Skip to content
ascd logo

June 25, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 20

Teacher Diversity Starts with Belonging

I started working for a Fortune 500 corporation in 1985, and I never felt like I belonged. Only a handful of minorities worked in my division, and we all struggled to find our place. I remember when I neglected to learn a sales script verbatim. I was new and it was an honest oversight. But I was not afforded such grace; instead, I was called "stupid" and "unable to learn." Within the company, a group for minorities emerged to support each other and try to create our own sense of belonging. However, despite the professional successes I went on to accomplish, I felt unsupported, underappreciated, and unfulfilled in the corporate world and decided to pursue a career in education, instead.

Belonging Is Essential

Flash-forward to 1996. I was one of two Black men in an Introduction to Education college course. The other student, Jaryd, was extremely busy. He was active in his community and he volunteered as a youth leader at church. When he disappeared after the second class, I assumed it was because he didn't have time for the course load. A month or two later, I ran into Jaryd in the library and asked what happened. He told me the class just didn't feel right. He didn't feel like he belonged.
Belonging is key to a healthy mindset. We have a natural desire to feel like we fit in, so when we don't, it's no surprise we go elsewhere. This lack of belonging is precisely what led me to pursue education over my previous career. Lucky for me, I stuck with my introductory education course long enough for the professor to recognize my passion. We struck up a professional friendship. He understood that, because I was working full-time and had a long commute to Central Missouri State, getting to class on time would be a challenge. He knew I wanted to be there just as much as the other students, so he made sure I felt like I belonged by staying late and sometimes meeting on Saturdays to catch me up. He even invited me to visit the middle school classroom where he taught.

Who "Belongs" in Your School?

Not to sound cliché, but it's complicated living as a Black man in America. When I enter a new environment of mostly White people, I don't know what their attitudes are toward people of color. Will there be racists? Will people insult me and make me feel excluded or unworthy? Most White people I've met have their hearts in the right place, but this hasn't been a universal experience. As a young student, I had a teacher who found out I was from St. Louis and immediately judged me as an "inner-city kid." One day, I had on a hat for the ski resort town, Vail, Colorado, and he remarked that I would never go somewhere like that. (For the record, I did end up spending some time skiing at Vail, but why did he think someone like me would never ski there?) A while later, he learned that I was really from St. Louis County, a suburb he knew. When he learned that, his whole attitude changed. My sense of belonging should not be predicated on my ZIP code.
As educators, how do we create this sense of belonging? School can be a place of hostility where Black students perceive they are overdisciplined; disregarded in terms of their actual potential; and in some cases, insulted to the point of a teacher suggesting I would never know what it's like to go skiing at a nice resort in Colorado. Many African Americans who enter college pursue degrees in service-oriented majors, like social work, community organizing, and healthcare (such as nursing). They enter fields that serve others, are a lot of work, and are not particularly high paying. That sounds like the same descriptors for education. What's the difference? Why are they entering those fields, but not teaching? For me, the answer goes back to that sense of belonging.
How do we intentionally create this sense of belonging for minority students and future teaching candidates? I remember, as a principal, feeling critical of our interview process. I was given a script to follow, but I went off script to build connections, letting the candidates know I cared. When conducting interviews, I maintained eye contact, listened, and looked for responses that allowed me to make a connection. I made several connections with the candidate we ended up hiring. I learned about her family, her hometown, and her experiences in Kansas. I called her a few hours later and offered her the job. She accepted because she felt that sense of belonging. We never stopped making connections. With all my teachers, I always looked for professional development opportunities so that they could grow and build on that sense of belonging. They did not always attend the PD that I recommended, but they were grateful that I thought about them and cared about their growth.
This year, I was invited to work with a group of students at Kansas State University, trying to troubleshoot minority retention in their education program. That's when I learned about KSU's chapter of the "Call Me MISTER" program, which is designed to recruit and retain minority males to be mentors and teachers. The MISTER program includes one-to-one meetings with members to discuss time and stress management, professional development, employment opportunities, goal-setting, and more. It works because it provides positive and supportive attention to prospective teachers of color. Like my professor at Central Missouri State, when leaders let teachers of color know they are valued and have a rightful place within the education community, it is motivating and sustaining. We need to continue to build informal and formal networks of support for teachers of color, to cultivate a sense of belonging in the programs that prepare them and in the schools where they serve. When people have a sense of belonging, they give their very best and make significant contributions to their communities.

John Coburn has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
5 Elements of a Relevant Curriculum
Angela Di Michele Lalor
2 weeks ago

Related Articles