IN THE FIFTH GRADE, I was inexplicably popular. I would strut down the hallway at the very end of a single file line with my class, dressed in a floral tracksuit paired with junior boys’ Heelys, butterfly clips in my braided hair, and a mischievous half-smile across my face. The level of swagger was inconceivable for most. My celebrity died the summer before sixth grade, around the time I realized I was different from the majority of my peers. I realized I wasn’t White.
Everyone else noticed, too. At least, they kept pointing it out to me. From that point on I was known simply as “That Black Girl” at school. Harassing me at my locker was the favorite extracurricular activity for a handful of White boys in my class. I was “too dark” but “surprisingly eloquent.”
My teachers should have been there to guide and support me but were not equipped to address racism in the classroom. Some teachers even contributed their own microaggressions towards me. Our high school building sub once asked me in earnest, “Why are Black people so loud?” He was actually one of my favorite teachers until then. Through continuous nuanced messages that took me years to unpack, it was obvious what many of my peers and teachers thought a biracial woman was capable of.
I fell from the social ladder quickly and my unabashed, carefree, and devastatingly cool nature shattered from the impact. I internalized a deep hatred for my skin and developed a tiny voice in the back of my mind that would criticize everything about me. I spent the entirety of my junior high and high school experience combatting the fact that I was identified and known solely by the color of my skin. Even though I had friends, I felt unyieldingly, palpably alone.
At a certain point in our adolescent development, race becomes a crucial factor in how we navigate the intricacies of our identity. At a certain point, it becomes inseparable from the core of our being. The schools I attended were overwhelmingly White and it was stifling. I was desperately looking for an adult in my life who understood what I was going through, but every day when I would enter the building, I would only see White teachers. My experience is not unique. According to the Pew Research Center, almost 80 percent of public-school teachers are White, while about 51 percent of public elementary and secondary students identify as nonwhite.
When we have teachers of color in the classroom, all students benefit. According to a study from Johns Hopkins University, students of color have better academic outcomes, improved graduation rates, and are more likely to attend college if they have just one Black teacher. Unsurprisingly, educators of color are more equipped to effectively teach Black and Brown students, while White teachers often lack the necessary training in culturally responsive teaching practices. Not only does having teachers of color help students of color, but it normalizes PoC representation and success for White kids. A study from New York University posits that students of all races (including White students) have more positive perceptions of their Black and Latino teachers than their White teachers. This isn’t to say that White people shouldn’t teach, but we cannot ignore the critical need for more teachers of color. Our students’ social-emotional development depends on it.
Today, as an educator, I want the best possible outcomes for my students of color while being the kind of teacher whose absence I felt deeply in my life. I want to hear fewer stories like mine. I want to hear young PoC educators saying they entered the profession because they were inspired, not because they were failed.
It is one thing to endlessly call for diversity within our schools, but the only way that can happen is if districts hire and retain more teachers of color. We need more PoC principals and administration to encourage these teachers to apply. There has been a trend of Black educators leaving the profession, and it’s not because they don’t want to teach.
Black teachers experience harsher performance evaluations and are disproportionately penalized or dismissed relative to their White counterparts. Additionally, teachers of color experience daily microaggressions that, over the course of one’s professional career or life, can have a lasting psychological impact. They can often feel unappreciated, misunderstood, and alienated in a workplace that “values diversity” but fundamentally misunderstands the needs of their PoC educators. We tend to forget that schools are functioning workplaces that need a fundamental culture shift. In order to retain PoC teachers, school administrators need to take a hard look at how they are valuing their teachers of color, not just their diversity quotas.
When I look back to my elementary school self, I wonder how different my perspective and experience would have been if I had just one teacher who looked like me. I imagine the day I realized I wasn’t White, when the reality of race came crashing down on me. I imagine peeking into their classroom, a cloud of despondence lingering over my head. I imagine them telling that little girl what I tell my students today, that her skin is beautiful. That she does not have to explain or justify her existence, and that she is so much stronger and capable than she’s been told to think. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone, and that would have been worth it.
Hannah Williams is an elementary school educator from Roslindale who is currently a graduate student at Northeastern University studying elementary education and ESL — English as a second language.