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Community Voices: More minority teachers, mentors needed in HUB public schools

Kenneth J. Cooper | 6/13/2012, 10:29 a.m.

A good teacher is a good teacher. Students know when they have one, and so do their parents. A good teacher inspires and motivates students to learn and deftly tailors lessons so each child in class “gets it.”

In an ideal classroom, the race or ethnicity of the teacher or the students does not matter. Good teachers can and do successfully instruct students of all backgrounds.

The reality, which education policymakers are usually reluctant to admit, is that there are not enough good teachers in the country, Massachusetts or the Boston Public Schools.

The School Department is under a federal court mandate to employ a teaching force that is 25 percent black and 35 percent minority. The department is falling short of the first goal, but exceeding the second. Those are modest goals that come nowhere close to matching the enrollment: 87 percent of students are black, Hispanic or Asian.

Superintendent Carol Johnson and her deputies cite two ways more teachers of color can lift the achievement of the overwhelming majority of students.

Having role models who look like them and have succeeded in their profession can provide an extra dose of inspiration. Black and Hispanic students could use all the inspiration they can get, given the enduring and troubling achievement gaps in their academic performance compared to that of their white classmates.

The other factor is “cultural competence.” However well-meaning, some white teachers may not understand the attitudes and behaviors of their charges from another racial-ethnic background which can hamper learning.

Other white teachers do understand, because of exposure to a diverse mix of individuals doing their jobs or obtaining their own schooling. The department also offers professional training that imparts to teachers a fuller understanding of cultural differences.

Black teachers are more likely to be able to understand and communicate effectively with students of the same race; so too with Hispanic teachers and students of the same ethnicity.

Learning is enhanced when teachers express empathy and respect for students, who will try to please the adult in the classroom. Students also do better if they like the teacher, a standard question many parents ask their children at the end of the first day of school.

But students who sense a teacher does not like them often tune out, disengaging from class or acting out in ways that disrupt the educational process. They learn less.

During a conference of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts in March, one member condemned an uncertain number of white teachers in Boston who were described as not liking the black students they teach. The statement prompted a round of spontaneous verbal affirmations from the roomful of black educators meeting at Northeastern University.

That description, coming from peers who personally know those white teachers, is disturbing, though it is unclear how widespread that negative attitude may be.

It is known that 22 percent of the city’s teachers are black and 10 percent are Hispanic. The School Department does not have far to go to reach the 25 percent goal for black teachers. Complying with that part of the federal court order will, however, require reversing a recent trend of declining numbers.

Hispanic students would also benefit from an increased number of Hispanic teachers, for whom no employment level is mandated in the court order.

The School Department says it is stepping up the recruitment of teachers of color, targeting instructional employees who have yet to be fully licensed. In addition, more attention needs to be paid to retaining black teachers in particular.

Superintendent Johnson should also adopt a proposal from City Councilors Charles Yancey and Tito Jackson and the Black Educators Alliance to restore to the department’s Office of Equity the authority to sign off on new hires. That procedure, dropped in 2003 to ease paperwork burdens, has a track record as a successful tool of affirmative action.