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Hey teach! who's in the classroom and why it matters.

"Miss, what are you?" was the phrase I heard most often during my first day of teaching at Upper Darby High. The school was about 50 percent students of color, but--as far as I could tell--I had doubled the population of minority teachers. Upper Darby is a township, and 15 years ago, school assessors recommended that the district begin to close its schools down, because the population of the area was supposed to continually decrease, leaving almost no local young people in need of schools. Instead, lower-middle-class families ended up moving out of Philadelphia and into the township in the late 1990s. South Asian and Arab immigrants also settled in the area, and the population mushroomed. Upper Darby's single high school serves several thousand students, and a pregnant student of mine asks to leave class early so she won't have to risk being pushed in the choked hallways.

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"What are you?" is a question I'm accustomed to, being racially mixed with nearly every race except Latino, but speaking fluent Spanish and having the name I do. Unlike the curious students I had taught in Philadelphia, however, my new students in Upper Darby asked about my race with an optimistic desperation. Latino students' eyes lit up at my pronunciation of their names. By the last class of my first day, I didn't even have to respond to the "What are you?" question. Before I could open my mouth, another student answered, "She's mixed black and white, but she speak Spanish." Over the course of my first week, voyeurs who I did not teach frequently came to my classroom to look at me, and many of the Latino students learned my name and called out greetings in the hallway. Students of color were interested in everything about me, from where I lived to what music I listened to. And no, I'm not that good a teacher yet--but students of color immediately saw me as an advocate, someone who they could confide in as well as learn from. The fact that in a few short weeks I have earned the trust and effort of struggling students of color has everything to do with my race. It also has everything to do with being a quality teacher for students who don't have other confidantes in the environment where they spend a great deal of their waking lives--school.

The issue of "teacher quality" is not the be-all and end-all of education, but it does play an important role in determining what kind of education students receive and whether they get an equal education. In their ruling on Brown, the Warren Court wrote, "In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." Teacher quality strikes at the heart of how and whether students get the opportunities of a good (read: privileged) education. Beyond the danger of teachers who are incompetent is also the danger of teachers who are, for lack of a better word, unsuited. These are the teachers who may have certificates designating them as educators, but who feel little obligation to their students outside of the classroom. No Child Left Behind and most official certification programs don't demand both. Equity does.

Quality versus Qualified

In the world of educational jargon, however, the lack of qualified teachers is often conflated with the issue of quality teachers. Poor urban and rural districts are most often the ones in which teachers are emergency certified (one of six teachers in California's poor schools don't have teaching certificates), have little teaching experience, or are only certified in one of the several subjects they are expected to teach. Of course, a state-issued teaching certificate guarantees some familiarity with classroom instruction and educational theory, but it is by no means a golden ticket to a quality teacher. Meeting the basic teacher needs of schools overshadows an arguably more significant--if seemingly less practical--discussion about the kinds of teachers we want in low-scoring schools. It may seem like a luxury to spend any time thinking about teacher qualifications in addition to certification, basic competence and a willingness to show up every day, but genuine advocates for education must push the definition of teacher quality beyond getting adult bodies into classrooms. More than that, the words "teacher quality" are thrown around by educational policymakers, community groups, and school administrators without a clearly shared definition of what schools genuinely want or even need.

In 2003, only 9 percent of teachers were people of color, while close to one-third of students--26 percent--were kids of color. In poor urban schools, where students of color can most commonly be found walking the halls, teacher quality by most definitions is lacking. This means fewer certified teachers in front of classes. Teachers who are not from the local neighborhood and who send their own children to private and parochial schools. Basketball coaches teaching history courses. Segregation is a maintained reality in most urban schools, making teacher quality unequivocally a race issue.

The Color of Access

Under No Child Left Behind, all teachers in classrooms must be "highly qualified"--meaning a teacher who holds a bachelor's degree, has demonstrated knowledge of the subject that he or she actually teaches, and is either fully certified or completing a certification program. Most teachers in schools who are not "highly qualified" are either teaching subjects in which they are not certified or have been emergency certified. The highly qualified mandates affect teachers who have been teaching 20 years as much as teachers just coming into the system.

But while No Child cracks down on emergency certified teachers, it makes few demands on the issue of race--such as who gets access to teaching programs. Alternative certification programs currently produce higher numbers of teachers of color than traditional programs. In California's 2003 alternative education programs, 48 percent of participants were people of color. New Jersey's largest source of qualified teachers of color has been alternative programs, and in Texas, where only 9 percent of the state teaching force is of color, alternative programs consistently have graduated classes with close to one-third non-white teachers. Even Teach for America, which claims they use no racial affirmative action in their selection process, recruits extensively at colleges with diverse student bodies and has a corps of 32 percent teachers of color.

The quality of such programs, however, can be uneven. Where teachers in traditional certification programs are required to take specialty classes in adolescent development, urban education, the history of the educational system, etc., alternative programs frequently employ a two to three month long training program in which participants are taught the "practical" side of teaching and immediately placed in low-performing schools.

