Right now, Minneapolis Public Schools and the teachers union are negotiating about a plan to hire more teachers of color. Here’s some stark data to consider:
The district now has 65% students of color and 17% teachers of color. Last year, 1,500 students left Minneapolis Public Schools; 80% of whom were children of color.
Parents of color have long complained that their children do not feel welcomed and affirmed at school. MPS’ own internal study found that teachers of color are not truly sought out and that staff of color face a minefield of microaggressions, lack of support, overwork and cultural ignorance. Even if they are hired, teachers of color often leave for the sake of their own physical and mental health.
Almost everyone agrees on the need to greatly increase the district’s ability to hire and retain talented, effective teachers of color. And yet, not much has changed. One of the big barriers to doing this in Minneapolis is the district’s hiring process, which operates according to the rules of the teacher contract.
This contract gives senior and current teachers — who are overwhelmingly white — first priority when it comes to interviewing and applying for new positions. So under the rules, the district can’t offer jobs to most outside candidates until late June — and by that time, the most talented candidates have already often founds jobs in other districts or with charter or private schools.
The district wants to change the rules so it can interview more outside candidates and offer positions by late May. It’s a small change, but it’s a start. Yet, the union is resisting.
It is time for us teachers to take a stand, and for white teachers like myself to prioritize the good of our students and our community. I say this having begun to examine my own racial prejudice and the systemic white supremacy in education.
An example of this is my ignorance until recently that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which outlawed school segregation had a dark side, hidden to most white people.
It turns out that the post-Brown transition to desegregate schools resulted in tens of thousands of black teachers losing their jobs. Majority white school district administrators just wouldn’t hire them. In the 65 years since then, a meaningful and robust path for teachers and principals of color has never been implemented in U.S. schools.
And sadly, the majority white teachers union has not taken a clear and solid anti-racist stand.
The MPS proposal does ask white teachers to abide by an earlier interview and selection process, which is a small sacrifice, especially given the history of exclusion of teachers of color. If we’re honest, teachers are required by the ethics of our profession to serve students first, which in this case means changing the teaching corps toward racial equity. I would like to think that the teaching profession could take a lead in this, as people who care about our future.
And wouldn’t that be a great model for students who become rightfully cynical and jaded, given glaring disparities and a lack of policies that would actually change those disparities?
On top of all this, research shows that most students do better with teachers of color, including white students. The simple reason is that people who have lived with discrimination often build a resilient sense of relationships and community, which happens to be the key to learning.
I see evidence of this every time I sub for a teacher of color (which is rather rare). What happens is that many students swing by the classroom to visit during their breaks, passing time, lunch, and before and after school. They leave disappointed because their teacher is out for the day.
This is also an example of the extra burden taken on by many teachers of color who must devote prep, lunch and planning time to be there for students, often students of color who are yearning to connect to an adult who looks like them.
By hiring an infusion of teachers of color, we would be doing ourselves the invaluable favor of bringing that relational teaching tool more powerfully into the schools. This, along with basic fairness, and finally coming to grips with institutional racism, is what our country needs now to begin to heal the damage done and chart a course toward genuine equity.
I applaud MPS for coming up with a proposal to start that change and only hope that the teachers union does the brave thing and supports it.
Nance Kent, of Minneapolis, is a retired educator and current substitute teacher.