrictive licensure process threatens to rob our students of this educator’s many talents.
- During the height of the pandemic, a Black student attending middle school in Cambridge sent a note to his BIPOC teacher to say, “Thank you for being my teacher. It means a lot to have a Black teacher when school is so hard.” Yet too few of our students – Black, brown and white – are able to learn with a BIPOC educator at all. And every student working with the most diverse teaching team in Cambridge’s middle schools demonstrated significant academic growth this year.
The Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) regimen is a poor one-size-fits-all approach to granting teaching licenses to qualified candidates, and we know that MTEL has proven to be discriminatory toward educators whose first language is not English.
Alternative methods to achieve licensure, and additional support for instructional assistants who want to become teachers – including mentorship programs and grants to pay for teacher training courses – are just some of the steps Massachusetts can take to recruit BIPOC educators.
And we cannot ignore a fundamental problem: The high cost of getting a teaching degree. The cost to become an educator in Massachusetts is one of the main reasons that the educator pipeline is drying, and those costs are hitting students of color harder than their white counterparts because BIPOC students typically need to borrow more to pursue higher education.
Our union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, successfully advocated for a state budget provision that will allocate $15 million for scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for aspiring and new educators, with priority being placed on recruiting and retaining educators of color. Furthermore, the increased state funding to districts from the Student Opportunity Act, passed in 2019 with strong advocacy from educators across the state, must be used to retain newly hired BIPOC educators. Passing the Cherish Act, which would increase higher education funding and freeze tuition and fee increases for several years, would also allow more young people to pursue careers in public education without having to amass student loan debt.
Proposing changes to how districts can cut staff to build a more diverse educator workforce – as another bill does – is misguided. We need more educators, not fewer.
Both of us directly benefitted from having teachers of color as part of our education. They inspired us to pursue our degrees and to enter this transformative profession. We are not content to simply “pay it forward.” We must build the wealth of diversity that all of our students deserve.
Rosa Lopez-Whitehill is a middle school teacher in the Pembroke Public Schools. Betsy Preval is a middle school teacher in the Cambridge Public Schools.