Urban districts often create their own alternative teaching programs to combat the dearth of certified teachers in areas like special education and math, but some districts also contract with companies to create alternative programs. The New Teacher Project is one such company. This is the organization behind several much-lauded alternative teaching programs, with success stories in East Baton Rouge Parish schools, Kansas City (the ones in Kansas and Missouri), Massachusetts, and the well-known New York City Teaching Fellows program.

Washington state has gone so far as to recruit teachers from Spain to teach Spanish classes--a move that's been lauded by other states and the Department of Education. Another recruitment idea, funded by the Department of Education, is Troops to Teachers, established in 1994 (the year before Dangerous Minds was released, if you were wondering). Its dual mission is to provide quality teachers for low-income schools and to help military personnel transition into "second careers" in teaching. The project graduates are 35 percent people of color (active duty forces in March 2003 were approximately the same proportion). There is little information available about the training members receive, but their slogan--"proud to serve again"--is enough to arouse the suspicion that the program views teaching as an extension of militarism. The politics in which these programs are mired makes it difficult to gauge whether the traditional or alternative route produces more "successful" teachers, but most alternative programs definitely require less supervised instructional practice before placing their graduates in the classroom.

Traditional certification programs also have their problems. Many of these programs are full of roadblocks, including high costs standardized tests that bear no measurable relationship to teaching success, and low pay. In its report "The Teacher's Gap," Education Week illustrated the lack of investment in recruiting candidates to these programs. According to the report, 24 states offer college loans and scholarships to entice candidates to the profession. But just seven target assistance toward teachers willing to teach at high-poverty, high-minority or low-performing sites.

Community Efforts to Obtain Quality Teachers

Despite their distinct visions of what makes a teacher qualified to be in a classroom, alternative and traditional certification programs, as well as the Department of Education, all fail to acknowledge the importance of race and community membership when considering a teacher's impact on his or her students. Admittedly, a geographical connection to the area in which one is teaching can be hard to cultivate at colleges, since campuses are insular, and students often attend colleges far from home. A great deal of educational research, however, focuses on connections with students and with parents--qualities that policymakers seem to miss. Literally hundreds of education authors have researched parental involvement in the last 20 years, and all have concluded that higher levels of parental involvement result in smoother-running schools and higher-achieving students. Despite such evidence, school districts continue to sidestep the issues. For instance, without demanding authentic involvement with parents or communities, Philadelphia school district reforms now call for teachers to evaluate parents on their children's preparedness for school.

Knowledge of subject matter is obviously a necessary tenet of teacher quality. A connection with students in the form of racial identity or neighborhood, however, cannot be underestimated. In her work researching effective teachers of black children, education author Gloria Ladson-Billings concludes that non-black teachers can be effective with black students, but it is their extra effort to recognize and be a part of their students' communities that separates them from more mediocre instructors. Ladson-Billings calls the successful education of black children "culturally relevant," a distinction which means that not only do teachers teach multiculturalism, but the experiences of black children are directly drawn upon in their everyday education. Schooling, Ladson-Billings explains, alienates students of color by asking them to "be something or someone other than who they really are," dismissing their community and cultural knowledge, as well as other things they hold dear.

In Chicago, the Northwest Neighborhood Federation (NNF) organized a campaign to address teacher shortages in schools, local employment shortages and teacher community involvement. On the Northwest side of Chicago, with its fast-growing population of Latino and Polish immigrants, schools shared the problems of overcrowding, high teacher turnover and dropout rates, and low test scores with other urban schools around the country. Much of the immigrant population in Northwest Chicago, however, had been trained as educators in their home countries and were working in low-paying service jobs in the United States.

NNF organizers researched a means by which immigrant teachers could become certified to teach in Chicago schools. Through a partnership with Northeastern Illinois University and Chicago public schools, NNF identified 1,245 potential teachers from other countries who had an average of 14 years of teaching experience. Although school officials were initially supportive of this effort, the tragedies in New York and Washington DC on Sept. 11 placed an immediate chill on any immigrant-related policies. Undaunted, NNF was able to establish a Teacher Training Center, which prepares potential teachers for placement in support roles in classrooms.

Thinking about Teacher Quality

"Miss, what are you?" is not a simple question, regardless of whether it comes from a student, a parent or a bureaucrat. It's a question that should go beyond the checking of credentials and subject area knowledge. It demands a person that is ready to teach, but is also able to embrace his or her role in a community. "Miss, what are you?" demands to know: Are you an ally? Are you able to translate the lesson, literally and figuratively, into a language that can be understood? Are you willing to educate a child in the midst of countless racist inequities the system places before them? "Miss, what are you" is a question I strive to effectively answer every day: "I'm your teacher, but we are both here to learn."

Chela Delgado is a recently certified social studies teacher living in Philadelphia. She teaches full time and is in the process of helping to found the Philadelphia Coalition of Radical Educators (CORE).
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Author:Delgado, Chela
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
Words:2146
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