“Of course it matters.”
Those were the words a 2016 senior spoke to a teacher of color when asked if it mattered that she didn’t have any black teachers on her schedule. As Cleveland’s student population continues to grow in its diversity, the disparity between minority students and teachers of color is widening. Both students and staff members are starting to take notice.
Student diversity has been a cornerstone of Cleveland’s culture, but often overlooked is the other key component of a student’s education: does the teaching staff reflect the student body? This series, “Boxed In,” is dedicated to covering diversity at CHS, whether it be the changing demographics of the student population or stories around gender identity and religion. The Journal hopes to spark conversation and new perspectives for Cleveland students.
This is Part 2.
Humanities teacher Evin Shinn knows first-hand what it’s like being a teacher of color in a profession that is typically dominated by his white counterparts. As a self-identifying black male in his third year of teaching at Cleveland, Shinn has often been associated with his ability to maintain order in his classroom, not by his ability to teach. Shinn believes this stigma placed on him directly correlates to the fact that he is black.
“The hidden tax of being a teacher of color is that people are always going to look to you to teach about race,” Shinn said. “They’re always going to look to you to teach them about how to relate to ‘those kids.’
“I will never be seen as a great teacher first,” he said. “People will always say about me: ‘Man, he really knows how to control a classroom’ but they will never say, ‘Wow, he really knows how to teach super well.’”
According to data taken by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) during the 2015-16 school year, CHS had 44 classroom teachers; 11 were teachers of color. By comparison, the school was 96 percent students of color that same year.
For Shinn, his ethnicity mixed with the diversity in his classroom influences the content he teaches.
“We talk a lot about race,” he said. “We talk a lot about diversity … we talk a lot about different types of diversity. It’s not just about race, it’s about various parts.”
Teachers for hire
The lack of diversity among teachers doesn’t begin at Cleveland. Across the Seattle School District, in the 2015-16 school year, 80 percent of classroom teachers identified as white. This statistic is fairly accurate to the teaching staff’s ethnic makeup at CHS, where teachers of color accounted for 25 percent of the total teaching staff that same year.
What Cleveland lacks in diversity among the teachers is made up through the school’s administrative team. With a black male principal and assistant principals who are Mexican and a white lesbian, Cleveland’s leaders know the importance of having a staff that reflects the student body.
Research has also shown that having a racially, culturally and linguistically diverse teaching force provides students with varying perspectives that allows them to gain a greater understanding of the world around them. So why aren’t there more teachers of color within education?
Finding teachers of color can be difficult, especially when the number of people entering the profession has fallen to an all-time low.
“It’s not common for first-generation college students to say ‘Hey, I want to be a teacher’ because there are these ideas that teachers don’t make any money,” said SoED Assistant Principal Ray Garcia-Morales, who identifies as a Mexican male.
Mediocre wages, high-stakes testing and the strain of Common Core Standards lessen the appeal for the teaching profession. And all too often, teachers are blamed for problems within the education system. It’s not hard to see why finding good teachers – let alone teachers of color – has become a national problem.
“The hiring process is a pretty bureaucratic nightmare,” said Andy Coughran, who co-chairs the Humanities department with Shinn. “We need to hire more teachers of color.”
Garcia-Morales, also believes that Seattle Public Schools, along with other districts around the state, need to change their strategies around their hiring practices.
Identifying as a white male, Coughran believes that his background has given him more opportunities to pick himself up as a student during rough times, which included him dropping out of school. Coughran maintains he is still constantly learning.
“As a teacher, I have to be a learner; specifically, I have to learn about my students because I want to work in a diverse school like Cleveland,” he said.
In college, Coughran took courses that taught about institutional racism, not fully knowing they would eventually prepare him for teaching at a school as diverse as Cleveland. But for him, it has taken more than a few college courses to help make him a more culturally-aware person.
“The way I learn is by being here and embracing it,” Coughran said. “I have to become an ally, become an advocate, and ask questions to try and understand that I don’t know everything.”
While Coughran has found ways to identify with his students of color, some of his white counterparts struggle with it. The staff spent part of their summer training discussing racial equity. The atmosphere became tense when the school district appointed two white women to lead the discussion around the disparity in the disciplining of black male students. It was Shinn who pointed out the irony.
“It doesn’t take Olivia Pope to see the optics right now,” he said to a crowded auditorium in August.
Women of color
Sonya Urs, an Indian-American Humanities teacher, is one of the few female teachers of color at Cleveland. Because of her ethnic background, she faced stereotypes as a student in high school.
“A lot of the times people have assumed that I was really smart,” Urs said. “That was difficult because a lot of the time I didn’t feel like the smartest person in the room.”
Urs uses her experience to connect with students who may face similar expectations from others. She has grasped the importance of creating curriculum that is relevant to students of color and their experiences.
“As I was becoming an educator, I wanted to make sure that the curriculum I teach reflects what my students are interested in but also represents who they are,” Urs said.
Last March, when a student pointed out to media teacher Teresa Scribner that she was the only black female teacher at Cleveland, Scribner did a mental count in her head.
“I named off all the black women I knew on staff and the girl responded with, ‘those women aren’t teachers,’” Scribner recalled.
Until then, Scribner hadn’t put much thought into the racial makeup of the school’s staff. But she remembered a time during her first year of teaching when she attended Cleveland’s curriculum night. When one black parent entered her classroom, the woman looked at her with shock.
“She said, ‘You’re black, but your name sounds white,’” Scribner recalled. The woman told Scribner that she was glad her son would have at least one black teacher.
“I guess it matters more than I realized,” she said. “When that student told me that it mattered to her, I started to feel the weight of being a black woman and a role model. Now, I try to make sure that students of color, especially black students, know that they can come to me with anything.”
Not everyone feels that the race of a teacher impacts student learning. Junior Yusuf Ahmed believe that the lack of staff diversity at Cleveland has not negatively impacted his abilities to obtain his education.
“I don’t think it matters if they’re white or black,” Ahmed said. “Every teacher understands everyone, even the students of color.”
Though the teaching staff at Cleveland isn’t as diverse as her home state of Hawaii, special education teacher Jennifer Kekuna believes that the staff culture at Cleveland has created an environment safe for students of all backgrounds.
“I believe that most of the teachers here are very welcoming,” Kekuna said. “We [teachers] do come together; we do try to problem solve a lot.”
Being born and raised in Hawaii, Kekuna was exposed to a large pool of diversity during her time in high school. Once she made the decision to attend Gonzaga University in Spokane, she experienced quite the culture shock that made her reflect deeply on her Hawaiian, Filipino and Japanese background.
“I use [ethnicity] in a positive way now, as a teacher to connect myself with students who are brown, like me,” Kekuna said. “It has definitely strengthened me; and it’s has opened my heart more.”
Senior Richard Nguyen said the lack of staff diversity undermines a student’s ability to connect with certain teachers that may not share similar experiences.
“Not many staff are of color, so it sometimes is hard for students of color to connect with them. I feel like we should try to change that.”