Dear Future Teachers,
According to Education Week, as of 2018, there are 130,930 K-12 schools in the United States. Of those schools, 91,276 are public schools. The Fall 2019 projection for public school enrollment was 50.8 million students. These public school children can live in cities, rural areas, suburban areas, etc. Although representation matters for ALL schools, for this post I am choosing to focus on public schools, as my knowledge is strongest in that sector of education. In 2017, the racial demographics of public schools, according to the article Education Statistics: Facts about American Schools, were:
White students: 47.6%
Hispanic/Latinx students: 26.7%
Black students: 15.2%
Two or more race students: 3.9%
American Indian/Alaska Native students: 1.0%
Pacific Islander students: 0.4%
Based on this data, we see that students of color are the majority of all public school enrollments. However, white teachers dominate the education field at 79.3%. Now, more than ever, representation in the classroom should be a priority for educators across the country. In my Education Policy class, I read an article titled The long-run impacts of same-race teachers (Gershenson, S., Hart, C., Hyman, J., Lindsay, C., & Papageorge, N. W., 2018); which includes research finding that students of color benefit academically when they have at least one teacher of color during their academic career. White students do not suffer any disadvantages from having a diverse staff of teachers, either. REPRESENTATION MATTERS!
Speaking to my own experience, I never had a Latinx/e teacher until I reached my sophomore year of college! I am a White Latina, so I had teachers who looked like me during K-12, but learning under a Latinx/e teacher for the first time escalated my learning experience in ways I had never known before. The cultural awareness and understanding meant so much to me. I hadn't even learned about Puerto Rico in school before, and suddenly I was participating in conversations around the island in class, and that was awesome!
Representation is crucial in all aspects of life because it is important for people to see themselves in different work environments, books, films, magazines, higher education institutions, etc. I strongly advocate for representation in education because through school, students begin to piece together what the world around them looks like. If students see that they are not represented in certain areas (STEM careers, media, classrooms), the message that comes across is telling them that they don't belong in those places. While I advocate for the field of education to grow more diverse in educators, I also recognize that race is something that we cannot change about ourselves. That being said, I want to share more ways you can create a classroom that represents ALL students!
Which populations are typically underrepresented in education?
Students of color
Students with disabilities
Students of various religions
Students who speak a second language
Every student is unique in who they are, but many times different identities are not acknowledged at the same rate as: men, White people, able-bodied people, heterosexual people, Christians, and English-speaking individuals. There is nothing inherently wrong with students who fall under those descriptions, but those identities should not be the ONLY ones mentioned in our books, movies, history lessons, and classrooms.
How can you include representation in the classroom?
Books. Are the characters in the classroom books homogenous? Do you only have books with white and/or male authors? Are marginalized individuals present in the stories? Go through the books in your classroom, or the books you choose to assign to students and evaluate where you can diversify your library. An example of some books you can include in your classroom can be found in 9 Books I'm Using In My Future Elementary School Classroom and BLM In The Classroom.
Classroom posters. When I taught 6th grade science, I wondered how I could include culture in a science setting. One way I highlighted different cultures in science was by finding Black and Latinx scientists and hanging posters of them in the classroom. It was so exciting for my students to come in and see George Washington Carver and exclaim "He came up with peanuts!" followed by questions about who all the other scientists on my wall were! Hang up posters or pictures with different races, genders, abilities, etc. being represented!
Lessons. What demographic of people are most represented in our textbooks? Are we also teaching students of all the contributions in science and math from people of color? While there is a standard curriculum teachers need to follow, we should also be aware of what identities we aren't including in our lesson plans. It can be a simple fix, such as teaching more inclusive history lessons, or you can get creative and find ways to insert local and broader cultural elements into math, reading, and science!
Guest speakers. If you invite guest speakers into your classroom, make sure to get a range of diverse people, with various backgrounds and involved in assorted careers. It can be neat to bring in individuals who can represent the multiple identities within your classroom, and create another opportunity for students to see themselves in different fields. You have more freedom with guest speakers to provide a variety of people for students to learn from (with school approval, of course).
Does the type of representation matter?
Yes! Unfortunately, not all representation is positive representation, so it's important to be intentional with how we are representing different populations of students. Be mindful not to use stereotypical representation all the time. For example, if you're reading books about Latin American immigrants, the characters don't always have to be working as field workers. While it is important to acknowledge and respect men and women who do field work, that is not the only path for Latinx individuals. Likewise, women don't always have to be portrayed as teachers or nurses, but can be engineers and doctors, too.
It's also important to avoid always using the "hero" trope. Some books tend to portray members of marginalized communities as"heroes." It's great to see marginalized characters doing incredible things, but it's also okay to have books about kids just being kids. We don't want to push the narrative that because an individual is Black, or disabled, or low-income, or from any other marginalized group that they HAVE to be excellent at everything. Not every story has to be one where an incredible kid beats the odds. Normalize book characters of all backgrounds and ethnicities, no matter their accomplishments!
I could honestly talk about the importance of representation for hours on end, but I hope this post has inspired you to include creative and consistent ways to represent your students in the classroom. The real world is full of all kinds of different people, so students should be emerged in inclusive environments. It can inspire students to go after their dreams, and it can cultivate respect and understanding of individuals who may differ from them. If you would like to talk more about representation, or you have ideas of your own, contact me through the form at the bottom of my home page, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!