The Mirrors We Need

How students are affected by representation on school faculties - and the lack thereof.

October 3, 2017

Mariam Keita ‘20 has never seen herself in a teacher. Keita, who self-identifies as a first-generation Gambian-American Muslim, said she could count on one hand the amount of interactions she’d had with a black teacher or administrator.

“Having a good teacher is always going to be a priority. I value having a good education over a teacher’s background at any point,” she said. “But it’s also irrefutable that kids need accurate representations of themselves.”

Keita’s experience is one shared by students across the country — according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, even though a majority of students are people of color, almost 80 percent of teachers are white across the country. This enormous gap can be detrimental to students’ experiences at school.

“I am a big believer in the research that states that students do better in a school that has at least one faculty member who looks like them, I think it’s important,” Principal John Bacon said. “I think for the same reason our student diversity enriches our school, the same thing happens on our faculty in terms of learning from each other and getting different perspectives.

The Century Foundation’s report states that “as the nation becomes more racially a`nd ethnically complex, our schools should reflect that diversity and tap into the benefits of these more diverse schools to better educate all our students for the twenty-first century.” The report argues that having strong diversity increases educational opportunities, as well as real-world skills that stem from experiencing different cultures.

Ms. Hanan Rahmatallah, a new hire at City High this year, agrees with this.
“I feel that I am always learning from my students. I respect everybody in how they act and what they believe, as long as they are not hurting anybody” she said. “[I used] to be a translator, I worked with English Language-Learner (ELL) students, and I spent everyday learning about where they all came from, how their backgrounds shaped them, and I loved it.”

These connections stretch beyond the educational level — they can also be quite personal.

“Sometimes I think students of color feel a little closer to minority faculty members,” Gerry Coleman, City High’s Dean of Students, said. “Because they might feel they have similar experiences. And when you live in a place that has limited diversity, [you can find yourself] wanting to see a face that looks a little more like yours.” Coleman continued to say that building relationships, regardless of race, ethnicity, or orientation is what matters most in a successful and meaningful high school experience.

I am a big believer in the research that states that students do better in a school that has at least one faculty member who looks like them.

— Principal John Bacon

Rahmatallah, who identifies as Muslim, agrees that reflections of students in the faculty is important.
“I had a young Muslim woman, a student, come up to me, and ask me where I prayed at school,” she said. “In our religion you have to pray at certain times of the day, and if you don’t make it quite on time it’s not as good. I offered her my room to pray in.”

Despite the benefits of having minority faculty members, it can be difficult for people of color, especially immigrants, to get jobs in education.

“When I came to this country I thought it was hard to find a good job unless you have a good education and connections,” Rahmatallah recounted. “I was a teacher in Iraq for a long time, but I had to get my teaching license in America, I had to learn the culture and the system; I spent forever trying to find any job in the Des Moines school district, [but they] told me it would be hard to find a job without a reference within the district.”

Rahmatallah spent a couple of years as a translator for ELL students in Des Moines, and while she was working she was also learning. She would observe how teachers would interact with students, how they would go about planning their lessons. If she had questions, she would ask them. Eventually, she got a job as a math teacher at Hiatt Middle School in Des Moines. Bacon corroborated Rahmatallah’s experience — he often finds when hiring, the majority of people of color are hired in non-teaching positions.

When you live in a place that has limited diversity, you can find yourself wanting to see a face that looks a little more like yours.

— Gerry Coleman

“There is not a high number of minority applicants for teaching positions. We always will hire the best person, but we’re very interested in a diverse applicant pool, ” he said. “That being said, the area we have been more successful with is in positions like iJAG coordinator, or other non-teaching jobs. With teaching positions there are certain legal limitations in terms of licensing and stuff, but with alternative positions there is a little bit more flexibility.”

In an article by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, they observe that minority teachers who are unhappy in their schools are more likely to leave the profession than white teachers, who are more inclined to transfer to wealthier schools.

“It is really important to keep it clear that there are really successful schools serving high-poverty student populations that actually are supportive workplaces,” one of their sources said. “It’s just, there aren’t enough of them.”

The Iowa City Community School District has been making efforts to hire more representative faculties, as presented by Kingsley Botchway III. In 2015, the school board approved plans to “increase staff diversity,” and currently have a goal of “employing 15 percent non-white administrative, support and teacher staff, which includes counselors, by 2020.”

Though there are steps being taken to increase the steady increase of diversity, there is still an immense need for a variety of perspectives and experiences within schools continues to grow.

“Having accurate reflections and representations of yourself in school tells young people of color that you can exist and thrive in systems that have historically oppressed us,” Keita said. “If a black person can exist in a white place and succeed, that tells me that I too can succeed. If a muslim can go through a system that has so many islamophobic traits to it and come out unscathed that means that I too can come out unscathed. Humans are social beings. Everything we do relates to ensuring our survival — having people we can look up to ensures that we can survive.”

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