With a student body composed increasingly of students of color, Hamden’s curriculum and teachers need to reflect its students.
Those were among the takeaways from a panel discussion Tuesday evening at the Keefe Community Center in southern Hamden.
The meeting, which was organized by Legislative Council Rep. Lauren Garrett, convened a line-up of educators and activists to discuss the need for teachers of color and a more culturally inclusive curriculum
Dawn Stanton, who runs the Educational Opportunity Program at Southern Connecticut State University, served as the moderator. The panel included Hamden Public Schools (HPS) Superintendent Jody Goeler, HPS Director of Human Resources Gary Highsmith, Connecticut College Professor of History and Hamden resident David Canton, SCSU Professor of Elementary Education Jessica Powell, KIMCAN Academy Founder Roxana Walker-Canton, and Hamden Anti-Bias Anti-Racist (ABAR) Committee organizer Rhonda Caldwell.
The discussion focused on the teachers and the curriculum, and how and why to make both more reflective of Hamden’s racially diverse student population.
Not Enough Teachers Of Color
Some 17 percent of teachers nationwide are teachers of color, according to a 2017 article by the Center for American Progress that Highsmith cited in the discussion.
That number is a modest increase from the 1987 level, which was 12 percent. Hamden has 12 percent teachers of color, while the state of Connecticut has 8.3 percent.
Meanwhile, Hamden’s student body is 62 percent students of color, and that number is growing.
“For many of my students, I’m the first African American teacher of their life,” said Canton, a professor at Connecticut College. That means that many of his students, especially white ones, don’t start having important conversations about race until they get to college. “We ought to start early on these conversations,” he said.
“White teachers hold children of color to lower expectations,” explained Powell, while teachers of color hold students of color to higher standards.
The Center for American Progress reported a similar phenomenon.
“Teachers of color tend to have more positive perceptions of students of color—both academically and behaviorally—than other teachers do,” the article states. It explains that black teachers are less likely to dole out harsh punishments to black students, and they tend to have higher estimations of their black students’ academic potential.
These dynamics, according Walker-Canton, hold true in Hamden.
“I was substitute teaching in Hamden and I could see the different ways teachers were responding to students in terms of race,” she told the crowd. They would send students of color to the office faster than they would white students. If a group of black students was talking in the halls, teachers would tell them to disperse, but they wouldn’t do the same for a group of white students. “There’s definitely policing that goes on in schools,” she said.
That type of racially-biased discipline in Hamden’s schools is exactly what Caldwell and Hamden ABAR are looking into. Hamden ABAR is a group of parents at Spring Glen Elementary School devoted to making Hamden’s schools as inclusive as possible. Caldwell will meet with administrators at Spring Glen on Wednesday to get data collected at the school about racial bias in discipline of students.
Caldwell explained that for many students of color, discipline becomes a “revolving door.” If they are suspended from class because they are black or brown, that means they miss class and fall behind, and then there are not enough resources to support them. And these racially-biased punishments have an effect not only for the students who receive punishments, but also for their peers.
“It makes a difference in the minds of the kids that are watching that each day,” she said. If students see students of color being punished again and again, they’ll begin to see those students as bad kids, she explained.
Racially-biased disciplinary practices often help put students of color on a “pipeline” away from academic success, said Highsmith. “If you treat kids differently because of the color of their skin, that’s where the whole thing starts,” he said.
As the Center for American Progress article explains, “harsh discipline practices place [students of color] at higher risk of subsequent academic disengagement and increase the probability that they will later drop out.”
Teachers of color are not just important because of how they perceive their students—they’re also important because of how their students perceive them.
If students had teachers of color, Walker-Canton explained, “they would see them as someone who is intellectual.” There are a lot of negative stereotypes about people of color, she continued, and having teachers of color can help break those stereotypes. “It’s sad for a lot of students not to have someone of color to remember in those ways,” she added.
Caldwell, whose daughter is in fifth grade at Spring Glen, can already see the effects that having no teachers of color has on her daughter. “My daughter has already made comments about what hierarchy looks like,” she said. “She’s already conditioned at 10.”
Establishing positive perceptions of people of color are not only empowering for students of color; they are also instructive for white students. “There are few opportunities for white students to encounter black and Latino individuals in a professional context,” explained Highsmith.
No only teachers, but also the curriculum should reflect the diversity of the Hamden school district.
During the Q&A with the audience, Athena Gary, who represents the Third district on Hamden’s Legislative Council, stood up to say that the district needs to focus more on the contributions of black Americans.
Specifically, she said, “we have to include the descendants of slaves in a real way.” Descendants of slaves, she explained, have made enormous contributions to American society, and students need to learn about those contributions.
