NC’s teacher diversity gap: ‘Where are the black and brown teachers?’

January 25, 2019
Wake County teacher Carl Tyson and his former student, Trey Stevens

Wake County teacher Carl Tyson sat dumbfounded next to his former student, Trey Stevens. After all these years, why did Trey come back to his class to say he was a favorite teacher? Of all of the teachers, why was he so special?

“I’m trying to figure out the defining moment,” Tyson said, clearly honored but confused.

Trey, now a sophomore at Fuquay-Varina High School, explained it was Mr. Tyson’s PE class at Holly Grove Middle School and his reading club, “Boys, Books and Bow Ties,” that left an impression. He is also one of the only black male teachers Trey has had in school.

“I trusted you,” Trey whispered, his words soft but powerful.

Stunned, Tyson turned away, buried his face in his hand and cried.

“When you hear a kid …” Tyson trailed off, his eyes tearing up again. “Trust has to be earned … For him to say he trusts me, that says volumes.”

Researchers say that kind of connection is crucial, especially between students and teachers of color, and can help minority students perform better in reading and math, score higher on standardized tests and be more likely to attend college. Known as the “role-model effect,” researchers say students of color benefit both academically and emotionally from seeing teachers who look like them.

Yet in North Carolina, where minority students make up 52 percent of the traditional public school body, 80 percent of teachers are white. For students of color, especially black and Hispanic boys, that means they may seldom – or never – have a teacher who looks like them during their kindergarten through 12th grade years.

WRAL News analyzed data showing the race and gender of nearly 100,000 teachers and 1.4 million students in North Carolina’s 115 public school systems. Eleven school districts in the state had no Hispanic teachers last school year, and eight school systems had no black teachers. One district had no teachers of color at all.

The lack of teacher diversity was especially noticeable in rural school systems. But even in larger school districts, which have more racial diversity among students, teachers still tended to be predominantly white and female.

Clay County Schools, a small district in the far western part of the state, had no minority teachers at all last school year. One hundred percent of its teachers were white – a statistic its new superintendent would like to change.

“I’d love to have some diversity,” said Clay County Superintendent Gary Gibson. “Our minority kids are doing very well, and I’m glad for that, but I’d certainly love to have someone in the classroom that’s a role model for the ones we have here.”

“I’m not running into any opposition in us having a more diverse workforce,” Gibson added. “It’s just it’s really difficult to get teachers as a whole into an area that’s this rural. It takes a lot of time and effort, and we are thankful when we get people to come and stay with us.”

ABOUT THIS SERIES: In this two-part series, WRAL News investigates teacher recruitment and diversity in North Carolina’s public schools and colleges of education. In part one, we analyze the current state of teacher diversity in North Carolina’s 115 public school systems. In part two, coming Friday, we investigate diversity and recruitment at North Carolina’s colleges of education and the NC Teaching Fellows program. WRAL education reporter Kelly Hinchcliffe received a grant to work on this series. She was selected as a national Education Writers Association reporting fellow last summer.

Statewide, 80 percent of all public school teachers are women and 80 percent are white. Nationally, 77 percent of public school teachers are women and 80 percent are white.

The number of minority teachers in the U.S. has doubled over the past few decades, according to the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. However, those increases have not kept pace with the growth of students of color, and researchers say the diversity gap is expected to widen.

By 2060, population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau show, public school students will be even more diverse than they are now, and researchers estimate the teacher diversity gap will persist for black students and worsen for Hispanic students.

“Given these bleak findings, the chances of success for districts’ laudable goals to build a teaching corps that mirrors their student populations crumble in the face of reality – even looking forward nearly 50 years,” the Brookings researchers wrote.

Teacher Carl Tyson has seen the diversity gap up close. During his first teaching job at West Lake Middle School in Cary, he was the only black male teacher in the building for the 13 years he worked there.

“I remember it so vividly because in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Man, I don’t see anybody else that looks like me,’” he said. “I would have liked to see more (black male teachers) because we were a very diverse school.”

Having more black men would not only have benefited the students, Tyson said, it would have helped him as well, “just to have that common bond.”

“For 13 years, you do feel strange because when you walk into a building and you’re the only African-American male, you’re like, ‘Man, OK. Who can I confide in?’” Tyson said.

Now at Holly Grove Middle School, where he was named the 2014 Teacher of the Year, Tyson works alongside four other black male teachers. He smiles as he talks about his colleagues.

“There is a relationship that we have. There is a language that we speak, that we bring from our communities,” he said. “So there is a comfort there that I know someone who looks like me.… It brings me joy that I have a group of friends like that.”

Tyson has never asked any of his principals to hire more black male teachers, he says, because he didn’t feel it was his place. Instead, he has always hoped they would simply notice the need.

