Elvira Elfrida knows some of her students make eye contact as a sign of respect while others avoid it for the same reason — and she approaches everyone she meets in the halls of St. Paul's Central High School with an intrinsic curiosity about their cultural background.
That has helped Elfrida make inroads with her special education students, which she said in turn leads them to make gains in their other classes.
"If you can't relate with their culture, you might think students are being rude," said Elfrida, who was born in Indonesia.
As Minnesota's student population grows more diverse, educators and policymakers have long said it's essential to recruit teachers whose life experience reflects that of the kids they educate. And several proposals before the Legislature this session, plus ideas backed by Gov. Tim Walz, have pledged millions of dollars to draw diverse candidates to teacher preparation programs.
A little more than half the students in the seven-county metro area are Black, Indigenous or other people of color, yet fewer than 10% of educators are, according to figures released this week by the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.
But it's not just an urban or suburban issue. In many other areas of the state, about a quarter to a third of students are children of color, and almost all the teachers are white.
Both the House and Senate have introduced bills that seek to smooth out the process of obtaining a teaching license. One proposal put forth by Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, would commit more than $60 million per year to bolster efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color.
She wrote the latest update to the Increase Teachers of Color Act, which calls for the agency that licenses educators to drop a required basic skills exam before someone can enter the classroom. The bill would also establish a goal for the state to increase the percentage of teachers of color in Minnesota schools by 2% every year until 2040, among other things.
It also loosens criteria for an existing program that has so far mostly failed to attract teachers of color from elsewhere.
"We need to be bold and unapologetic about reducing disparities for our students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color," Hasan said.
In a hearing earlier this week, Republicans acknowledged the need for a more diverse teacher workforce but questioned some elements of the proposal, arguing that they could lower standards for teachers.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, was the author of previous versions of the bill Hasan introduced this year and agrees the teaching force needs to be more diverse. But he'd also like to see colleges and universities be more proactive.
"I think we need to take a close look at the pipeline that is producing our teachers in the state of Minnesota — our colleges and universities. What are they doing?" Urdahl said.
More pathways to teaching
Walz has proposed $17.5 million for what are known as "Grow Your Own" programs, in which school districts help existing staff obtain teaching licenses.
Elfrida and Sharifa Sheyba, another St. Paul teacher, graduated from one such program. The St. Paul Urban Teacher Residency is a partnership between the school district and the University of St. Thomas that provides district employees an accelerated path to a teaching license.
Sheyba took a job as a teaching assistant in St. Paul when the oldest of her three children was approaching school age. She was spurred by her memories as a teenage immigrant from Kenya who struggled through her two years at Champlin Park High School.
"My perception of high school was scary. I didn't want my children to go through the same thing," Sheyba said.
As she worked with immigrant students and their families, Sheyba was inspired to attain her teaching license. But her psychology degree alone didn't immediately qualify her for one. That's where the residency came in.
"If they didn't have a program or scholarship like this, I would not have become a teacher," Sheyba said.
She worked in elementary classrooms as a special education teacher during her first year in the program. Now Sheyba is a middle school teacher for St. Paul's Online Middle School.
Republicans and Democrats have hailed programs such as the one Elfrida and Sheyba graduated from as a remedy for the persistent issue of a homogenous teacher workforce.
But Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, objected to the proposal that would remove the required knowledge tests administered by the state licensing agency. She's also concerned about last-in, first-out contract language common in school districts.
Bennett likened the state's efforts to diversify its education workforce to building a bucket with holes.
"The bucket leaks, and we lose them," Bennett said, referring in part to the last-in, first-out policies.
The Minneapolis and Robbinsdale districts exempt underrepresented groups from the seniority clauses in their respective teachers union contracts. Education Minnesota spokesman Chris Williams said the statewide teachers union has model language it recommends to other districts but also said layoffs "aren't a major factor in diversifying the profession."
"Unsustainable working conditions, under-resourced schools, unachievable job expectations and salaries that can't pay education debts push out far more teachers of color than budget cuts," Williams said in an email.
Having experienced some of those issues as an educator, Sheyba now has her sights set on an administrative license. She wants to become a principal so she can train school staff how to work with students from diverse backgrounds, rather than putting the onus on teachers of color.
"If we don't have different representation at the top, whatever trickles down to the teachers is not going to be representative," Sheyba said.