Connecticut teachers are sharing their stories with legislators in the hopes of diversifying teaching in Connecticut, where more than 40% of the student population are children of color, while educators of color comprise only about eight person of the teaching force.
Teachers testified in favor of Senate Bill 390, An Act Concerning Minority Teacher Recruitment and Retention, which would assist more minority teachers in obtaining teacher certification; develop a plan promote careers in the teaching profession to students in high school; and to establish a task force to study educator retention and sustainability.
A broad group of supporters testified, including
- 2020 Connecticut Teacher of the Year finalist Marquis Johnson, a science teacher at Sage Park Middle School in Windsor, who shared his own experience as a student and explained the importance of an inclusive curriculum
- 2019 Connecticut Teacher of the Year and Bridgeport music teacher Sheena Graham, who described how a teacher of color who had set high expectations influenced her profoundly and is the reason she teaches today
- Westport K-5 literacy coach teacher Faith Sweeney—often the only minority in her school and sometimes her entire district—who explained why a diversity of perspectives is essential for all students.
Speaking their truth
Speaking before the legislature’s Education Committee, Sweeney—a 24-year veteran who has also taught in Greenwich and Stamford—said, “By high school, students of color often feel invisible. As a teacher of color, I recognize that my presence, voice, and actions give students as well as teachers the opportunity to base their judgments on personal experiences and connections—not generalizations and misconceptions that are a product of unconscious bias. Through those personal experiences, black, brown, tan, and white students and teachers become allies for each other.”
Research shows that all students benefit from having teachers of color—and students of color, in particular, are more academically engaged, perform better, and often feel more connected to the adults in their classroom when they taught by educators of color.
“We make it evident through our actions that we value diversity, understanding that it is necessary for a more complete educational experience,” said Johnson. “Passing SB 390 will demonstrate Connecticut’s willingness to ensure our schools are places where everyone is welcome. I am proud of the work I have done for the past eight years as an educator. The challenges I face, especially as a teacher of color, often make the job feel impossible but I have stayed in the fight for my students. Through my work, I have learned that all students need positive role models from diverse backgrounds. Though I’ve found some ways to endure the challenges of this profession, I know it’s very possible to create an educational environment that’s far more welcoming for minority students and professionals.”
Johnson is featured prominently in a CEA television ad highlighting teachers as role models for their students. The ad is part of CEA’s ongoing efforts to enhance diversity in teaching—most recently through a major public awareness campaign called Teaching Is Calling You. The campaign seeks to encourage young people to consider the positive difference they could make as future educators. It features real CEA members, Connecticut public school students, and parents in TV, radio, print, and social media ads as well as video vignettes that illustrate the positive influence teachers of color have on their students and school communities. Watch the ads at cea.org/teachingiscalling.
The other R: retention
CEA is looking at ways of not only recruiting but also retaining teachers of color, many of whom leave their districts or their teaching careers entirely for economic, personal, and professional reasons.
Responding to questions from Representative Susan Johnson, who serves on the Education Committee, about what drives teachers of color away, Graham gave examples from her own district.
“Bridgeport has been underfunded for so long, it’s catching up with us. We’re supposed to have a limit of 29 students in a classroom, but we don’t always have the space to adequately accommodate and teach that many. We recently lost three African-American male teachers and a Hispanic male teacher who went to other districts because of the conditions in their schools and the fact that Bridgeport teachers are constantly investing a portion of their own earnings into their classrooms every year.” By leaving for other districts, Graham said, those teachers saw their salaries increase by a minimum of $12,000 and as much as $25,000.
Listen and learn
“I know the importance of having teachers who look like you teach you,” said Representative Billie Miller, who wondered about some of the other hindrances teachers face, what the state can do to attract and retain minority teachers, and whether student loan debt assistance would help.
Testifying about CREC’s pilot teacher residency program to recruit and retain minority teachers, CREC teacher Ushawnda Mitchell explained that paying salaries to student teachers—one of the features of CREC’s program—allows aspiring educators to fulfill their requirements without incurring additional student debt.
Of the estimated 2,500 students enrolled in teacher preparation programs at colleges throughout Connecticut, CEA Communications Director Nancy Andrews told legislators only four percent are black, and only eight percent are Hispanic. The vast majority—82 percent—are white.
Andrews described CEA’s Teaching Is Calling You campaign and urged committee members to watch the ads. (Those who already had recognized teacher Marquis Johnson, who appeared before them in person to testify, after a full day in his classroom.)
“Many other teachers would have liked to attend this hearing to share their experiences with you and explain the importance of this bill, but they are still in their classrooms teaching. They all have important stories to hear,” Andrews said.
Teaching Is Calling You materials, links, and resources can be found at cea.org/teachingiscalling.