“I would hope they would see that if we are becoming more diverse in our school system that we need to look at the data and see the necessity to have teachers of color, Hispanic teachers, Asian teachers, African-American teachers,” Tyson said. “I think it is crucial, because kids want to see, ‘Is there anybody in the school that looks like me?’”

In the Wake County Public School System, students of color made up more than half – 54 percent – of the student body last school year, but only 20 percent of the teachers were minorities. Of the approximately 10,600 teachers in Wake County last year, only 3 percent were black men and 0.5 percent were Hispanic men.

For Wake County schools Superintendent Cathy Moore, hiring more teachers of color is not only “an urgent need,” it’s personal. When she was named superintendent last May, she became the first woman and first Latina to hold the job. And when she began her career as a high school French teacher in Nash County in the 1980s, she was the only Hispanic teacher in the school.

“Our students of color, our black and brown students, Latino and African-American students, must see teachers and experience adults in a building that are like them so that they can see themselves in those roles as they grow older,” Moore said.

As a child in New York City and then Charlotte, Moore didn’t have any Latino teachers. She was so accustomed to people mispronouncing her maiden name, Quiroz, that she didn’t always correct them. But on her first day as a teacher in rural Nash County, she decided to change that.

“People have always said my maiden name incorrectly. My maiden name is Quiroz (kee-r̃ose). And so it was ‘kwurh-rahz’ and all kinds of, you know, they try to say it in English,” she recalled. “And when I became a teacher and I wrote my name on the board for the first time, I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can teach them how to say my name correctly.’”

Staff members quickly caught on, including the school’s secretary, an older woman with beehive hair and a long, Southern drawl.

“One day, my older sister called the school because she needed to leave me a message,” Moore said. “And so she spoke to the secretary and said, ‘I’d like to leave a message for ‘Ms. Kwurh-rahz,’ because that’s how everybody said my name. And so the secretary said, ’Ma’am, she’s in class right now and for future reference, it’s (pronounced) ‘kee-r̃ose.’”

Moore laughs at the memory but says the story shows why diversity in schools is important. Being the only Hispanic teacher in her school, she was able to share her culture. In turn, she noticed how much that meant to some of her students.

“When students realized that I wasn’t a typical white female, that I had a background, I was born in another country, that I spoke Spanish as a native language, there were students who did migrate to me, who felt an identity, who felt a camaraderie,” Moore said. “(I was) someone that knew a little bit perhaps about them and where they were coming from.”

As Moore climbed the education ranks – eventually becoming assistant principal, principal, area superintendent and deputy superintendent – she started noticing more of the diversity gap between students and teachers. With her new hiring powers, she began visiting historically black colleges and universities to try to recruit more teachers of color.

“I think that you can seek the most qualified or experienced candidates and seek teachers that represent your community and your goal and desire to have a diverse workforce,” Moore said. “I think that those can be combined, and must be combined, if we are in fact going to do this work.”

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper identified teacher diversity as one of his top three legislative priorities for the the 2019-20 legislative session.

“That means more men and it means more people of color in the profession,” Cooper said. “I strongly believe our state government, our law enforcement, our education system ought to look like the people that it serves and protects ... It is important for us to have a diversity of teachers to reflect the diversity of students we have at our public schools.”

Researchers who analyzed teacher race in North Carolina and Tennessee say black students who had just one black teacher by third grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. Those who had two were 32 percent more likely. Still, the researchers said, “little is known about the long-run, sustained impacts of student-teacher demographic matches.”

At Winston-Salem State University, education professor Dawn Hicks Tafari focuses on the importance of the relationship between teachers and students of color. Her class, “Advancing the Academic Success of Black Males,” is one of the university’s most popular teacher preparation courses and fills quickly each time it’s offered.

Tafari, an assistant professor of urban education, often plays hip hop music in class, softly enough so her students can talk during group work but loud enough so they know it’s there. Nothing she does is by chance. From the music she plays to the books she assigns her students to read, all are a nod to African-American culture, a message to her students that they belong in her classroom, they are safe and valued - a lesson she hopes they’ll pass on to their own students someday.

That sense of belonging and security in school is what inspired her to create the class. She got the idea after teaching in Brooklyn, where she noticed teachers were often in a hurry to refer black boys for special education, kick them out of the classroom or send them to the principal’s office.

“These black boys were dropping out of high school at ridiculous rates,” Tafari said. “And I said, ‘Well, what’s going on? Why is this happening to black boys?’ … And then I realized, well you know what, they don’t see anybody that looks like them. So black boys don’t find education, they don’t find the classroom to be a safe space for them.”

Black male students are “used to their cultural capital not being valued. They’re used to being told that they don’t belong,” Tafari said. “When I don’t incorporate who you are, the things you like, the music you listen to into my curriculum, into the things that I’m talking about in the classroom, I’m telling you that you don’t belong.”

