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The Problem in Our Classrooms: Teacher Diversity…Or Lack Thereof

The Problem in Our Classrooms: Teacher Diversity…Or Lack Thereof

Written by Sahar Hussain
As a student from the United States, having attended public schools in New York City (in the 90’s and early 2000’s), there was very little diversity among teachers. As the norm would have it, 98% of my teachers were Caucasian. I can recall one African-American teacher, who was, as the stereotype would have it, a gym teacher and a basketball coach. There was also one Hispanic teacher, who taught art in my high school, and that’s all the diversity I was ever exposed to, despite having grown up in a city rich of heritage, cultures, languages, and religions.
Strange, but this was typical growing up. And then I grew up, and became an educator, and still not much changed. There were slightly more Hispanic educators as my colleagues, but still very few African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and Muslim-Americans working alongside me.

We, as Americans are expected to place large emphasis in teaching our students to become tolerant towards other races, religions and nationalities, yet we are giving them very little exposure to it.

This is an alarming issue. We, as Americans are expected to place large emphasis in teaching our students to become tolerant towards other races, religions and nationalities, yet we are giving them very little exposure to it. How does one teach tolerance, respect and appreciation for people of different backgrounds without actually showing representation of those backgrounds?
According to Department of Education, “Teachers of color are sorely underrepresented in America’s public schools (USED, 2016). Despite the fact that a majority of students now belong to a minority group, only 7 percent of America’s teachers are African American, and only 8 percent of teachers are Hispanic. A vast majority — 82 percent — are white. As a result, students of color are far less likely to encounter teachers who share similar backgrounds.”
These statistics are indicative of underrepresented teachers of African and Hispanic background. Where are the compiled statistics that show how little representation Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and Muslim-Americans have? Why are the latter groups not even making the statistics?

From my presence alone, my students learned that people who may look different are still very much like them; they’re dreamers, writers, readers, learners, lovers, travelers, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers; and in totality, are just people.

I am very visibly Muslim, I don the hijab, and I’m very proud of it. The students that have been in my classes have seen an article of clothing representing my belief, and have learned to respect it. They have asked me questions about the purpose of it, if I was bald, a cancer patient, having a bad hair day, or a bad hair-cut, or too lazy to fix my hair. And without feeling discriminated against or baffled by them, I would be amused and respond to every possible question they posed. I gave them exposure to Muslims; I showed them how to be tolerant; I built the level of respect needed to accept someone else and their beliefs without imposing their own views…very much on what our constitution is built on. From my presence alone, my students learned that people who may look different are still very much like them; they’re dreamers, writers, readers, learners, lovers, travelers, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers; and in totality, are just people.

Where are the compiled statistics that show how little representation Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and Muslim-Americans have? Why are the latter groups not even making the statistics?

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In my decade of teaching, and in three public school buildings, I have met only one other Muslim American hijab-wearing teacher. I also very briefly worked with a Jewish-American teacher who observed kosher clothing. It was an incredible experience to share similar beliefs, from two separate faiths, yet be part of a bigger purpose; to educate, and to be a public servant.
Bonds aren’t necessarily built on religion, races, or nationalities. Bonds can be built on anything; any common purpose or goal. As educators, our bond and our purpose is to teach quality, respect, cooperation, compassion, tolerance, and resilience. Our goal is not to just teach content. Our goal is to teach life. How to face diversity: Religions, races, nationalities, sexual preferences, and disabilities…and how to do it with the highest level of respect.
“Across a number of different specifications, students who share racial and/or gender characteristics with their teachers tend to report higher levels of personal effort, feeling cared for, student-teacher communication, academic engagement, and college aspirations. We observe the largest and most consistent effects when examining female students paired with female teachers, with particularly strong effects for black female students paired with black female teachers. We also find large effects for black male students assigned to black male teachers,” wrote Brian Kisida and Anna Egalite.

Our goal is not to just teach content. Our goal is to teach life. How to face diversity: Religions, races, nationalities, sexual preferences, and disabilities…and how to do it with the highest level of respect.

The idea that students gravitate towards their own genders, races and religions is obvious. If our country has that much diversity, why don’t our teachers? What is holding us back from actively recruiting a multitude of backgrounds and beliefs? Why are we doing a disservice to our students by lacking diversity?  Why aren’t we allowing our students to feel represented in their classrooms?
It’s still baffling to me that in this global economy, and in this beautifully diversity-rich city, teacher diversity is lacking. This on a local level is alarming, and on a national level is beyond comprehension. We must provide teacher diversity.  Our country and our students are not homogeneous, nor should our teachers be.  All efforts to provide affordable teaching programs and pathways should be opened to allow a positive change in our culture and in our schools.
We should be the change we want to see in our world. We should model and deliver our expectations.

Sahar Hussain is an Education Consultant, K-12 Instructional Specialist, Public Speaker, Writer, Staff Developer, Classroom Coach, Educator, CEO and founder of Learning Beyond Classrooms.
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