A few weeks ago, a former college professor of mine invited me to join him and his students to watch a movie at the theater. The central theme of the movie was race and focused specifically on the experiences of African-Americans living through the civil rights era. After the movie, we proceeded to a nearby restaurant to discuss our thoughts and analysis of the movie. Through our conversation, we landed on the topic of education and realized that to most the group, our professor had been the only Latina/o teacher and professor we had in the entirety of our educational career. This realization did not surprise me. In college, I wrote an op-ed in the campus paper about the lack of Latina/o representation among faculty and staff. What I did wonder however, was if one of the reasons I had felt drawn to stay-in-touch with my former professor was because he reminded me of myself.
In the U.S., Latina/o teachers represent an underwhelming 7% of teachers, and according to the Nation Center for Education Statistics, “a nationally representative survey of teachers and principals, showed that 82 percent of public school teachers identified as white”. For this reason, it might also not surprise you if you have never had a Latina/o teacher or professor. Despite the lack of Latina/o representation in teachers, it is very likely that you have had a Latina/o peer. According to Patricia Gándara of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at University of California–Los Angeles, “almost one in five students across the country is Latina/o; by 2050 one in three will be”. In Georgia, the Latina/o student population in public k-12 schools has seen a sharp increase in the past decade. In 1996 the Georgia Department of Education reported that there were 34,500 Latina/o students enrolled state-wide. In 2016 there were 267,500 Latina/o students enrolled state-wide. In 2015, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that from 2004 to 2013 there was an 86% 63% 63% and 80% change in the Latina/o student population within the DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett and Cobb County school districts, respectively.
The divide between Latina/o educators and students is even more apparent in higher education. For example, as I mentioned in the outset, at Kennesaw State University, my alma mater, the KSU student population has increased over 300% since 2007, when the university received special funding by the Goizueta foundation to recruit Latina/o students. However, since that same year Latina/o faculty has only represented 3% of the total teaching faculty. Throughout the country, a similar trend continues. Latina/o’s continue to graduate from college every year in higher numbers, but Latina/o representation among university faculty is stagnant.
A study by the White House initiative on Hispanic education during the Obama Administration, showed that students of all races and ethnicity performed better in class when the school’s teacher population matched that of the student body. In the study, the authors assert that “students of color accrue academic benefits when taught by a same-race teacher or when exposed to a teaching force…that is racially/ethnically representative of the student population”. By focusing on the need for more Latina/o teachers I do not mean to imply that the burden of successfully educating Latina/o students lies solely on Latina/o teachers. The responsibility is shared by all of us who desire to see every child receive the highest quality education.
We can all look back and identify one or more teachers and/or professors who have impacted us profoundly. Perhaps it was an elementary school teacher who inspired your love for writing, or maybe your college professor who encouraged you to pursue a certain career path. As for myself, the teachers and professors who have impacted me the most are those ones who were able to understand my own experiences, form a strong bond with me and empower me to succeed. As I reflect on the significant role my former professor had on my education, I can identify specific moments where his guidance and simple motivation propelled me to become more active on campus. This same empowerment I felt through my professor led me to many new opportunities. I believe that educators have the most important role in our society, and if we desire to continue to push for Latina/o opportunities for upward mobility, it begins with who leads the classroom.