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Teacher Education Reinvented
Supporting Excellence in Teacher Education
image of Diana Turk in her office

More than half of US school children are children of color, but fewer than 20 percent of our nation’s teachers are teachers of color and only two percent are African American men. Benefits of having more diverse teachers extend beyond academics; students of color are less likely to be suspended and more likely to be identified as gifted and talented.  

We spoke with Diana Turk, director of teacher education at NYU Steinhardt and one of the faculty members who developed the NYU Teacher Residency, to find out why it’s critical to recruit diverse teacher candidates.

Q: Let’s start at the top: why does racial, linguistic, and cultural diversity matter in our teacher force?

It’s vitally important that children — all children — see others who look like them in the teaching force. We know from research that for a child of color, and particularly for a male child of color, this is especially important. Having even one teacher of color is shown to have lasting positive effects on achievement for children of color, and research shows that this positive impact lasts well beyond just the year or years shared in the classroom.

At the same time, it’s also clear from the research that teachers of color evaluate the possibilities differently for their students of color. They are more likely to encourage them to go into higher-level classes, more likely to push them academically, and more likely to believe that they can achieve in school. It’s not that white teachers set out to underestimate the potential of their students of color, but we do know from multiple studies that this is what tends to happen.

I also think it’s really important for white students, as well as Asian students, Native American students, and Latinx students, to have teachers of color. And it’s important for black students to have Latinx, Native American, Asian, and white teachers, too. The more diverse the teaching force in any school, the more likely it is that the teachers will hold high expectations for all of their students, and the more likely it is that the students will see their teachers as real models of what they can achieve.

Q: What are the biggest barriers to recruiting more diverse candidates to the teaching profession?

There are multiple barriers. One major barrier is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Some states, such as New York, require the GRE for admission to teacher preparation programs, but we know students of color tend to score lower on this test than their white counterparts with similar grades. And we know that the GRE is not that much of a useful predictor in terms of who will be successful as a teacher and who will stay in teaching. So it’s important that the GRE is considered only as a small part of how students demonstrate who they are and where their capacities and strengths lie.

Further, many states, such as New York, require an undergraduate major in the discipline an aspiring teacher wants to teach at the secondary level. But many candidates, particularly those who may not have studied at a liberal arts college, do not complete liberal arts majors in their undergraduate training. While they may be excellent teacher candidates, they may lack the credits needed. Look at math as an example. To be a math teacher, this requires 30 credits of math, excluding engineering classes and statistics. Few candidates at all — and even fewer candidates of color — major in “pure” math as opposed to one of the applied math fields, yet these are the courses required by states in order to teach. Taking these additional credits can be a burden on finances and time. So this limits the pool of those who are “officially” qualified.

Q: What ways can teacher preparation programs increase the pool of teachers of color and support diverse teacher candidates?

Teacher preparation programs must view both the GRE and the undergraduate GPA as parts of a holistic application process that allow candidates to show their capacities and potential to teach, rather than use them as screening tools. Further, we must recruit in places where there are more diverse candidates. Recruiting at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as opposed to only at small liberal arts colleges in New England is a start. Another important step is to make clear to applicants that we are interested in a diverse pool and they will have a substantial number of aspiring teachers of color as peers. Finally, offering generous scholarships to candidates who need financial support is vital. Highly effective teacher preparation cannot be only for those who can pay for it; we have to make it available to all qualified candidates who want to become transformational teachers for all students, and for those who are committed to doing this work for a sustained period of time.

Q: How can teacher preparation programs support school districts that want to prioritize the hiring of diverse teachers?

Teacher preparation programs can support districts by preparing excellent teachers of color, giving them experience working in those districts, and making sure that they feel welcome, encouraged, and supported to succeed as professionals within the district. This is why residency programs that partner with school districts are able to make an impact on the recruitment of teachers of color.  

Q: Understanding where students come from can make a big difference in teacher effectiveness. What approaches help teachers gain deep context of the community in which they will teach?

It’s vital that emerging teachers learn who their students are, the funds of knowledge that they bring to the classroom, who is part of the community, and what the community offers in terms of resources. We take the notion that teachers must teach from an asset-based mindset quite seriously in the Teacher Residency. We believe that community walks, community resource surveys, and actual outreach into the community — to families, community centers, librarians, and community support personnel — are all essential steps in getting to know and understand the communities learners come from.

In order to know how to reach and teach your students, you have to know them, understand who they are, and get to know their communities. A wonderful recent commentary from Education Week makes these points.

These same ideas apply to students who are learning English. Rather than focusing on their deficit — the language they don’t know — by calling them English language learners, in the Teacher Residency we refer to these students as emergent bilinguals, to focus on their assets. They are becoming bilingual or, in some cases, multilingual. We support our teacher residents with the tools to adopt this asset-based language and model how to bring an asset-based perspective into their students’ communities.

Q: You’ve provided many reasons why teacher preparation programs must increase teacher diversity. Any final thoughts?

We know that the benefits of creating a more diverse teacher workforce are widespread; they are long-lasting, and they are life-changing. It’s essential that teacher preparation programs figure out ways to recruit more diverse teachers into the profession immediately. We are eager to learn from other teacher preparation programs that are making strides in this area and welcome dialogue with any districts or charter networks that have good ideas for how to grow the pool of qualified teachers of color. For the NYU Teacher Residency, more than 50 percent of our teacher residents identify as people of color, and increasing this number continues to be one of our top goals that all faculty members involved in our program take very seriously.

Learn more about the NYU Steinhardt Teacher Residency.