Ten to Teen: Finding the Right Teachers for Minority Students

By Walter Hunt
Principal, November/December 2012

Today’s school leaders are charged with the task of preparing all children, regard­less of their individual learning needs, with a solid educational foundation. It’s essential for future generations, and our country, to flourish. But the achieve­ment gap, the disparity in the performance of groups of students, continues to challenge educators.

The number of minority students continues to rise. But teacher demo­graphics often do not match student demographics, and this inequity is frequently an area of concern for public school leaders, especially at the middle level. School districts often form committees to actively recruit minority teachers on the basis that this will increase minority students’ achievement. Hours of recruitment and monetary resources are often designated for finding ways to balance the racial playing field among poten­tial teachers in four-year college and alternative certification programs.

But the question remains: Does the recruitment and hiring of more minority teachers have a significant positive impact on the academic achievement of minority youth?

Race, Identity, and Achievement

Research suggests that students listen more to teachers who look like them. Sharing a cultural connection can foster an unspoken sense of familiarity and an instant level of respect. For stu­dents, having a personal connection with a teacher creates an increased level of trust, breeds a sense of motiva­tion, and produces higher academic achievement in many cases, according to Sara Rimm-Kaufman’s 2011 study, “Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning.”

This connection may be particularly important for middle-level students’ identity development. Racial identity plays a huge part in a child’s self-esteem, confidence, and resilience, all of which ultimately affect their academic progress in school. The rapid physical, psychological, and social changes happening in adoles­cence, along with the transition from a comfortable elementary school to a faster-paced middle school, have rami­fications for students’ evolving sense of identity. This period can be espe­cially daunting for minority students, as they face the task of developing a positive sense of self while becoming increasingly aware that society is strati­fied by ethnicity and race.

So, should schools hire more minor­ity teachers to support minority stu­dents? My own research on the subject has yielded interesting results. Accord­ing to my study of eighth grade students in 198 Title I Texas schools, academic achievement among black students was lower at campuses with a larger percent­age of black teachers. These campuses also showed a larger achievement gap between black and white students in reading and math. Why? Several factors may be at work, including, for instance, quality of instruction. Teachers’ skill and average years of experience can impact the quality of the instruction with a school’s curriculum. In addition, some campuses may have unique fac­tors that make it difficult to secure qual­ity teachers. Therefore, it is challenging to isolate the cause.

Having the Right Teachers in Place

If some data indicate that minority teachers can forge strong connec­tions with minority students, but other studies show the opposite, what should school leaders do? Are there other sig­nificant factors that contribute to the overall development of the middle-level child? Principals must consider how external factors (socioeconomic status, family dynamics) and internal school factors (experience level of teachers, a sound curriculum, and school culture) impact the academic success of adolescents.

Ultimately, having teachers who exemplify the demographics of the campus is essential for creating an environment where students can find racially similar role models. However, it is equally important for school lead­ers to incorporate dedicated, talented professionals, regardless of race, into a school. There is no “magic profile” of a teacher who can increase minority stu­dent achievement.

Regardless of the makeup of a school’s teaching force, there are a number of structures that should be in place to help middle-level students succeed. These include:

  • Highly qualified teachers, regardless of race or ethnicity, who have a passion for teaching and develop best-practice teaching skills.
  • Readily-available counseling ser­vices, both group and one-on-one. Counseling gives students an ave­nue for dealing with the everyday issues associated with identity development during the critical middle years.
  • Extracurricular activities, clubs, and organizations, to allow middle schoolers to become vested in their school. Extracurricular activities help students develop a connec­tion to their learning environment, decrease chances of dropout, and increase chances of academic success.
  • Parenting classes to offer caregivers guidance on the difficult process of helping children develop identity in today’s society. If parents feel more empowered, they can, in turn, empower their children.

Middle-level leaders who under­stand the sensitive nature of working with minority students can make a positive impact on student achieve­ment. In the end, race should be con­sidered as part of the hiring process when staffing campuses with minority populations. However, race and eth­nicity cannot be the only consider­ations.

Race may contribute to a strong teacher-student connection at the beginning of the year, but making sure staff members have the necessary skills to carry out good teaching tech­niques matters just as much, if not more, for ensuring long-term effects on student achievement. After all, the goal for a teacher is to make a lasting impression on a student that deepens academic knowledge and understanding. Education is more than skin-deep.

Walter Hunt is associate principal of curriculum and instruction at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, Texas.


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