Growing up, my favorite teacher, by far, was Mr. Collins, my AP calculus teacher at Huron High School. The class was tough — more than I thought I could handle. But Mr. Collins never let me fail. He made sure I was present and engaged, stayed with me after class when I needed extra help, and gave me rides home when necessary. I could laugh with Mr. Collins and I could cry with him. He was even in communication with my mother about my progress. Mr. Collins set high expectations for my success, and in the end, I passed the class — and the AP exam.
I was one of a handful of black students in the classroom, and Mr. Collins was white.
Research has shown that minority teachers are likely to be more effective in producing positive academic and behavioral outcomes for same-race students. But you don’t have to have a shared race, background, or experience in order to connect. You can do what Mr. Collins did — build a relationship, set expectations, and work to keep your students engaged.
While there’s been an increase in diversity in the public school teacher workforce, it is still dominated by white (82 percent), female teachers (76 percent). Local and state agencies struggle with recruiting and retaining minority teachers in the classroom, for a number of reasons, and we will not solve this problem overnight. More urgently, education agencies should focus their efforts on trying to improve the quality of instruction for minority students now.
One necessary part of that work: Schools must examine and reform their disciplinary policies and practices. African American students, boys especially, continue to be referred for discipline or suspended from school at alarmingly disproportionate rates. This means that these students become less engaged in their coursework or in school as a whole. The instructional time they lose affects their academic progress. Educational agencies must work to reduce these referral disparities — and classroom teachers must be at the forefront of this work, increasing their efforts to build stronger relationships with students.
Teachers play the most critical role in engaging students in learning. With the movement toward research-practitioner partnerships, educational agencies can collaboratively develop effective interventions targeted on improving teachers’ discipline practices — exploring their beliefs and raising expectations for minority students. A clear focus on building relationships with students — much like Mr. Collins did — is likely to reduce biases teachers might hold and increase student engagement in the classroom and the learning process.
Being culturally responsive and sensitive is critical to these efforts, regardless of the race of the teacher or the student. Yes, a teacher's race matters when teaching minority students, but so does a teacher’s ability to build relationships.
Explore our guide, "Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations," to prepare yourself for teaching difficult subject matter or leading conversations that may focus around race, identity, and belonging.
This post was originally published on Usable Knowledge, an online resource from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that aims to make education research and best practices accessible to educators, policymakers, members of the media, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, and parents.