The “Cultural Match” Theory is More than Just Color

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In the September 16, 2015 article titled, “Minority Teachers Underrepresented in U.S. Schools,” Zeninjor Enwemeka summarizes, The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education, a report issued by the Albert Shanker Institute that calls for an “intervention” to fix the growing chasm between the increasing number of minority students and the decreasing number of minority teachers in US schools.  In Boston, for example, Enwemeka reports that 87% of the students are minority compared to only 38% of their teachers.  More specifically, the study found that from 1987-2012 the number of Black teachers in Boston decreased while the proportion of White and Hispanic teachers remained stable.  While efforts have focused primarily on recruitment in the past, retention seems to be even more important to understand.

When Enwemeka argues that minority teachers have a positive impact on minority students’ academic performance and can serve as role models to children of color she is supporting the “cultural match” theory written about by researchers such as Achinstein & Aguirre (2008) that suggests that if a teacher shares the same cultural background as her students she is likely to be more effective. To break this down more specifically, in what I refer to as demystifying American code (used by color-blind Whites who think it’s impolite to say Black), a Black or African American teacher who teachers Black or African American students will be more successful than a White teacher of Black students.

Enwemeka’s argument seems to hold true in that teachers of color will understand first-hand what it’s like to have a part of their identity, namely their race, identified for them without their permission. That is, they can help students of color recover from or confront racism in their daily school lives, because they understand it more than a White person ever could.  Navigating school with this kind of support and protection would be incredibly useful, I believe and important for students of color.

Lacking in the “cultural match” theory, however and addressed by Achinstein & Aguirre (2008) in “Cultural Match or Culturally Suspect: How New Teachers of Color Negotiate Sociocultural Challenges in the Classroom,” are the multi-layered and complex intersections of other forms of our identities as teachers such as gender, socio-economic class, nationality, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, generation, region, and religious affiliation, if any. A middle- to upper-class African American teacher may struggle to understand the lives of her low-income, urban students in the same way that a middle class White teacher might.  In Achinstein and Aguirre’s study, for example, even teachers of color were viewed by their students as “culturally suspect” when other aspects of their identity did not match exactly with those of their students.

As college administrators of teacher preparation programs, we do need to answer Enwemeka’s urgent call to not only attract but retain more teachers of color. As institutions of higher education, we have a responsibility to respond to the needs of children and families in the Boston area and in the nation. One way is to continue to study Black and African American teachers’ experiences in the classroom. Another is to enact some of the strategies outlined in the report such as to create pipelines for paraprofessionals of color to become teachers and to try to recruit African American students from traditional Black Colleges and Universities.

A third way is to study the history of Black teachers in America and the legacy of teaching that has been passed down through generations of African American families where teaching is viewed as professional, political, spiritual, and community-focused. Dixson and Dingus (2008) share these stories in an article titled, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Black Women Teachers and Professional Socialization.” Their definition of the term, “othermothering” refers to a desire to serve children as a collective rather than an individual. Perhaps this research and the research of others including Ladson-Billings, Delpit, and Irvine could help us understand better, how to retain teachers of color.

As teacher preparation program administrators we must continue to educate our pre-service teachers in culturally responsive ways that require our teachers to understand their own privilege, power, and purpose in the urban schools in which they work. We have to raise the standards of all teachers in the nation so that we can supply a workforce that not only represents the students but also teaches them how to participate in our democracy that will help advance society for generations to come.

Linda_Banks-SantilliLinda Banks-Santilli is Interim Dean of Graduate and Professional Programs and an associate professor of education in the elementary department. Before joining the faculty at Wheelock, she taught children and adolescents at McLean Hospital in the department of psycho-education. She then became a public school teacher and taught at the elementary and middle school levels in the Boston Public Schools for over a decade.