When she plays hip hop music in class, she often asks her students to analyze the lyrics to learn about black masculinity and education. Even the books she assigns are chosen with diversity in mind.

“The two authors of the textbooks that we read this semester are both black men. So the black males who come to my class see themselves,” Tafari said. “They know that it’s not just the old white men who write textbooks. They know that it’s people who look like them who write textbooks and both of these men are still alive. So they’re not even like some ancient artifacts.”

Growing up in the Bronx, Tafari says, she had mostly white women as teachers. She didn’t have a black male teacher until 10th grade history, and even then, he was a substitute. Her first permanent black male teacher was in college. Otherwise, she mostly saw black men in custodian roles in her schools.

Tafari believes the lack of male teachers is due to low pay compared with other professions and “the stigma associated with working with children.” She is working to change those perceptions and encourage more black men to become teachers. In the meantime, she is working on a counterpart class about advancing the academic success of black females.

“All children win when the teaching workforce is diverse,” Tafari said. “When teachers are a monolithic group, white children don’t gain from that either, because they’re not experiencing the world as it really is.”

In some North Carolina school systems, teacher diversity comes in the form of international teachers. For years, Vance County Schools has recruited teachers from outside the U.S., mostly from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, to help fill vacancies and bring more diversity to its classrooms. Last year, the school system had 83 percent minority students and 58 percent minority teachers. While white students only comprised 17 percent of the student body, 42 percent of the teachers were white.

“I think you have to be very intentional … and unapologetic about wanting to have a balance that meets the needs of your students,” said Vance County Schools Superintendent Anthony Jackson. Students “should be able to leave here with a healthy understanding of not only the world but of people.”

Last school year, 50 of Vance County’s teachers – about 13 percent – came from outside the U.S., according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction. Statewide, North Carolina public schools employed 1,610 international teachers, about 1.7 percent of all teaching staff.

“We’ve built a great community where they are very comfortable here,” Jackson said. “Once a year we have a recruitment fair just for those teachers in Jamaica and we hire probably anywhere between 12 to 15 a year to help us out in those hard-to-staff areas - math, science, foreign languages and exceptional education.”

Kedecia Stewart of Jamaica was named the 2017-18 Vance County Teacher of the Year and the state’s North Central Region Teacher of the Year. During her time in North Carolina, she has noticed the teacher diversity gap as well.

“Representation matters. It matters to see and hear from somebody that looks like you. I can speak for me as a professional. It matters to me as well because when I go in my professional settings, I am a minority,” she said. “For this entire year that I’ve been on the campaign with all the teachers of the year, I am a minority.”

Vance County desperately needs more black male teachers, Stewart says. Last year, about 11 percent of the school system’s 400 teachers were black men, while 33 percent of the students were black boys. She would like to see more college scholarships offered to high school boys who want to study teaching.

“A lot of the times they might want to do this, but it is hard for them because the vision is blocked by finances. It’s blocked by, ‘I will be rejected.’ It’s blocked by, ‘This is not a tradition. This is not the norm,’” Stewart said. “But if we create pathways for these young men to go into teacher preparation programs, that would be a good start.”

Besides black men, Hispanic men – and Hispanic teachers in general – are much needed in North Carolina’s classrooms, school leaders say.

“We have a lot of individuals in our community who speak Spanish in particular. And so, where are those teachers?” Jackson, Vance County’s superintendent, said. “If you look at the demographics of our communities, they’re changing. And so not only are you going to have kids of color, you’re going to have kids who speak other languages, and are we really ready for that dynamic in the classroom?”

North Carolina’s Hispanic student population has surged in the past decade. Last school year, 18 percent of the state’s public school students were Hispanic, compared with 2.5 percent of teachers. In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, the district has seen “an explosion” in the number of Hispanic students in the past 20 years, according to Deputy Superintendent Kenneth Simington.

“Just like with African-American teachers, recruiting Latino teachers is a struggle,” he said. “We’ve gone from really 1 to 2 percent of our students being Latino to more than 20 percent, approaching 25 percent, of our students being Latino. So finding teachers who also look like Latino students is an important piece for us.”

Winston-Salem/Forsyth school leaders have turned to Puerto Rico to bring in more Spanish-speaking teachers. Although the partnership has been successful, Simington said, diversity gaps remain.

“The struggle is real for us to attract teachers and retain teachers,” Simington said.

Vance County’s superintendent echoes that sentiment and says school systems need to be more intentional in recruiting teachers of color.

“Where are the black and brown teachers? … We’ve got to have that honest conversation,” Jackson said. “I think first we have to be willing to have that conversation and come to the table and recognize that probably 50 percent of what we think we know about why they’re not coming is wrong.”

He would like to see teacher recruitment begin as early as middle school, when students can be taught about the teaching profession as a possible career choice. But first, schools need to recognize opportunities to promote teaching as a profession.

