All students benefit from diversity among teachers

Walter Hauenstein and Fred Easter were probably the two teachers who taught me the most. Hauenstein, a tough Army vet, was a proud German-American who taught seventh-grade social studies in Wichita, Kansas. Easter was an African-American who taught a college course I took called “Black Families in White America.” Both changed my life.
Easter stressed African-American family strengths at a time when much of the material on TV and in newspapers, as well as in textbooks, described them as “culturally deprived.” Easter was only the second African-American teacher I can recall having between kindergarten and my junior year in college. Hauenstein’s stories about Army service in Germany helped me understand the courage many in the military display.
I mention them because schools throughout Minnesota are experiencing a shortage of teachers. Districts like Anoka-Hennepin, Osseo and Hopkins are taking encouraging actions in response, and I hope the Minnesota Legislature will listen to the research-based suggestions of groups that are seeking support.
There appears to be bipartisan agreement to address part of the shortage: the dramatic underrepresentation of teachers of color. State figures show that more than 30 percent of Minnesota K-12 students come from “communities of color” or are American Indian, but less than 5 percent of the state’s teachers represent any of these groups.
Judy McDonald, executive director of human resources in the Osseo Area School District, told me: “All students benefit by having outstanding teachers with different racial and ethnic backgrounds. … It is important for all students to be able to work and learn alongside others who have a different lived experience.”
McDonald described steps Osseo is taking to diversity its teachers. This includes encouraging high school students to consider teaching, paying for educational assistants and other non-teaching staff to student teach, and providing two years of additional seniority to any former staff person who becomes a tenured district teacher. Osseo also will give Metropolitan State University Urban Education students priority in student teaching and interviewing for vacant positions (while retaining the right to hire the best qualified applicants).
Hopkins Public Schools also is working with Metro State. Superintendent John Schultz told me that the district will use some state integration funds to hire three Metro State student teachers. Hopkins will provide additional opportunities for these people to learn about teaching. Schultz agrees with McDonald: “Having more teachers of color helps all our students.”
Meanwhile, Anoka-Hennepin School District teachers of color have formed the Anoka-Hennepin Teachers of Color Coalition to provide support and encouragement for each other. Some research shows that these teachers are more likely to leave education, sometimes feeling isolated in buildings where they are the only, or one of very few, professional people of color in a school. Information about their teacher-led coalition is here: http://bit.ly/2pwa5J8.
Suburban, rural and urban groups also are urging legislators to, among other things, provide forgivable loans and scholarships to help attract teachers. Henry Jimenez, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs, is a member of the statewide coalition. Just as I remember Hauenstein and Easter, he recalls encouragement from Mr. Gomez, a teacher who was one of only two Latino teachers in a large Las Vegas district high school: “He inspired me to consider a career in public affairs. I still stay in touch with him, many years after being his student.”
Paul Spies, a Metro State professor who helped start the statewide coalition, cites many studies showing the value of a more diverse group of teachers.
For example, one study (http://bit.ly/2oWMMYZ) found: “Having at least one black teacher in the third through fifth grade ‘significantly reduces’ the likelihood that black male students will drop out of high school and increases the likelihood that both black male and female students will aspire to attend a four-year college.”
Another report (http://bit.ly/1PosSKc) found that teachers of color, on average, had higher expectations of students of color.
More information on legislative efforts can be found here: http://bit.ly/2oX43CB.
A more diverse mix of African-American, American Indian, Asian-Pacific Islander, Latino and white teachers will help all Minnesota students learn about the emerging world.
That’s what Hauenstein and Easter did for me. That’s what I hope local and legislative efforts can do for youngsters throughout Minnesota. — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: Nathan formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected])