In the last three years, Alejandra Guerrero Morales has been making her way through the education profession with the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon. Two years ago, she started as a bilingual instructional assistant. Today, she’s a special education instructional assistant. By September, 2017, she’ll be a special education teacher. Born in the U.S. to Mexican parents, Guerrero brings her skillset and commitment to the table. She also brings her culture—a resource that centers on the need for more teacher diversity.
Guerrero was one of the many panelists who were brought to Washington, D.C. on May 17 for a two-day conference called, “Grow Your Own: Teacher Diversity and Social Justice Summit,” hosted by the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and the AFL-CIO. The summit focused on a growing recruitment strategy called “Grow Your Own.” This approach addresses the national need to recruit, develop, and retain diverse and culturally responsive, community-based educators of color to help advance the achievement of all students—particularly students of color.
Research supports that students of color who are taught by a teacher of the same race or ethnicity perform better in school.
Despite evidence that shows the need for diversity within the education workforce, gains have been slow.
In her remarks to summit participants, National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García shared that when she entered the profession, she had all the right support systems: support from other teachers, encouragement from her family, and federal grants to help her get through college.
“Today, that is happening against all odds, especially in communities of color and in communities of poverty,” she said. “How do we find ways to get people to college and not be crushed by student debt … How do we help those who should be [in classrooms] working with students who look like them, sound like them, and will connect with them?”
The answers may rest within grow-your-own programs.
In short, these programs recruit local community members and help them become teachers, creating a workforce that’s reflective of the full diversity of the student population.
No one program is alike. Some programs have an intense focus on undergraduate students while others reach out to students in middle school and high school. Colorado-based Pathways2Teaching, for example, works with high school juniors and seniors. Throughout the school year, students explore related careers through a social justice and equity lens.
“It’s a sad reality to think that a child can go from K-12, get a bachelor’s degree, get a masters, and complete a Ph.D., and never have one teacher of color throughout his or her trajectory,” says Margarita Bianca, an associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver—and founder and executive director of Pathways2Teaching.
What message does that send to students of color,” she asks, adding that “you can’t be who you don’t see.” A point that is critically important considering the growing shift in demographics.
Approximately 42 percent of PK-12 public school students today are students of color, and this number is expected to rise through 2024.
For Oregon’s Guerrero, she wants to be seen as someone who can represent the growing Latino population in the Salem-Keizer school district. This was one of the reasons that propelled her to apply for a grow-your-program through Pacific University’s Master of Arts in Teaching Flex Program. The program is a 17-month experience composed of university coursework and school field experience. The program is flexible and accommodates part-time students with courses that meet late afternoon, early evening, and on weekend. Upon completion of the program, Guerrero will qualify for a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and an Oregon Initial Teaching License.
“Many of our teachers in the Salem-Keizer district are not bilingual, and with a population of students who are Latino, they need a voice, “says Guerrero, who grew up in the Salem-Keizer area and is the first generation in her family to graduate from a four-year university. “We need more people who speak Spanish and who know what it’s like to live and grow up in the area.”
Mindy Merritt, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, agrees and is working to position the Association as a resource for new teachers. “It’s one thing to bring them in,” Merritt says, “but how to we ensure their success?”
Brian A. Turner, a special education teacher, high school baseball coach, and athletic director from the Salem-Keizer district, urged participants to work with local unions to help change school policy. “Our local union established a pathway for paraeducators to get into the teacher workforce,” he explained. “The change allowed them to work in the schools that they’re currently in—that’s a policy change.”
Other programs have been developed with the help of higher education institutions, which have offered free or reduced college tuition for students entering education programs.
State legislators have passed laws that promote respect for different cultures, too.
“You often don’t feel included if your mascot is racist,” says Matt de Ferranti, legislative director for the National Indian Education Association. He explained that states like Washington and Montana have passed legislation that incorporates native American history, culture, language, and government into the curriculum.
This curriculum change opens the doors for elders in native communities to become teachers. “Elders can be phenomenal teachers, and we have to get them to the classrooms,” said de Ferranti. “They know the history, culture, and language—and those are the pieces that are often missing.”
Cultural sensitivity and cultural diversity are essential components of a qualified teacher workforce that positively impacts student learning. These components need to be inclusive and mindful of students and their communities, too.
“There are a number of programs to diversify the workforce, but it’s done the wrong way,” says Colorado’s Margarita Bianco. “Bringing teachers from Puerto Rico to teach Mexican kids, just because they have brown skin, doesn’t mean they understand the kids and the community. Insider knowledge is what we have to promote.”