“I had this epiphany,” Jackson said. “Every year, I get invited to career days to just visit and walk through it. And I was walking through career days the last few years and I would look around, and it hit me one day -- there is a table for everyone. I mean, there was even a table for a mortician and an undertaker. Which profession did not have a table? Teachers. And I said, ‘A-ha!’ We are systematically removing this choice from our students’ menu. We have to be more intentional about putting that in front of them.”

As Jackson wrapped up his interview with WRAL News, he saw another opportunity to recruit teachers of color and took his plea to the camera recording the interview. Looking directly into the lens, he made his pitch: “If you are a teacher of color out there and you want to work for us, we have a job for you.”

Back at Holly Grove Middle School, Trey Stevens sat quietly next to his former teacher, Carl Tyson. The two reminisced about about Tyson’s reading club, “Boys, Books and Bow Ties,” that left such an impression on Trey as a middle school student.

Now that he’s in high school, does Trey still have the bow ties his teacher carefully sewed for him and the other students? No, Trey said. He turned them back in.

“OK, well, we gotta fix that,” Tyson said, explaining the power of his hand-crafted neckwear. “I’ll tell you this: Put on a necktie, nobody notices. Put on a bow tie, you get attention.”

That attention to detail, both in bow-tie making and teaching students, made an impression on Trey’s parents as well. They are thankful for Tyson’s guidance in their son’s life, especially because he is one of the few black male teachers their son has had.

Their daughter Erika, who graduated from Wake County schools in 2014, had one teacher of color.

“I think it’s disappointing, highly disappointing,” said Calvin Stevens. “You think Wake County is, you know, diverse.”

“It’s supposed to be top-notch,” his wife, Andrea Stevens, added. “It’s supposed to be like the best education in the state.”

Wake County school leaders say they are working to recruit more teachers of color. The district’s recruitment team has not been able to visit as many college campuses due to budget cuts, according to Wake schools’ spokeswoman Lisa Luten. However, they “still have a strong focus on recruiting teachers of color at all universities and maintaining relationships with HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities),” she said.

Luten provided a copy of Wake County schools’ college recruitment schedule for the past six years. Last spring, the district’s recruiters visited several HBCUs, including North Carolina Central University, North Carolina A&T State University and Shaw University.

Still, Calvin and Andrea Stevens would like to see more progress made with teacher diversity. The couple grew up in Greenville, N.C. Like their children, they had very few teachers of color. And the similarities don’t stop there.

In school, Calvin Stevens says, some teachers questioned his intelligence and “wanted to prove that I wasn’t as smart as my test scores would say,” even though he was accepted to college in the 10th grade. He remembers a male teacher pulling him aside and saying, “You’re going to have to be twice as smart as all the white kids in your class, and I’m going to help you get there.”

“I thought it was the weirdest thing, but I understood what he was saying as I got older,” Calvin Stevens said. “It was kind of like, wow, why do I have to be better? Why do I have to be twice as good as all my classmates? But as I look back, I understand what he was meaning then.”

That experience, in part, led Calvin Stevens to choose to attend North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black college.

“I was accepted to almost every college I applied to. I chose A&T for two reasons – my dad went there and two, it was the first time in a long time that I felt home again or felt I had a relation to the teachers,” he said. “Because my entire life in high school, I didn’t have any teachers of color.”

A generation later, the Stevenses’ daughter Erika says she faced similar problems in high school. She remembers being one of the only black students in her honors classes, which were taught by mostly white women. Any teachers of color she saw typically taught lower-level classes.

As one of the few black students in higher-level courses, she felt pressure to prove to her teachers she was smart and belonged there. But she says some of her teachers and peers made hurtful comments to her.

“It was mostly white females, and it was always like, ‘Oh Erika, you’re smart for a black girl.’ I was like, ‘Well, I’ll be the smartest black girl,’” she said.

Sitting on her parents’ couch as she told the story, Erika seemed to laugh off the old remarks. But moments later, she grew quiet and began to cry. Her mother quickly moved closer, wrapping her arms around her daughter.

The memories were more painful than Erika had let on. Overcome with emotion, she nestled in her mother’s shoulder and sobbed.


Reporters: Kelly Hinchcliffe and Lena Tillett (additional reporting by WRAL.com intern Yesenia Jones) Data analysis and interactive: Tyler Dukes, Jason Eder and Kelly Hinchcliffe Photographers: Terry Cantrell, Greg Clark, Kelly Hinchcliffe, Alex McClarnon, David McCorkle, Will Sanders and Mark Stebnicki TV editor: Mark Stebnicki TV producer: Jenn Sorber Smith TV graphics: Steve Lloyd Web editor: Deborah Strange Web video producer: Valerie Aguirre Project editor: Dave Hendrickson

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