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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Diversity Matters

Story series shows why state should address racial disparity in teaching staffs

The Columbian
Published: December 19, 2018, 6:03am

Does it matter?

That is the question following a series of stories by The Columbian in conjunction with The Seattle Times. The newspapers combined for a report about racial diversity among teaching staffs in public schools throughout Washington. The stories — published Sunday, Monday and online today — showed that teachers overall look different than the faces staring back at them in the classroom.

Of Washington’s 1.1 million students, 45.6 percent identify as people of color, compared with 11.1 percent of teachers. In Clark County, 33.7 percent of people identify as nonwhite, compared with 7.9 percent of teachers. To put it another way, in Vancouver Public Schools, there are 105 Latino students for every Latino teacher, but 11 white students for every white teacher. The disparity is even greater in Evergreen Public Schools.

Which returns us to the question: Does it matter?

In teaching, as in any other profession, the most important thing is to have qualified, effective employees who do the job well — regardless of their background. When you need health care or a car repair or a well-researched newspaper story, you are most concerned with the employee’s ability. That remains true in teaching, and yet we would argue that a teacher’s background plays a role in their ability to connect with and guide students.

As a teacher named Patrick Kelly wrote for the U.S. Department of Education: “Diverse classrooms play an essential role in career preparation. Students are entering job markets with diminishing concern for community or national boundaries. Integrated classroom environments are important in helping students learn to collaborate and communicate with the different cultures and backgrounds found in the 21st century work environment.”

Teachers not only instruct students, they serve as role models and interact with students for several hours a day, nine months a year. They help students to imagine the possibilities that lie ahead, and the best ones get those students to dream big. All too often, minority students go through their academic careers with no or few teachers of color, a fact that diminishes their ability to formulate the big dreams that can direct their career choices. The same cannot be said about a nurse or a mechanic or a reporter, who have fleeting interactions with customers.

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported on a study from American University that looked at more than 100,000 students in North Carolina: “When black children had a black teacher between third and fifth grades, boys were significantly less likely to later drop out of high school, and both boys and girls were more likely to attend college.”

That has an impact on all of us. Well-prepared, motivated, ambitious students are more likely to become contributing members of society. But we don’t need studies to drive home the point. We just need a story that Monica Stonier, a former teacher and now state legislator, shared. When Stonier was a new teacher, she said, a kindergartner approached and said, “You’re brown, just like me.” Stonier surmised: “This cute little babe just stated this thing that was so different for her in such plain terms. It wasn’t front-of-mind for me until I recognized how important it was to that little girl.”

Again, the most important thing is to have teachers who do the job well. But we hope that various efforts at the state and district levels to attract and train teachers of color prove successful. Because it does matter.

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