If you’re a person of color and passionate about social justice, try becoming a teacher. Our presence in the classroom has long-term implications on how future generations will come to navigate race, and now more than ever, our children need brilliant teachers of color.
You might hesitate at this thought. If you’re anything like I was as an undergrad, you might feel like you’re too impatient to handle kids, have concerns about pay (I hear you) or somehow feel — though we might not like to admit it — that teaching is beneath you. (I remember my friend once asked me point blank, “You went to Brown … to teach?”)
But if diversity, equity and inclusivity are values that resonate with you, then the teacher diversity problem in this country might make you think twice. Despite the growing number of non-white students, U.S. educators are disproportionately white. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, teachers of color represent a small percentage of the workforce, their retention is lower and they are underrepresented in leadership positions. Even in Massachusetts, the state I currently teach in, close to 97 percent of educators are white compared to the 31 percent of students of color. These stark racial disparities are worse in higher-needs districts that serve lower-income and racial minority populations.
As an Asian American, I see and feel this underrepresentation every day — in the hallways of my school, in teacher preparation and development programs and at educator conferences. I am often among the very few, if not the only person, in these spaces to call out issues that directly affect our students of color. The percentage of Asian teachers in Massachusetts, for instance, is less than one percent, well below the proportion of Asian people in the area. It can feel isolating at times, but the effects of this teacher diversity gap are even more consequential for our kids.
We live in an increasingly hostile world for children of color — a world more indifferent to or actively discriminatory against the needs, perspectives and dreams of marginalized identities, where the line between fact and fiction is thinner than it ever was. Only through our visibility, proximity to and empathy for those who shape our future can we build the world we dream of.
I’m a believer in the idea that our identities afford us a unique consciousness and the ability to teach others about our experiences. If you’re white, model to kids what it means to be an ally. If you’re male, teach young boys about toxic masculinity. If you speak Spanish, demonstrate the value of being multilingual. If you identify as LGBTQ+, listen to and amplify your students’ queer identities.
For people of color (and for all non-majority identities), existence is political and often navigated through the lens of survival. As an educator of color, you have an opportunity to explore that consciousness with students — to push back against stereotypes, to oppose systemic injustice, to celebrate identity and culture and to model what it means to live unapologetically.
In other words, my fellow folks of color, y’all can be that teacher you wish you had growing up.
Takeru Nagayoshi ’14 is a high school English teacher in New Bedford, MA. When not teaching, he thinks about law and policy on educational equity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.