The Teaching Profession Desperately Needs Some Linsanity

ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill waxes philosophic about Jeremy Lin of New York Knick NBA basketball fame. Her angle? Lin is inspiring legions of young Asian American ballers to rethink what’s possible.

In some classes I teach, I use an activity I created titled “The Making of a Multicultural School.” In the activity students assume the role of teacher leaders who advise me, the principal, on the most important changes to make in order to manage conflict and strengthen teaching and learning at an increasingly diverse, hypothetical high school. First the “teacher leaders” individually rank seven specific challenges nearly all culturally diverse schools struggle with and then in small groups, they share their rankings and work together to establish common priorities. I wrote the challenges by working backwards from a list of multicultural education “best practices” as described in one of James Banks’ many books on multicultural education. Our discussion is always around their rationale for their priorities.

One of the seven challenges, recruiting and retaining a culturally diverse faculty, almost always gets rated as the seventh most important challenge. Meaning in my mostly white, mostly middle class students’ minds, it’s the least pressing issue. This happens over and over. The usual reasoning, a teachers’ attitudes are all that matter.

My students, tomorrow’s teachers, are unable to imagine what it would be like to be a student of color and hardly ever see anyone that looks like them standing in front of the class, a graduate of college, with a professional license, assuming a role of serious responsibility. Janitors, bus drivers, and office staff, sure; teachers and administrators, very rarely. Year. After year. After year. What is the cumulative effect on what young people of color think is possible?

The bad news is far too few Jeremy Lins and Latino and African-American candidates are pursuing teaching credentials today. Meanwhile, the country’s K-12 student body grows increasingly more diverse every year. So the “looks like me” gap steadily widens. To make matters worse, fewer students of color can afford four or five years of higher education even with targeted scholarships and financial aid. Plus the Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that colleges have relied upon to admit moderately diverse classes and states keep ratcheting up teaching licensure requirements and fees.

Many newer state requirements, like content exams in Washington State, are proving nearly insurmountable to too many of the handful of candidates of color who persevere to the final stages of the constantly changing, ever more challenging, teacher certificate journey. These realities don’t bode well for schools hiring and retaining many Asian-American, Latino, or African-American teachers. It also makes it more difficult to successfully implement a multicultural education that inspires all students and provides them with equal educational opportunities. This is doubly true when too many teachers expect less from students of color as illustrated by this highly recommended personal story by Ed Taylor.

There are 3.2 million teachers in the U.S. As many as half are expected to retire in the next decade. Figuring out how to make sure more of those 1m+ are strong Asian-American, Latino, or African-American men and women is among the most important public policy issues of our time. Instead of focusing intently on that, opinion leaders and policy makers are choosing to tighten the screws on today’s experienced classroom teachers. They’ve convinced themselves there’s a panacea for what ails public education—making teachers more accountable for student learning by tying together their students’ test scores, their evaluations, and their compensation.

All of this does not bode well for an increasingly diverse country.

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