By Tim Gruver
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Growing up in Tacoma, surrounded by people from all walks of life, Marcella Tomlin can remember the difficulties of being a person of color in a classroom.
In the fourth grade, Tomlin said that she was often indistinguishable from her other Black peers to her teacher, many of whom were called on by their correct names.
“She would always just treat us in the same way,” Tomlin said. “It made me consider things a little bit more when all the students in her classroom that happened to be from different ethnic groups all just seemed like a jumble to her. And it taught me a lot about what it’s like to have someone who actually can affirm who you are.”
Tomlin can remember how — on Pioneer Day — her teacher brought a curling iron with her to class to style students’ hair.
“I remember her face, the way she looked at me and made me feel as if she didn’t want to do my hair, as if it were dirty, as if I was not enough,” Tomlin said. “And I remember how she very begrudgingly curled my bangs and then I turned around and she vigorously wiped (the curling iron) off as if there was something about me that was ruining the experience for other children.”
Today, Tomlin is the lead teacher at Soar Academy, a K-8 public charter school in Tacoma, where she has taught third grade math and science, as well as second grade ELA and Social Studies for over a year.
On April 28, Tomlin spoke at the Washington State Charter Schools Association’s panel, “Supporting Teachers of Color” at the Hilton Seattle Airport and Conference Center — to discuss the benefits and challenges of fostering diversity in the state’s educational system.
Joining Tomlin were Joanie Monroy, Associate Professor of Bilingual Education at Heritage University, and Raedell Cannie, Director of Teacher Leadership Development at Teach for America.
The panel was moderated by Emily Ezpeleta, an English Language Learning teacher from the Seattle Public Schools district, who can recall her own relationship with her heritage.
Ezpeleta grew up thinking it was normal to eat rice, beans, and flan for Christmas dinner, growing up in Peachtree City, Ga.
“For a long time, I felt like I wasn’t a teacher of color,” Ezpeleta said. “I was always seen as white.
My father never taught me Spanish because he didn’t want me to have an accent. I realized that there were plenty of students out there who looked like me and who are also like me, and I have to be that for them all day, every day.”
In the 2017 school year, 55.2 percent of Washington students were white, 22.8 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 7.5 percent were Asian, 4.4 percent were Black, 1.4 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native, and 1.1 percent were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, according to a report by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
According to the same report, 89 percent of Washington teachers were white, 3.9 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 2.8 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, 1.2 percent were Black, and 0.7 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native.
“If you want to be a student in a program, you want your faculty to look like you and to mirror your concerns,” Monroy said. “That’s what, I think, makes a difference for our students. At least I hope that we can build bridges in our schools by giving kids better experiences and better role models than all-white females.”
Monroy discussed how culturally proficient environments are more effective towards combating bias in the classroom than simply recruiting more teachers of color alone.
“The fact is we don’t bring cultural proficiency based on the color of our skin or the language we speak,” Monroy said. “We have to learn it. We have to learn it in the context of building those environments for our kids and learning how to build a respectful space for our students so they can learn how to work together and learn together.”
Cannie, who was also a fifth grade Teach for America corps teacher, said that reconciling the organization’s national standards with the unique needs of its teachers at the regional level can be a challenge.
“There are expectations at the national level that restrict some of the choices that we can make,” Cannie said. “There’s a lot of thought that’s gone into that, but it makes it challenging to then recruit teachers of color because they don’t always meet the criteria for the GPA for a whole bunch of reasons — those same reasons that we are in this room because we know the gaps in opportunity that students of color are on the lesser end of that gap.”
Schools need to see their efforts at diversity as a moral obligation to society, rather than just as a public service, Cannie said, when it comes to accommodating “high need” communities in education.
“When challenging white supremacy culture, the devil’s in the details, and I think language is an important place to push back on things and the use of high needs is troubling to me,” Cannie said. “A need for what? The many things that a system of oppression has denied them of for years? Our educational system and our society are in debt to these communities that we are serving.”
Retaining teachers is harder than ever before. The University of Washington College of Education Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy found that more entry level teachers move within and out of their districts compared to teachers statewide.
Nearly 60 percent of Washington teachers statewide are located in the same school after five years. Fourteen percent move to other schools within their district, while 7 percent relocate to another district within the state, with about 20 percent exiting the workforce. Many of those leaving are of retirement age. Retention and mobility rates have barely changed in the past 15 years.
For Teach for America, teachers of color need to be prepared to take on a lifelong commitment to helping lead their school districts, Cannie said.
“There are absolutely some challenges with that and it’s not great for a teacher to just come in for two years, but when you think about the story and purpose of Teach for America beyond that, I’m a little bit more okay with it,” Cannie said. “We think that it’s absolutely essential that if you’re pushing for systemic change, that you need to know firsthand what is happening in the classrooms that you’re fighting for. We need people who are on school boards, who are pushing for policy.”
For Tomlin, there may always be differences between teachers and students in the classroom, but building the environment in which both can listen and understand one another is key.
“I had lots of different teachers in school who didn’t share an ethnicity with me, but one of the things I remember about them were that they were really authentic and they were trying to really develop the whole student,” Tomlin said. “For me, more importantly, if teachers and educators are interested in building the child and affirming who they are, that’s more important than simply being from the same ethnic group.”
Tim can be reached at email@example.com.