I FELT A SENSE of community the moment I walked into my school as a new classroom teacher. Our guidance counselor met me at the door, smiling ear to ear. Within an hour, another Black staff member introduced herself to me and welcomed me into the community. “I make sure to go out of my way to meet and greet every Black staff member because I want you to know that you belong,” she said.

The district where I teach has approximately 14,000 students, 77.1 percent of whom identify as students of color while just 13 percent of the 1,100 educators share that Identity.  For the first two years, I was often mistaken for a student because I “blended in.” When I covered other classrooms, students would often ask me if I was a language tutor or an arts educator. When I told them that I was a STEM teacher, they would turn to me in disbelief because they have never before had a Black STEM classroom teacher. They peppered me with questions: What subjects do I teach? How long have I been a teacher? How much do teachers make and, most importantly, do I enjoy the profession?

For my students of color, representation matters because if you can see it, you can believe it. For many of them, I am often their first teacher of color. Research shows that teachers of color tend to have higher expectations of students of color and are associated with better student achievement, lower absenteeism, and fewer suspensions for students of color.

Having positive exposure to educators from a variety of races and ethnic groups for both white and minority students can help to reduce stereotypes, eliminate unconscious implicit biases, and promote cross-cultural social bonding. With diverse educators before them, my students can have “recognized access” and believe in possibilities they might not have considered otherwise. The need for this presence is not only at the secondary level, but in early childhood as well where it is imperative to build a larger diverse educator pipeline.

There is some good news. Teacher diversity rates are trending upwards in Massachusetts, a positive development. Now that we have recruited educators of color, how will we retain them? For me and other teachers of color I know, it is essential to have a space where we can share experiences without having to explain why we feel the way we do.

To support this “recognized” access” for our students, we must create spaces for educators to come together and connect through affinity groups and employee resource groups. Seeing this need, I pushed my administration to form our district affinity groups that I am now co-coordinating. In my first affinity group meeting, one educator became emotional about feeling isolated. Were there even 10 Black educators who had the same experience and challenges? Time after time, unprompted, educators and staff would say “I could write a book” about their lived experience as an educator of color in our district.

I am lucky that on my first day in my school I found my affinity group, but I needed more. Through my district affinity group, I now connect with educators across 28 schools who have various levels of support and a sense of belonging to our school community. The group allows all of us to practice self-care as we build roots and connections. Now that we have access to a strong supportive community with a variety of experiences, expertise, and perspectives, we use this space as a catalyst for addressing problems of policy and practice and to improve our teaching, The end goal is a professional learning community that is striving towards improvement of outcomes for our students, families, and educators within our city.

Ralph Saint-Louis teaches biology and chemistry at Lowell Public High School in Lowell. He is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Massachusetts Policy Fellow.