Efforts to grow teacher diversity must accelerate

Oregon teachers and Meyer staff at the 2018 Teachers of Color Gathering at the Thomas Aschenbrener Center for Philanthropy in Portland.

I recently had the opportunity to testify on the importance of a diverse teacher workforce and share Meyer’s work to support educators of color. Here's the extended version of that testimony with deep appreciation to all the educators who have helped inform it. —Bekah

For the record, my name is Bekah Sabzalian. I am the equitable education program officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, a licensed Oregon teacher and a member of the Multnomah Clackamas Region Educator Network. I am Apache and Mexican American with family ties to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. I have worked in education for the last 13 years: in a nonprofit, in the largest district in the state and now in philanthropy.

When I taught sixth grade, my school’s reading specialist recommended a book for my students called Homeless Bird. She told me it was an award winning realistic fiction novel about a 13-year-old East Indian girl whose parents marry her off to a much older man. I asked if the book was written by an Indian or Indian American author, considering the sensitivity of the subject matter and thinking specifically of the impact on the Indian American students in my class.

As it turns out, the book was written by a white woman from the Midwest with no ties to India. The story was totally imagined—pure fiction. It contained a number of false and outdated representations of Indian life and culture.

If I hadn’t already experienced the impact of damaging stories and misrepresentation about Native and Latinx people, I may not have had the sensitivity—or the courage, quite frankly— to question this district-promoted book.

What teachers present to students is powerful. When I declined to teach that book, my colleagues were angry with me at first. But we learned and made progress together benefiting all students.

The advantages of a diverse teaching workforce are well supported by research. Teachers of color embody possibilities for all students. White students benefit from exposure to people of color in leadership positions and exposure to different cultural backgrounds, while students of color benefit from seeing people who look like them in positive, impactful careers. With a diverse teaching workforce, all students are better prepared for their futures.

Teachers of color are often called upon to lead professional development on race and equity in schools, to assist with language translation, and as my personal story just illustrated, often arrive in classrooms with cultural assets that they actively grow and share throughout their careers.

Since 2017 Meyer Memorial Trust has invested over $1.5 million in teacher pathway and grow your own programs around the state. From Hood River to Southern Oregon and Salem to the Coast, these programs are developing strategies to recruit diverse teachers. But recruitment is not enough. To truly make these investments impactful, we must retain the diverse teachers these efforts support. To that end, Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio has invested over $4.5 million in district and regional efforts designed to increase cultural inclusion, address bias in schools and create conditions where all teachers and students can excel.

These investments were informed by educators of color. For the last three years, Meyer has convened educators of color to learn what challenges and motivates them. Allowing participants to collectively problem-solve and network. A key theme emerges every year: isolation. Educators of color, especially those in districts with extremely low percentages of diverse teachers feel very alone. This causes many to think of leaving the profession. Growing the number of diverse teachers is essential to retaining those already working in schools across the state. Growth can only occur through a two-prong approach: investment in both recruitment and retention efforts. As a member of the Multnomah Clackamas Region Educator Network, I know we are beginning to make progress.

There is unprecedented coordination between districts, philanthropy, universities, state agencies and community organizations to comprehensively address the lack of diverse teachers in Oregon. As we face an uncertain economic future, I ask that you do all in your power to protect these investments and advance the growth and retention of this important resource for our students and for the future of Oregon’s communities.