By ZAK CHAMPAGNE, JPEF DIRECTOR OF TEACHER LEADERSHIP
There is so much to be excited about with this year’s EDDY Awards on February 15.
But one of the most exciting parts of this year’s gala is happening behind the scenes: all five finalists for 2019 Duval County Teacher of the Year are teachers of color.
Why should we celebrate this news?
At JPEF, we believe data and research can help improve our public education system. And a growing body of research shows a variety of positive impacts on students of color when they have the opportunity to learn from teachers who look like them.
In a rigorous, long-term study of 100,000 students in North Carolina, researchers found that the risk of dropping out of high school for black students decreased by 29 percent if they had at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades.
If that’s not dramatic enough, the study found an even greater positive impact for low-income black students: they were 39 percent less likely to drop out. Other research has found when students of color have teachers of the same racial or ethnic group, they perform better on standardized tests, have improved attendance, and are suspended less frequently.
In education research, it’s incredibly rare to find that one variable has such a great impact on students’ academic life.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough teachers of color in the workforce. According to US News, people of color make up less than 20 percent of our teachers nationwide, while about half of students in K-12 classroom are students of color. In Duval County, we have the same challenge: In the 2015-16 school year, approximately 36 percent of our instructors were teachers of color, and students of color made up approximately 64 percent of our student body.
Teacher diversity and the opportunity gap is an issue we explored this fall at Access and Equity Day, a professional development opportunity we offered every school-level teacher of the year. We had great turnout and excellent feedback from our teachers that access and equity are critical topics for us to address in Duval County. At the end of the day, we asked the teachers to write themselves a letter with two or three actions they wanted to take as a result of the conversations and learning that took place. During our time together, we recognized the valuable contribution that every teacher brings to the table, including their ethnic, racial and other identity, and talked about what each of us can bring to our students by promoting teacher diversity. I just dropped these letters in the mail this week.
Access and equity matter to our students. That’s why we were so excited when we learned our final selection committee - a group of representatives from former teachers of the year, leaders at Duval County Public Schools, and community members - selected five finalists for 2019 Duval County Teacher of the Year who all happen to be teachers of color.
But we also know that teachers aren’t just instructors - they are positive role models in the lives of children, especially those who need them most. Teachers help students imagine what could be possible for their own lives. For many children, having a teacher of the same race makes it easier to imagine a hopeful future for themselves.
This is an issue I take very seriously - and very personally. I started out my teaching career at West Jacksonville Elementary, where all of my students were black and most were from low-income families. As hard as I worked for my students, I now understand that there was something they needed that I couldn’t offer as a white teacher. I worked hard to build relationships with my students over the years, which I’m sure impacted them academically and socially, but there was still one thing I couldn’t do for them. They couldn’t see in me what it would look like for them to be a teacher, to graduate high school, to get a college degree.
And that’s something every student deserves.