Jameson* was six years old and a first grader at the school I was volunteering at. We had to have a certain amount of volunteer hours for one of my education courses and I was given the task of taking students out one by one to read with them. Unfortunately, Jameson wasn’t too thrilled with reading with me, or reading in general. He found it difficult to connect with the books he was given to read; most were early readers and most his peers had surpassed him earlier in the year. He would remind me quite often how much he didn’t like reading.
As time went on, Jameson and I got to know each other better and we would talk about our families, what food we liked, and our favorite hobbies. Then one day, I asked, “Jameson, what do you want to be when you get older?” I got the more common answers like doctor, lawyer, construction worker and chef. I decided that was my chance to dig a little deeper and I responded, saying, “What about a teacher?” Immediately, he turned to me with a look of disgust and said, “I’m Black. Black people don’t become teachers!” That was the moment that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
Jameson went on to explain the many reasons why he believed that Black people couldn’t become teachers, but there were two that stuck out the most:
- Black people can’t be teachers, because we always get in trouble at school.
- It’s too hard of a job, and you don’t make enough money. Black people don’t want to deal with that.
Now, keep in mind, these are generalizations, but a six-year-old boy already believed these and clearly had heard some conversations about it at such a young age. It was disheartening to say the least.
If someone had asked the same question of me early on, I would have told you I wanted to be a school bus driver because I wanted to make sure kids had a fun and safe way of getting to school. I quickly learned that it wasn’t so much the transportation of the school day I was concerned about, but the school day as a whole. I wanted to make sure that students had a great day in school, loved learning, used their gifts and found ways to grow as the person God made them to be. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how important it was to be an educator. Not only did I want to be an educator, but I knew that as a brown-skinned, Dominican woman, I was going to be an educator of color.
In 2015, the top four majors that minority (and White) students were choosing were Business Administration, Psychology, Nursing, and Biology (Hinrichs, 2015). Like Jameson alluded to, lack of representation, unfair treatment, and bias against students of color all serve as barriers to Black students’ interest in the education field as a career. Moreover, research shows that the top three significant reasons why minority students did not go on to receive an education degree were:
- Black students do not see Black teachers in teaching positions, and therefore do not have role models to follow.
- The lack of respect and low wages after all the work of a difficult educational journey does not sound appealing enough.
- Education is not deemed a respectable career among African-American communities (Ramirez, 2010).
Many colleges have tried to recruit minority students to become educators. With scholarships, housing, and lots of in-person opportunities within local schools, it’s still an uphill battle to get minority students on board. Unfortunately, no matter how great a college or university’s program can be, the three reasons stated above typically outweigh the benefits.
So what happens to students like Jameson and many others who believe that this career is “not for them”? How do we as educators and leaders continue to pour into these students and help them see that they are a desired part of any career, but especially valued in education?
I don’t have all of the answers, but I know one thing for sure: students of color must be taught from the first day of school until the last that their presence in and at the front of the classroom is just as important, special, honored and valued as any of their White peers.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Hinrichs, P. (2015). Racial and ethnic difference in college major choice. Retrieved from https://www.clevelandfed.org/
Ramirez, F. (2010). Why teach? Ethnic minority college students’ views on teaching. Multicultural Education, 17(3), 29-35.