By: Hajra Syed
Earlier this year, when I was starting to be really in the thick of my teacher education program, I suddenly remembered a thought I had when I was in elementary school. I remember thinking that it would be SO weird if a hijabi was to teach in public schools. The other teachers wouldn’t get it and the students would probably just ask a bunch of questions. I couldn’t fathom a hijabi teacher in public schools without it being uncomfortable. This memory was particularly striking to me because all these years later, I am working towards exactly what the 9-year-old version of me thought was so weird. The reason I bring this up is to illustrate the importance of representation within teachers (although there is a lot of Islamophobia and racism to unpack, but that’s a whole other blog post). It is safe to say that I, a young Muslim girl, did not have any hijabi teachers in elementary school (let alone the rest of my schooling) and consequently, had difficulty imagining someone like me successfully navigating this type of position.
This was about 15 years ago, yet the profession continues to be dominated by white women. And what have teacher education programs continued to do about this situation? Not much besides lament the fact that students opt to undergo alternative certification programs, like Teach for America, to get into the classroom. A good portion of their corps are people of color, yet this is not the same for students in traditional teacher education programs. What gives? It’s a lot cheaper to go through an alternative program than it is to complete a traditional teacher education program. This financial difference is a huge barrier to people of color, seeing how the majority of them make up the lower socioeconomic classes. Although this barrier is no secret, teacher education programs still do not do enough to provide the proper resources to help fund people of color through their program. That teacher education programs might be too much of a financial burden might not even occur to them, showing what sort of bastion of privilege these teacher education programs really are. They only allow people with a large amount of financial resources without even giving a thought to the people without those luxuries.
Not only do teacher education programs need to be better at offering people of color resources so that these programs can be a viable options for these students, but they also need to be actively recruiting people of color. Without teachers of color, it is students who suffer. This school year was the first time in the United States that there were more students of color in public schools than white students. When this demographic is not represented in the teachers, there is a problem. Students of color are more likely to succeed academically when they have a teacher of color. Teachers of color are better able to understand the racism their students face in a way that white educators are not. In this way, students are able to see themselves in their teachers and view teachers of color as role models. This shows just how crucial it is that teacher education programs should be actively working to provide these students (and white students as well!) with teachers of color.
I attend Rutgers University, an institution with one of the most diverse student populations. The administration loves to boast about this diversity to others, but I can guarantee you that this diversity is by no means reflected by the students in the teacher education programs offered here. I may have decided to become a teacher even without a hijabi teacher in my life, but other students of color do not. Because of the way the education system is set up, many students of color do not even reach higher education. Teachers of color can help combat the effects of this system and at least for the sake of students of color, teacher education programs need to go out of their way to recruit people of color and ensure that they are providing the proper support and resources for them to successfully complete the program.
Hajra Syed is a senior at Rutgers University and enrolled in an elementary education program with a specialization in middle school social studies. You can find her on Twitter at @etegosum.
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