A Natural Connection

More than 115,000 Latino and Black students attend schools with no teachers of the same race or ethnicity and an additional 80,000 Latino and Black students attend schools with just one teacher of the same race or ethnicity. Read stories about why this matters to students.

We call her mom

Aneth, New York City

“I feel like I can be as great as her because she is this powerful Hispanic woman who I aspire to be.”

Aneth felt isolated and alone when she moved to New York City from Ecuador as a second grader.

There was no one at her school she felt she could connect with. No one who she felt understood her unique situation as an immigrant. Not to mention the language barriers she encountered with nearly all of her teachers.

It was not until nearly a decade later, when Aneth was a junior in high school, that she took her first class with a Latina teacher who inspired and supported her – both inside and outside of the classroom.

It changed her life forever.

“She sets an example for us,” said Aneth, 18, who is now in college.

“She’s a Hispanic woman in a predominantly white field. She shared with us that even some times she gets nervous, or intimidated, but she pushes through. That’s encouraging because I’ve been in places where I feel nervous or I feel uncomfortable. I feel like I can be as great as her because she is this powerful Hispanic woman who I aspire to be.”

That connection Aneth developed with her teacher is one all too many children in New York never experience.

But it’s one Aneth and some of her classmates say got them to think differently about education, and put them on the path to a successful future.

In Aneth’s case, the teacher was a source of encouragement and support. She was someone Aneth could easily identify with, and who helped her understand her Latino culture. That teacher also encouraged students, including Aneth, to participate in extracurricular activities and to take on leadership roles in those organizations.

“We call her our mom,” Aneth said. “She was kind of like the foundation for all of us. She offered a safe space for us.”

Role models

Wesley, Amityville

“I know that if I say something about the experience I have as a Black male he will understand me.”

Wesley was a senior in high school before he finally took a class with a Black male teacher who came from a similar background as him.

“I would imagine there are a lot of students who will graduate without ever having a Black male teacher,” said Wesley, 16, a senior in Amityville.

Wesley is right, and exposure to Latino teachers is even more limited. Across New York, a third of schools do not have any Latino or Black teachers, meaning that close to 42,000 Black students and over 74,000 Latino students are enrolled in a school with no teachers of the same race or ethnicity.

And for white students — who also benefit from a more diverse teaching force — the chance of exposure is even less, with 560,115 white students — nearly half — attending schools with no Latino or Black teachers.

That’s something Wesley feels needs to be changed.

Wesley met the teacher prior to having him for class and the two formed an immediate connection because of their common background as Haitian Americans.

“I never felt that experience, that connection with a teacher until that moment,” Wesley said.

It was a different feeling than with other teachers, who Wesley said don’t always relate well to students of color. He felt comfortable with his Haitian teacher. They shared common interests, including music by J. Cole, a rapper popular with students.

That connection ultimately helped Wesley feel more engaged in the teacher’s classroom, and at ease expressing himself. He feels motivated — and challenged — to put in extra effort.

During a seemingly mundane classroom activity, for example, the teacher asked students to decorate a folder with images that reflected their passions and represented their identity. Typically, Wesley said, he would be inclined to leave the cover blank. But this time he covered it with images, quotes, and other things that inspire him, including a Haitian flag.

“I really expressed myself through that project,” he said. “I started drawing. It went from being blank and me not wanting to do it to me putting all of my effort in it. I filled it.”

Wesley believes his experience demonstrates why it’s so important for schools to work toward more diversity in the profession. Black teachers, he believes, are better equipped to help Black students with their problems because they see them through their own experience. And, he added, they often tend to be more empathetic, seeking to understand students, rather than disciplining them.

Because of his own experience, Wesley is pushing his own local school board to do a better job recruiting and retaining teachers of color.

“You have that teacher you can relate to,” he said. “One of these people who look like me. A young Black male like me. I know that if I say something about the experience I have as a Black male he will understand me.”

An outlet

Aaron, Buffalo

“She understood me.”

Aaron graduated from the Buffalo Public Schools last year without ever having a teacher of color.

The only exposure he had to a Black school staffer was a librarian, who he felt a strong connection with.

“It was easier to talk to her because she was Black,” said Aaron, now 18. “She understood me. It was an outlet I had at school. If I was having a bad day, I would go talk to her.”

He felt more at ease going to her with his problems than other white teachers.

For Aaron and some of his peers in Buffalo, having that kind of relationship can determine whether they feel engaged and understood in the classroom.

Although the Buffalo district has made culturally responsive training for teachers a priority, Aaron says it will be difficult to replicate the bond he felt with his school librarian, who was the same race as him.

And, he noted, differences in background and viewpoints can become particularly pronounced in certain subjects, such as history.

He recalled that in classroom discussions about slavery he often felt white teachers “tread lightly” around the topic, rather than helping students explore their feelings.

“You can’t train a White person to teach what they haven’t experienced,” he said. “In some subjects, it can be awkward.”

Pushed me to succeed

Frantzy, New York City

“They were particularly hard on me because they wanted me to succeed.”

Frantzy knows that as a young Black man he will often be viewed and judged differently because of his skin color.

And during his time in high school, he said, the few Black male teachers at his school helped prepare him for that.

Frantzy, 19, recalls a time that he was in the hallway with a friend when his friend used a swear word. One of the Black male teachers at the school overheard, and pulled Frantzy aside asking him to speak to his friend about the repercussions of using such language. Frantzy said he realized the teacher took the time to give him that advice because he knew young Black men like his friend would be judged harshly for it.

“I would say that teachers of color are harder on me,” Frantzy said. “As teachers of color they know a lot of students of color tend to slip through the cracks.”

“They were particularly hard on me because they wanted me to succeed,” he added.

During high school, Frantzy developed special bonds with his Black male teachers, who he says could relate to him because they shared a similar life experience and challenges.

“Because they were teachers of color, there were certain things that they experienced in their life that we also experienced,” he said. “That fostered a lot of conversations outside of the classroom, and brought us closer.”

Never an outsider

Denise, Buffalo

“You have people who you can kind of relate to that look like you.”

Denise considers herself one of the lucky ones. Most years she attended high school in Buffalo, about half of her classes were taught by educators of color.

The diversity at the school leant to a school culture where all students felt welcomed and accepted.

“I was comfortable there,” said Denise, now 21. “I never felt like an outsider.”

“It’s important to be in an atmosphere that’s full of diversity,” she added. “You have people who you can kind of relate to that look like you.”

Denise forged a special bond with one teacher in particular, a Black woman who she found outgoing and easy to talk to.

The teacher was patient and always willing the lend a hand, even when Denise was navigating some challenging times outside of the classroom.

Denise’s teacher encouraged her to get involved in a leadership program through her Black sorority. And when she graduated from high school, the teacher helped Denise launch her own graphic design business.

“She goes above and beyond for her students,” Denise said.