One of the key arguments often given for why it is important to increase the diversity of America’s teaching force is that students of color do better academically when they have teachers of color. A 2010 study titled “Diversifying the Teaching Force: An Examination of Major Arguments” found that “teachers of color use their insider knowledge about the language,culture, and life experiences of students of color to improve their academic outcomes and school experiences.”
In this post, a white teacher explains why it is also important for white students to be taught by people of color. She is Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. Lamb-Sinclair is returning to full-time classroom teaching this fall after a sabbatical working with the Kentucky Department of Education. She teaches high school English and creative writing, and authors the www.beautifuljunkyard.com website. She is also the founder and chief executive officer of Curio Learning, an educational technology company launching a platform for teacher professional development. (Twitter handle: @AshleyLambS)
Robert Trumbo was the first person to ever tell me I was going to be a teacher. He didn’t just suggest it, he almost commanded it, or at the very least prophesized it. I sat in his AVID class (a class to help students gain skills for college readiness) helping a fellow student with his essay, and Mr. Trumbo said to me, “You’re a teacher, Ashley Lamb.”
I believed him, even though I openly disagreed at the time, mostly because Mr. Trumbo was one of my most respected teachers and his presence in my life was almost mythology. He had taught my mother and aunts and was one of their favorite teachers too. If Mr. Trumbo told you something, you’d better take heed.
He demanded that all of his students memorize their Social Security numbers because “trust me,” he’d say, “you’re gonna need it.” He explained to us the importance of maintaining “good credit,” something I remembered ashamedly when I started piling on my own credit card debt in college. Mr. Trumbo would become unreasonably furious when someone passed gas in his classroom, storming around spraying Lysol and doing his best not to curse, much to our amusement.
He was the only teacher I ever saw cry. Our high school suffered the tragic loss of two students in a drunk driving accident, and I will never forget the crack in Mr. Trumbo’s voice when he brought up the parents who had lost a child. We knew Mr. Trumbo had suffered his own unspeakable tragedy, and in that moment, he wasn’t Mr. Trumbo - my teacher, the myth - he was a man who had lost his son.
And Mr. Trumbo was the person who openly and thoughtfully talked to me, a young white girl, about being a black man.
I wasn’t isolated from black people. I grew up next door to a black family who took me in as one of their own. One of the oldest girls was my babysitter, the youngest boy my best friend. I went to church with them, and I often spent the night at their house. Throughout my life, my schools were diverse - pretty much 50-50 black and white students. My exposure to people of a different skin color was much broader than many other young white Americans experience. White students tend to attend schools where they are in the majority, and “white students rarely attend schools where they make up less than 25 percent of the enrollment.”
Yet, even though I did have some insight, how could I have possibly understood the experience of black Americans unless someone took the time to speak openly about it with me? Mr. Trumbo did that.
As a white teacher who currently teaches in a primarily white school, I find myself encountering issues of race all the time, and ill equipped to address them. When teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I inevitably face a classroom full of white students who want to debate the pros and cons of using the n-word in the text. Or worse, they want to ignore it.
Or when we read “The Other Wes Moore” and students want to discuss current events similar to those in the book such as the recent police shootings of black men, and suddenly I, a white female, find myself in front of inquiring young minds who need perspective to help them make sense of what they read on social media or hear from their peers. But I can’t explain to them what it feels like to be a black person in America.
Mr. Trumbo reached me one tragic morning because he helped me understand what it feels like to lose a loved one, and I have never forgotten it. And when he hit pause on an important scene in “Roots” and explained the context of that moment with his own life experience, we understood a little more what it felt like for Mr. Trumbo to be a black man and all the history that came with that. What would happen if our white students in our primarily white schools across the country had the opportunity to empathize with a respected adult who could speak with experience about issues of race?
Yet, as many of our schools have grown more diverse, our teaching population has grown more white. Many argue that this is an issue especially for minority students who benefit from having teachers who look like them. Obviously, students of color need teachers of color, but from experience I know the importance of white students having teachers of color too, especially in our current political climate when bullying has been on the rise in schools.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.” We need minority educators in these classrooms who can bring perspective to the words and actions of bullies who prey on those of other ethnicities.
But, the thing is, Mr. Trumbo wasn’t just black. He was a phenomenal teacher. He pushed us. He saw who we really were. He made us laugh, and he sometimes had to make us cry. Occasionally he even made us angry, but we respected him as a person and as an educator first and foremost. But because he was a great teacher and a black man, the white students in his classes had a person of color who was also a person of authority and expertise.
It is difficult to believe generalized racist comments when a human being who defies them stands before you every day. The answer to this problem isn’t simply recruiting minority teachers just to increase the numbers of minority teachers, but to provide pathways for everyone capable of becoming a phenomenal teacher to be given the opportunity and autonomy to do so.
My mother’s father once said to her, “I would rather see you in a casket than for you to ever date a black man.” He forbade her from listening to Fats Domino, one of her favorites, because he was a black man who dated white women. She grew up in a home where it would have been easy to accept and repeat racist stereotypes as truth. But she had Mr. Trumbo in high school, and she loved him. He was a human contradiction to the rhetoric she might have otherwise believed.
What would happen if every white student in the United States were taught by a Mr. Trumbo? I would like to think that racist rhetoric would be much harder to swallow and much more difficult for our young people to speak.