American historian Henry Adams wrote in 1907, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends.”
More than a century later those words ring true.
While Adams’ quote did not address the significance of what a teacher looks like, a study released in March by the Institute of Labor Economics suggests a teacher’s race can have a lasting effect on the choices students make.
The study showed that black students who had one black teacher in grades 3, 4 or 5 reduced the likelihood of them dropping out and increased by 19 percent their intent to graduate from college.
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet is not surprised by those findings.
By the time they came out he was already working to include the goal of increasing the number of minority teachers in the district as part of the five-year strategic plan he released in April.
“Students of all colors need to see people of all colors in their workplace and someone who has been through similar experiences and who look like them and who show up in their space every day.”
Right now that’s not the case.
While 53 percent of Pittsburgh’s student enrollment is black, just 10 percent of the 2,100-member teaching staff is represented by black women and 2.7 percent by black men. The majority of the teaching staff — 60 percent — is composed of white females.
The racial makeup of teachers at Pittsburgh Public Schools
Pittsburgh is not alone. Shortages of black teachers, some extreme, exist in other local districts, including Woodland Hills, Clairton and Wilkinsburg. It’s also the case across Pennsylvania and the nation.
For students like Laniya Lipscomb that means having limited exposure to teachers who looked like her in front of her classrooms. She remembers having just one black female teacher during her years of schooling.
That dynamic made her reluctant to open up about her personal struggles to adults at school, she says. She didn’t talk about housing instability or how it felt to lose her father and other adult family members to incarceration.
While school could have been a place where she sought help dealing with her troubles, she chose instead “to keep to myself, stay to myself and not talk to anybody.”
Now she’s hoping she can change things for other young black girls like herself by becoming a teacher who looks like them and has walked in their shoes.
Laniya hasn’t had many black female teachers. She recalls only one — a music teacher in second and third grade at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 who she saw twice a week.
“I haven’t really dwelled on it,” Laniya said.
It’s not that Laniya thinks less of her white female teachers, nor does she feel her academic progress was hurt by being taught largely by white teachers. But she’s pretty sure she would have been more open with a teacher who looked like her and could understand her life experiences.
“Hopefully if I did become a teacher, I would want my students to be comfortable opening up with me,” said Laniya, who is in the teaching magnet at Brashear.
Temple Lovelace, an associate professor of special education at Duquesne University, said a student’s ability to bond with teachers can have a direct effect on academic achievement. Having teachers who look like them and have similar life experiences increases the likelihood of bonding.
“At one point, I was a young black woman. What it meant to me is relationships,” Lovelace said. “You are educating about content knowledge, but about life as well. Not being able to have those contacts with teachers that share in your life can have an impact.”
The Pittsburgh district says it recruits nationally for qualified minority candidates. But Hamlet is hoping to give top hiring priority to graduates of the Brashear teaching magnet and other Pittsburgh schools who complete degrees in education and earn teaching certifications.
The superintendent believes there are no better candidates than those who have come up through the Pittsburgh school and lived in Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
The district hires about 200 teachers a year.
It’s a plan that Wil Del Pilar, the state’s deputy secretary of postsecondary and higher education, described as “a great grow-your-own program” that could serve as a national model for increasing the ranks of black teachers.
Why districts can’t find black teachers
Statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Education show the number of black students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in education has decreased by 61 percent since 1996.
The number of black female education graduates specifically has decreased by 39 percent since 2002.
Overall in Pennsylvania, there were approximately 158 African American education graduates and 3,940 white education graduates in 2014-15, according to state data. Del Pilar did not have specific numbers on how many black students are currently enrolled as education majors, but he said it had never been representative of the population.
“We are not seeing college enrollments that are reflective of the society that they are going to teach,” Del Pilar said.
National statistics also indicate that black students are not seeking degrees in education.
“Our young people aren’t seeing people like them in education roles and so they aren’t seeing themselves in those roles,” Lovelace said.
Pittsburgh grows its own
On her last day student-teaching at Faison K-5 in Homewood on May 19, the fourth-grade students presented Brashear senior Jasmine Thomas with cupcakes and a card. If her plans to become a school counselor work out, those kids will be the first of many of Jasmine’s students.
