July 13, 2024

Izdaniya

Education, What Else?

California needs better support for students and teachers of color

5 min read
California needs better support for students and teachers of color
Courtesy: Allison Zamora

Allison Zamora’s middle school students enjoy their community at a student-planned birthday party for a classmate.

Ruben, dressed in a blue and gray ProClub outfit, slumped down in his seat. When I asked him to get to work on his essay, he said instead: “Ms. Zamora, why does my other teacher hate me? Me and my friends were walking near the gates at the back and, all of a sudden, she comes up to us yelling at us saying that we were smoking and to empty our pockets, saying for us to go to the office. … Is it because we were all Mexican? We were just walking. This is why I hate school.”

The relationship that Ruben and I have painstakingly built has made it possible for him to confide in me without fear. As a teacher of color, I’ve worked hard to create a community in my classroom where all my students feel safe in expressing what it feels like to be criminalized or isolated when behaving a certain way — or just walking with their friends. The fact is that Ruben’s experience is not unique and is not dissimilar from my own. I did not have a teacher of color with whom I could connect until I was in college; it was that teacher who inspired me to become an educator.

In California, about 23% of our student population is white, while 63% of the teacher population is white. Our Latino students make up 54% of our students, while just 20% of teachers share that demographic. As a Filipina-American, special education middle school teacher, I live the reality of my students’ perception of how they’re viewed as students of color every day. I also struggle every day with my own isolation as a teacher of color, especially as I continue to champion students like Ruben. As I question why my students of color are underachieving or advocate to provide differentiated instructional strategies to support them, my efforts are frequently dismissed or belittled. I am left questioning the disrespect toward me and my experience as a result of being a teacher of color.

At times, I feel exactly like Ruben; I hate school too.

I’m not alone in this. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to share my students’ and colleagues’ experiences before a packed room of educators, researchers, systems leaders and policymakers gathered to create a vision for a diverse and sustainable teacher workforce in California. I shared my understanding and personal experiences of the root causes of why teachers of color enter, stay and leave the profession and how it took my one and only experience having a teacher of color to inspire me to become an educator. I also talked about how just one experience of being isolated is enough for me to contemplate leaving the classroom. We need to ensure teachers of color are coming into and staying in the classroom.

I felt powerful presenting my own and my students’ experiences in a room of leaders at the summit. Educators of color around California are continually creating many local roads that lead their students to teaching, but who is giving us the materials to do so? We need a blueprint from the state level. Having a culturally responsive and anti-racist curriculum that students see themselves in allows for the pipeline to teaching to be visible and accessible. Ruben and I deserve to see ourselves in the curriculum and not shy away in fear of others’ opinions.

Recruiting teachers of color begins with consistent and transparent data on teacher demographics. If that data was readily available for each California district and campus, teachers could make decisions based on where they can teach effectively, but mostly, bravely. And, what better place to recruit future teachers of color than from within our California schools that are, in fact, serving students of color? Empowering students of color requires us to look at our representation in schools now, so that it won’t be until college, or never, when they experience having a teacher of color that looks like them.

Another strategy is the creation of affinity groups within districts that function as safe spaces for teachers of color. I know that I would benefit from a place where I could be with fellow teachers of color when I am feeling isolated. District support of affinity groups would speak volumes to any teacher of color about systemic support and help them succeed at their place of work to increase retention. In Oakland Unified School District, such affinity groups already exist to support staff and to create a space for cultural understanding and healing. Being a new teacher, I’m sure the support from an affinity group of teachers of color would create a community where I would long to serve for the majority of my teaching career. It can create a culture where teachers of color feel welcomed, supported and seen — how Ruben should feel every day as a student, as well.

I hope that our summit and other discussions lead to a collaborative understanding of the state infrastructure necessary to develop strong pipelines into the profession. I hope our state and district leaders can better understand and focus more on how to best prepare young teachers of color like me for the classroom and how to ensure that they remain there.

A diversified teaching force in California is one made up of qualified educators who reflect the students and the communities we serve. We need legislators to act so that teachers of color stay in California classrooms where their presence is crucial for every student’s achievement. We need legislators to act so that Ruben does not question if a teacher hates him because he’s Mexican.

We need to come together with a shared vision for the profession — and then work together to execute it.

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Allison Zamora is a special education middle school teacher in San Diego County and a 2022-23 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.

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