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Here’s What High School Students of Color Think About Being a Teacher

by Staff

There’s long been a push to bring more teachers of color into classrooms, with policymakers and district leaders spearheading recruitment and retention initiatives. But one voice has been notably missing from the conversation: high school students of color.

So says Amber Ravenell, the director of research for Teach Plus, a national organization that supports teacher-leadership. The group recently conducted interviews with 103 high school students of color and Indigenous students about why they would—or wouldn’t—go into teaching.

“We all are aware of the emphasis on and how worried everyone is about the diversity of our teaching profession, … but we felt like there was something missing,” she said. “We really created this research to elevate the voices of students of color.”

About 80 percent of the teaching force is white, although more than half of K-12 public school students are students of color. Research has shown that teachers of color have academic and social-emotional benefits for all students, but particularly students of color.

Current teachers of color helped facilitate the focus groups with the students, who hail from 18 states. The students who participated attended last year’s Educators Rising national conference, which is meant for aspiring teachers.

Ravenell said some of the students were “100 percent committed” to becoming a teacher, while others were still mulling it over.

“A lot of students were really excited about the prospect of teaching, … about being a potential role model for future generations, excited about being able to share their love for a particular subject,” she said.

But, “they shared some of the same concerns that we see from current teachers of color: ‘Would this be a welcoming environment for me, working in a school as a teacher?’”

Here’s what the researchers learned from the conversations.

Why high school students of color don’t want to be teachers

The students cited a few common deterrents to choosing teaching as a future career. For starters, they mentioned low salaries.

Teachers make an average salary of $68,469, according to the National Education Association’s research, although that varies significantly from state to state. And the national average starting teacher salary was $42,845 in the 2021-22 school year.

Past research has shown that pay is the reason why most high school students, regardless of race, don’t consider teaching as a viable career choice, but the stakes can be particularly high for many students of color: Black students are more likely to take on student loans than their peers.

“With a lot of our friends being [in a] low-income, high-poverty demographic, even if they did have the money to go to college, it doesn’t make sense for them to pick something like teaching compared to the other fields … that will make you a lot more, especially for those who are first-generation college applicants and students,” one 10th grade student from Missouri told the researchers.

Some students of color told researchers that their family members wanted them to pursue a career that would pay more.

Another concern shared by many of the students was that teachers don’t have the autonomy to design a curriculum that is representative of the diversity of their schools, and that they face limitations on how and what they teach.

“I know a lot of teachers, and I’ve talked with teachers of color and Indigenous teachers, and they’re like, ‘We don’t have a say-so in our curriculum. We can’t teach what we want or how we want, and we have a lot of observations with our administration.’ So it’s not even like they can get any type of leeway,” an 11th grade student in Nebraska said. “And so I think that’s made me not want to be a teacher. I’d rather be one to change that policy or change that curriculum.”

In recent years, there has been a push among conservative politicians to restrict how teachers talk about race, racism, and other so-called “divisive” issues. Some of the students noted that they felt like they weren’t able to learn about important issues because they “offend” people.

One high school senior in Texas said: “I feel like education should embrace the cultures of many people of color. I know … a lot of elementary schools don’t support or don’t do anything like Black History Month. And even in high school, some of them aren’t doing anything like that. Or being inclusive with their education. I feel like people who are people of color will actually draw closer to education if they knew that they were supported in that and that they could teach about their own culture as well.”

Finally, the students also noted that they’ve experienced microaggressions and harmful comments at school, both from students and staff. When teachers don’t intervene in instances of bias, the students said, they feel less safe at school—and less likely to want to return as a teacher.

“This might be a hot take, but I think the reason why [people of color], especially Black people, the main reasons why we never want to become teachers is one of the main reasons why we never want to become police officers,” a 12th grade student in Ohio said. “I think it has to do with our past experiences and the fact that, in the back of our minds, it’s like, these are bad guys … but with teaching, there’s so much more we can do. …

“So I feel like if we get past that, the more I feel like we get past ourselves and realize that’s something that can happen, and finally realize that, if you want to change things.”

Why high school students of color do want to be teachers

Many of the students interviewed had positive experiences with teachers of color, who they say were able to relate to them through their shared identity and experiences.

“The ones who can speak my languages understood my culture best. They were able to connect and help me the most, because they understood me,” said a high school senior from Nebraska.

Some of the students said they were inspired to consider teaching by the teachers of color they’d had.

The students also said they were drawn to the teaching profession because they wanted to be role models and develop strong relationships with future students.

(This is in line with other research about why high school students of all races want to be teachers: enjoying working with children and young people, wanting to make a difference, and being inspired by a teacher were the top three reasons cited by students in a 2018 study.)

“Some things that I find attractive about being a teacher is the relationships you build with students,” said an 11th grade student in Ohio. “I’ve seen how powerful those relationships are and the great connections that brings as well. As a teacher, you can also advocate for your students.”

The students said that they’d be more likely to go into teaching if they know they’d be working in a school environment where teachers of color and Indigenous teachers are valued, respected, and protected, where teachers are trained to support different student needs, and where teachers have the agency to teach a culturally affirming curriculum.

Ravenell said it was notable how much students’ concerns reflected the concerns of teachers of color from previous TeachPlus research. She said she hopes to continue studying why there are so few teachers of color.

“What we heard across the board was how many students of color are really hungry for more opportunities to have their voices heard on this issue,” she said.

The TeachPlus researchers recommend that school and district leaders work to create diverse and inclusive school environments to which students of color would want to return. District leaders should also create opportunities for students to learn more about teaching as a career, they said.

Meanwhile, the researchers recommended that policymakers increase teacher pay and establish incentives for teacher leadership, as well as prioritize culturally affirming instructional materials and pedagogy.

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