Why Representation Matters: Thank You Mrs. Brown

Mrs. Brown was my fourth-grade teacher. Before now, I don’t think that I’ve ever thanked her, partially because I was in fourth-grade and partially because it’s taken years for me to realize the tremendous impact she had on my life.

Mrs. Brown was my first black teacher, someone who looked like me. I remember walking into her classroom seeing this black woman stand before me with locs. She stood out amongst the other teachers, but in a good way. Mrs. Brown was confident, strong-willed and unapologetically herself. She didn’t boost my ego but made feel me supported at the same time.

Most importantly like my Ma would always say “she didn’t play.”

Now I know some people might take that negatively, but it was the exact opposite. Mrs. Brown held me and my classmates to high standards because she knew that we could succeed. And unbeknownst to my fourth-grade brain, she knew why it was so important to uplift me in a system that hasn’t been exactly welcoming to our culture.

We all know the facts. There has been a large achievement gap between black and white students for decades.  On average, black students not only score lower on standardized assessments but also graduate at lower rates when compared to their white peers. But why is that? Besides systemic racism that exists and segregated schools, one reason could be a lack of representation of black teachers in the classroom.

Black teachers are overwhelmingly underrepresented in classrooms across the country. In fact, 80% of today’s teacher workforce is white women. And though I believe that any child can perform well when they have supportive and encouraging educators who understand the societal barriers that students of color face, black students perform better when they have teachers who look like them.

A number of studies have found that white teachers hold black students to lower expectations in comparison to their white peers. To say this is problematic, is an understatement. As a former teacher, I can tell you that students can spot someone who doesn’t believe in them a mile away. So, when a student senses his or her teacher doesn’t believe in them, why wouldn’t they under-perform?

Research also shows that when black students have at least one black teacher in their K-12 experience, they perform better academically than those who don’t.

More generally, students of color benefit from seeing someone who looks like them in a position of authority. They have someone to look up to, someone to aspire to be like. I know when I became a teacher, teaching mostly brown and black students, I aspired to hold my students to the same high standards that Mrs. Brown held me to.

It is theorized that black teachers create a welcoming environment for and a have a better understanding of black students; they are often more culturally sensitive and less likely to buy into negative stereotypes about their students. According to the Learning Policy Institute, black teachers often perceive and interpret discipline issues differently than white teachers, which are less likely to result in harsh discipline policies such as suspensions or expulsions, which means they spend more time in the classroom getting quality instruction.

More importantly studies also show that all students benefit from having exposure to teachers of color in their K-12 experience and in fact students of all races prefer them.

But of course, I didn’t have this wealth of knowledge as a fourth-grader. I just distinctly remember how Mrs. Brown made me feel: confident, supported and like I could take on the world with my brain and little hands.  So, for that Mrs. Brown, I thank you. Thank you for being the role model that I needed and for pushing me to reach my full potential.

Erika Ross is the Communications Specialist for the Collaborative of Student Success