Many schools have a long way to go on culturally inclusive curriculums. On one end of the spectrum, explained Powell, are schools that simply teach a Eurocentric curriculum and largely ignore the contributions of people of color. Other schools, and in this category she placed Hamden’s schools, take a “tourist approach” to a diverse curriculum. Those schools might have Black History Month, or might have a multicultural day, but they pay those topics only lip service. Perhaps they cover one African American in depth, but they don’t do the topic justice. What schools need to do, she said, is allow students to bring their whole being into the classroom and talk about white supremacy and how it affects their lives.
Yet many schools, when trying to teach more culturally inclusive curriculums, find that teachers are not prepared. Canton helped design classes on African American history, race, and Latin American history for Bridgeport Public Schools last year. The problem, he said, was that none of the teachers were equipped to teach those subjects. Changing curriculums will have to involve changing the way teachers are taught, he explained, “because most of our teachers did not take African American studies classes, or Latin American studies classes.”
Can’t Teach Somebody Humanity
The panel agreed that schools around the country need more teachers of color, but it also became clear that educating white teachers about how to teach students of color is essential.
“The number of white teachers in this country is not going to decrease any time soon, that’s just a fact,” said Highsmith. “If we fail to take cultural competency seriously, we will be having these conversations 30, 40 years in the future.” He explained that white teachers can be great teachers for students of color, but they just have to know what they’ve doing.
“Almost all of my students get to my classes and they’ve never talked about white supremacy in school,” said Powell, who teaches equity and social justice at SCSU’s School of Education. Making up for that gap in teaching students’ educations is not a matter of one professional development day, she added. It takes much more work than that.
In her classes, Powell starts by teaching the history of white supremacy. Next, she has her students locate themselves within white supremacist systems. They “look into systems of power and identity and how that looks in their lives.” Once her students have reflected on who they are and how they interact with systematic racism and how they perhaps further it, only then can she teach them about how to disrupt those systems in their classrooms.
Walker-Canton agreed that reflection is an important part of preparing teaching students to teach in racially diverse classrooms. They need to “decenter whiteness,” which is often perceived as a cultureless monolith. But more important is that teachers are able to empathize with their students and understand them. “When you learn that that’s a human like you are, that’s when that connection happens,” she said. Teaching how to have those connections, however, is hard. “I don’t know that you can teach somebody humanity.”
A Job Issue
Increasing the number of teachers of color in schools will take a concerted effort at many levels of society.
“In five years, 10 years, we can change the way it is, if we do the work,” said Walker-Canton. That work will be work indeed.
“We have to look at this as a nuts and bolts job issue,” Walker-Canton told the Independent. Simply speaking, schools need to hire more black and brown teachers.
Yet there are currently not enough to go around. According to the Center for American Progress, only 18 percent of teacher preparation graduates are people of color. The numbers are not quite as stark for other fields. 31 percent of bachelor’s degree graduates are people of color.
Powell explained that those small numbers may be the result of the experiences of students of color in school. If they experience alienation when they are students, then they likely won’t “want to spend their life in that space.” If practices in schools change, she argued, then the country will see more teachers of color because the education system won’t be discouraging students of color from becoming teachers.
Increasing the number of teachers of color will also require focusing on the teachers that are already in schools, said Walker-Canton. “What are they walking into in Hamden in terms of teacher perceptions of teachers of color?” she asked. Sometimes, she added, when you ask an administration why there are no black teachers, they answer that they want “teachers of quality.” Combatting these types of racist perceptions in schools will be a part of the push for more diverse staff at schools.
And those perceptions will have to change beyond just schools. “There’s a larger power structure you have to have a conversation about if you really want to make a change in the town and in the state,” said Highsmith. Change will require having people of color, who have certain experiences, in positions of power, he explained.
Change will also require a bottom-up approach, said Canton. He has been instrumental in the Mellon Mays Program, an initiative that aims to increase the number of faculty of color at universities by providing financial and other forms of assistance to students of color who might want to pursue PhDs starting in their sophomore year of college.
“If we’re really serious, it costs money,” Canton said, explaining that Mellon Mays involves a significant expenditure of money.
Canton suggested that if Hamden wants to increase the number of teachers of color in its schools, that would require starting students on track to becoming teachers early. He would start in grade 10 to show students what it means to be a teacher. He said that Hamden should have a conversation with Quinnipiac to try to get the university to start a scholarship program for students from Hamden who want to become teachers.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first of what those on the panel and many in the audience hoped would be many more. Enacting any real change will require continuous hard work, and continuous discussion. As Caldwell made clear, those who want more diverse teachings staffs and more diverse curricula are up against a formidable opponent: history.
“We can culturally teach teachers all we want,” she said, “but we are talking about trying to educate thought systems, belief systems… that have gone on 400 years.”