“I would want my office to be a safe haven, where they don’t have to pretend to be someone you are not,” Jasmine said.
Jasmine, 18, is poised to graduate from the teaching magnet this month. She plans to study psychology at the California University of Pennsylvania.
Jasmine is among 101 students in the Brashear teaching magnet; there are 42 black girls and 31 black boys in the program. Students in the magnet learn an orientation to teaching in their freshman year, leadership in education during sophomore year and issues in education in their junior year. During senior year, they student-teach half of each day at a school of their choice in the Pittsburgh district.
Jasmine and her classmate Samyah Hughley chose schools in their home neighborhoods. For Samyah, that meant student-teaching at Weil PreK-5 in the Hill District. Both were initially nervous about entering the classroom as an authority figure, but they eventually grew attached to their students.
Both girls plan to use funds from the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship to attend college.
Samyah will major in education and journalism at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania for her first two years of college, but she plans to transfer to a historically black college or university for her junior and senior years.
“I want to be around people who are like me,” she said.
During a recent orientation exercise at IUP, Samyah said none of the white students in her group knew about Rosa Parks.
“That’s when I said, I just gotta do something. To stand up and be a leader,” she said.
Samyah says she’d like to return to the Pittsburgh schools to teach and bring with her an agenda that includes advocating for the district to meet students’ social and emotional needs and making sure black students get the same resources as their white counterparts.
Samyah said while she has a stable, two-parent household she knows other students who see violence in their homes and communities and who don’t have money to pay for prom expenses or graduation caps and gowns.
She points to the disparity in test scores between the races as evidence that black students are not getting the resources they need.
Not just a Pittsburgh problem
Other local districts with black enrollment near 50 percent or above include Clairton, Duquesne, Penn Hills, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills.
Sto-Rox and Penn Hills declined to release the racial makeup of the districts’ teaching staffs. But breakdowns provided by Clairton, Duquesne and Wilkinsburg districts show even larger disparities than Pittsburgh between the percentage of black enrollment and black staff.
In the Wilkinsburg School District, where 95 percent of the students are black, there are two black female teachers and four black male teachers among the 64-member teaching staff.
In the Clairton School District, where black enrollment is 67 percent, there is one black woman and one black man among the 64 teachers. In Duquesne, where 68 percent of enrollment is black, there are three black female teachers and no black male teachers on the staff of 37.
A staff list provided by the Woodland Hills School District showed 5 percent of the 310 teachers are black women while 63 percent are white women. The district, where 65 percent of students are black, has just one black male teacher.
Woodland Hills Superintendent Alan Johnson said his district, like other smaller districts, faces a bigger challenge than Pittsburgh in diversifying his teaching staff because his district is poised to furlough, rather than hire, teachers.
But he’s hoping to be able to hire some black teachers as permanent substitutes if the school board gives permission to create the positions. The plan is also contingent on the district receiving applications from black candidates.
“The last opening we had we didn’t get any African-American applicants. I can’t hire who doesn’t apply,” Johnson said.
Role models and cultural relevance
School officials said that in addition to bringing a better understanding of student experiences, having more black teachers in the classrooms means more black role models for students.
“When you see people who look like you in the classroom, they can serve as a motivational factor — the ability to see yourself,” Del Pilar said.
Lovelace said while efforts need to be made to increase the number of black teachers and those from other minority groups, a quicker solution to the problem is to make sure that current teachers of all races are culturally relevant.
“In simple terms, it really is about understanding our students, their cultural backgrounds and providing learning experiences that embrace that and extend that,” Lovelace said.
In Pennsylvania, the number of black students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in education has decreased by 61% since 1996.
That can be accomplished through “innovative professional development opportunities, immersing teachers in their students’ community context and providing high-quality instructional materials and resources for teachers to use,” she said.
The Pittsburgh district has an equity training program that is designed to help teachers, administrators, students and parents understand the impact of race on student learning and to look at what role racism plays in the racial achievement gap.
Jasmine said all teachers have the potential to be culturally relevant despite their skin color.