By Sabrina Bodon, Point Park News Service
Of the 31 teachers in the elementary school where she teaches, Pharlan Ives is the only teacher of color. She tries not to think about it.
LaRita Stewart, a fourth grade teacher at Highland Elementary in Ambridge, Pa., understands what that’s like; she’s the only African-American teacher her whole school district.
“Nobody needed to point it out. When you’re the only person of color at a faculty assembly, it’s very obvious,” Stewart said.
Across Pennsylvania, there are about 115,854 teachers. A report from the nonprofit Research for Action (RFA) found more than half of public schools in the state lacked a teacher of color. This leaves the 33.1 percent of students of color in the state unrepresented by teachers in the classroom. To combat this, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is implementing the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which is aimed to recruit more teachers of color.
Matt Edgell of Pennsylvania State Education Association of Western PA said the state’s diversity is worse than in other states. Nationally, about 18 percent of teachers are of color, he said, whereas in Pennsylvania, it’s about 5.6 percent.
“Students lack a representative sample of teachers of diverse backgrounds,” Edgell said.
Edgell pointed to studies that have shown children benefit from having teachers who look like them. Research from American University has shown young students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged groups, were found to score higher on tests when they were paired with teachers of the same race.
RFA even found teachers of color benefit white students. According to its report “Patching the Leaky Pipeline: Recruiting and Retaining Teachers of Color in Pennsylvania” from April, teachers of color “mitigate implicit bias in all students” and “improve school climate.”
For minority students, teachers of color have been proven to contribute to higher expectation for these students and reduce dropout rates.
In the Classroom
Ives teaches a variety of disciplines to fourth graders, including science, math and language arts. At the end of each school day, she and her teaching aid prepare materials for the next day, write lesson plans on the whiteboard and clean up the room a little.
In one corner, there’s a reading nook with books of various reading levels and in the back, there’s a science experiment to see how fast a plant grows with certain light.
Ives started out as a preschool teacher back in Florida. A few years ago, she moved to Pittsburgh with her husband and began to pursue her master’s in early-childhood education at Duquesne University.
She said there was representation among other soon-to-be teachers, but in her early-education courses, there were points when she’d be the only person of color in the room.
“The more general elective classes were more representative of the university, but in my education classes, it skewed very female, and very white,” she said.
Where she’s working now in Sewickley, Pa., at Edgeworth Elementary, about 15 miles outside of Pittsburgh, there are only three other teachers of color in the district. She is the only one in her building.
Growing up in Florida, Ives thinks back to the amounts of diversity in the state.
“I remember in kindergarten my teacher was black, and I remember feeling more connected to her,” Ives said.
In her school and classroom, Ives wants to be the figure encouraging students of color that they too can be leaders. Those feelings drive her today.
“There’s a community of children who need to see strong leaders,” Ives said. “I want to be that leader for those kids who maybe don’t have that at home or may not have the chance to see people of color in leadership roles.”
Teaching is female dominated, but men are still in leadership roles as principals and administrators, Ives said.
“My fellow female administrators push me to step up more and make more of a difference,” Ives said. This involves going to conferences or applying for different leadership workshops.
Black, female teachers, like Ives and Stewart, make up three percent of Allegheny County’s teachers, according to data from RFA.
Stewart, 53, got her start in teaching in the early 2000s following the death of her husband. She wanted a profession with the flexibility to allow her time to spend with her own children. She works in the same school district she went to as a child. At that time, there weren’t many teachers of color, but she connected with her black authority figures.
“I only had two African-American teachers growing up, and when I think of them, I have a sense of pride,” Stewart said. “When I was a student, it spoke volumes.”
Now, as a teacher, she said her teaching philosophy isn’t based on the color of her student’s skin.
Stewart focuses on being what she refers to as an “effective mentor,” somebody who understands the dynamics of her students by being flexible to their learning. There’s no way for her to know her impact on a student’s life, but treating each student with care and attention is her goal.“
I don’t really care what color the student is,” Stewart said. “We learn from what we love and what we feel secure with.”
She hasn’t noticed any connections between students of color or herself, and she doesn’t mind.
“We’re [as teachers] here to educate. How a student connects with you is about the student,” Stewart said.
A Thankless Profession
An impending teacher shortage is expected to hit the United States in the next five-to-ten years, and the question of who is entering the education profession arises. It’s not just that non-white educators aren’t entering the field, it’s that those seeking to enter education at all levels is down.
Ron Cowell is the president of the the Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC), an independent organization which seeks to create effective state-level policies in education.
He explained those entering into programs have plummeted in recent years. Nationally, enrollments have dropped by 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group focusing on education policy.
“We’re in a terrible situation in Pennsylvania,” Cowell said. “We don’t have folks entering the profession.”
From 2013 to 2015, students graduating from teacher-training programs dropped by 63 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The report showed in 2015, only 6,125 students graduated from programs.
One rationale Cowell provided for the lack of representation was the United States’ poor record in graduating African-American men. “If you don’t graduate, then you can’t educate,” he said.
The larger question of why there’s a decline in young people entering the profession, Cowell said it’s because teaching isn’t seen as a well-respected profession.
“Teaching is a thankless profession,” Cowell said.
Barbara Goodman, communications director of American Federation of Teachers in Pennsylvania, agrees and thinks teaching is a profession that keeps requesting more and more.
“Teaching is not an economically viable profession,” Goodman said. She pointed to “hideously expensive” tuition rate debts. Additionally, the Pennsylvania Department of Education requires a Level II certificate which requires additional credits and programs and at least three years of teaching. “You have to do this on your own time and with your own money,” Goodman said.
At the state and federal levels, it should be more of a priority for schools to be equally funded, Goodman said. “People value teachers, but public policy is hard on teachers,” Goodman said.
On top of this, teaching has a high failure rate. Within five years of entering the profession, about half of teachers leave, she said. This could be due to low wages and workload. Plus, there’s the worry of shortages of funding and schools considering furloughs to cut costs.
Cowell mentioned hiring freezes as a way schools have been trying to combat low budgets. And the downside to that is keeping diverse candidates out.
But many schools in the state have employed minority recruiters. When looking for a position after graduating with her master’s in education, Ives said she went on several interviews at schools looking to diversify their teaching coalition.
While waiting for her interview appointments, Ives took note of the fellow teachers. Though she wasn’t hired at there, she thinks about the experience sometimes.
“There were so many diverse candidates when I was interviewing,” Ives said. “I wonder where they all end up.”