Ruthmae Sears, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of South Florida
Naomi Jessup, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Georgia State University
Lou Matthews, Ph.D., Director of Mathematics and Science, Urban Teachers
Increasing the presence and representation of people of Color is essential to giving more children and communities access to diverse, highly qualified, STEM educators. As Black authors, and scholars of Color, each of our careers is a reflection of that reality, with our combined 50 years as STEM educators. Throughout the United States, and in the Caribbean, we have taken on roles as mentors, guides, advisors, and leaders of STEM programs to specifically caretake how people of Color experience and navigate them. These roles have been both paid and voluntary roles, grounded in our membership in communities of Color and our commitment to diversity and equity in STEM. From this perspective, we draw upon both our expertise as well as the extant literature to collectively give voice to powerful ways that the teacher pipeline must be disrupted. We wish to not only advocate for change in the pipeline but also to impact how teachers of Color advocate for themselves.
Shifting Diversity, A Broken Pipeline
As the United States grows increasingly diverse, there are challenges around stagnant changes in diversity in the educator pipeline. The problem is complexly simple – education is overwhelmingly a place where communities of Color are inadequately represented. The U.S. Department of Education report on The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce (2016) indicates that 82% of the elementary and secondary educator workforce is white; which further implies that teacher preparation programs at institutions of higher education prepare predominantly white teacher candidates. Moreover, even though school populations are becoming reflective of the global majority, there exist widespread disparities in the proportion of students of Color (i.e., Black, Latinx [Hispanic], Indigenous, or mixed races) in relation to teachers of Color. For instance, although 16% of the student population was Black, only 7% of the public school teachers were Black. Similarly, although 24% of the student population identified as Hispanic, only 8% of the public school teachers were Hispanic.
This disproportion matters to us because at the heart of this troubling reality is a broken teacher pipeline – the pathway of access, opportunities, and outcomes that define how children of Color come to be STEM educators of Color. The lack of quality of current efforts to create sustainable STEM pipelines for Black educators has been noted. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service (2016), the quality of racial diversity decreases at every point in current teacher education pipelines from entry to exit. In this article, we raise our voices to call out this broken pathway by discussing key ways in which the pipeline might be adjusted at critical points to support the recruitment and retention of STEM educators of Color.
Recommendations for Rethinking the STEM Teacher PipelineThe process of recruiting STEM teachers of Color is too compartmentalized within the confines of higher education and nonprofit education agencies. With early experiences, we envision recruiting teachers of Color within communities and K-12 settings using strategies that continue to community colleges and universities. The ‘hidden figures’ movement (aptly named after the popular movie 2016 Hidden Figures featuring the contributions of African American women in the mission to land a man on the moon in the 1960s) illuminates the need to unearth powerful stories and images for children of Color , and all children, in STEM. In 2018, the comic-adapted movie, Black Panther, offered another imagery-filled portrayal of Black characters with leading STEM-directed roles. Yet, more specific to STEM education are the roles of educators and how young children come to pursue roles as STEM educators.
Exposing students to the benefits of becoming a teacher during their K-12 preparation can increase the likelihood that they will choose to pursue a tertiary degree in education (Perkins, 2016). Currently, we see this work as more generalized, but there is a need for a very specific focus on STEM teaching in recruitment efforts for people of Color. K-12 schools could create introductory STEM teaching experiences for students of Color in the form of teacher aides, assistants, tutors, club participation and leadership, and community outreach which features STEM education work with others. These opportunities within the K-12 setting have the potential of catalyzing robust STEM educator identities amongst children of Color and can empower students to be change agents within their communities. School districts may also engage in a Grow-Your-Own model, in which they provide mentorship and financial support to individuals who are committed to returning to the district as teachers (Gist, Bianco, & Lyn, 2019). While institutions of higher education may benefit from bridge programs that orient students to college life, why not equip them with essential skills, and provide appropriate advising to navigate their tertiary programs to obtain teaching certifications (Grace-Odeleye, & Santiago, 2019).From our professional experiences, we can speak to individual stories of how the representation of race in STEM education did not equate to valuing differences and diverse perspectives. Often STEM teachers of Color feel marginalized through their experiences and face higher levels of scrutiny to complete STEM programs. As we continue further down the STEM pipeline, there are occurrences when faculty of Color feel marginalized because of discounted perceptions of their spoken language and may perceive the need to engage in code-switching to communicate their thinking. Unfortunately, when people feel marginalized, their identity and agency are impacted. These experiences damage individuals’ identities and create survival practices perceived as “acting white” (Stinson, 2013), or the pressure of fulfilling roles of “tokenism” to be a minority within a white space (Martin & Larnell, 2013). Differences of perspectives, culture, language, gender, and abilities ought to be valued, and not viewed as a deficit or problematic. A conscious effort is needed to embrace the characteristics and traits each individual possesses. Thus, the educational community needs to critically examine the dehumanizing practices and conditions that continue to marginalize STEM teachers upon acceptance into their respected programs. This type of critical examination requires systemic reflection, assessment, and action.
Moreover, systemic efforts are needed to address disparities in STEM education by attending to the continual growth in teachers of Color identity and power dynamics within these educational spaces. Gutierrez (2012) suggested that identity and power are dimensions of equity that critically highlight and build upon the cultural identities of marginalized groups while attending to social and political aspects that are in play. Institutions of higher education should reflect on means to support teachers of Color STEM identities, and empowerment within STEM disciplines.Too often, institutions congratulate themselves for recruiting STEM teachers of Color but provide very limited support mechanisms afterward. Mechanisms can reduce the burden of having teachers of Color navigate educational spaces or advocate for themselves alone. Support mechanisms include (but are not limited to) mentorship, quality advisement, formative feedback, targeted programming, engagement in professional learning communities, funding to attend professional development training, and an ombudsman to advocate against unfair policies and practices (Carver-Thomas, 2018). These support mechanisms create safe spaces and promote communities to correct gaps in knowledge that may exist, provide opportunities to learn and share ideas about means to navigate the educational system and address challenges faced, and provide access to knowledgeable others. The mechanisms should promote asset-based perspectives and affirmation, rather than deficit ideologies. These mechanisms further illustrate a commitment for all members of the ecosystem to thrive. Like diverse flora and fauna in botanical gardens that have different needs to grow and blossom, the mechanisms offered should cater to the diverse needs of the population.
In closing, we acknowledge that several inequities disrupt the progress of teachers of Color along the STEM pipeline. School districts and institutions of higher education can play a vital part in disrupting these conditions through critical reflection and taking action. We provide three approaches as starting points to unclog the pipeline that include innovative approaches from K-12 settings that continue beyond experiences in higher education to induction years.