“We need to see ourselves reflected in the world in a positive light, and working to retain educators of color is one small step towards making this need an achievable reality– especially in Delaware.”

  Take a minute to think about some of your favorite teachers, going all the way back to Pre-K and working your way up to senior year of high school. Think about those teachers who, for whatever reason, saw more than just another rowdy kid or angsty teenager when they looked at you. A teacher who cultivated a talent you never really imagined you had, or could grow to love. And now ask yourself: Did this teacher look like you?

That last question may seem trivial to some. But the unfortunate reality is that many students of color aren’t even given the opportunity to consider the question’s trivial nature because they haven’t had enough (or any) teachers that look like them. I believe many would argue that within the imagination of students everywhere lies an innate need to learn from individuals who look like them, even if to signify that there are people like them who are smart enough to educate others— and that they can join those ranks one day if they so desire. Yet, this opportunity rarely exists.

 This isn’t a uniquely “Delaware” phenomena— nationwide, schools from Elementary to High School struggle with retaining teachers and faculty of color, and frankly, it shows. But if we think about the impact that education has on young minds, most would say that this retention is crucial. There’s a different kind of experience when you’re taught by someone who looks like you. This teacher knows you well, and pull you to the side to talk to you about what’s going on before assuming you need to be disciplined to the highest extent that a school will allow. This teacher knows that your cadence and manner of speaking is really just a reflection of the diverse dialects you instinctively know, and not just inarticulate “slang”. In fact, this teacher speaks it right back to you, and helps you to cultivate a level of respect for educators that you would have never offered other teachers. With this teacher, you feel connected to yourself and your learning experience. When thinking about the teachers that have impacted me most as a Delawarean, I can without hesitation point out that most of them looked like me.

 There was this one science (remember when school subjects were simple things, like science?) teacher who taught my sixth grade class at Fred Fifer III Middle School. I’ll keep her name anonymous, although I have nothing but good things to say. Mrs. Smith was the first example I saw of a woman in STEM who was insanely passionate about STEM. She was the eagerest beaver there was, and was unapologetic about showing her eagerness to her students. And it was contagious. Even the coldest, most uninterested students of color couldn’t help but get excited and giggle when she was teaching. More important than her enthusiasm, Mrs. Smith encouraged the skills she saw in her students. For me, it was scientific writing. I still remember the paper I wrote in her class that she was so excited about, and I still think about that paper whenever anyone asks me where my enthusiasm for science came from. For a little Black girl, seeing another Black woman so excited about STEM meant the world— and it changed my world.  

Experiences like these are few, far and in-between for students of color nationwide, and Delaware isn’t exempt from this trend. Some of us have been lucky enough to know what it means to be encouraged by an educator that looks like us, but that luck is rare. There’s something to be said about having a teacher who has lived and understands our cultural background, because these are the teachers that can reach us is ways that others simply cannot. We need to see ourselves reflected in the world in a positive light, and working to retain educators of color is one small step towards making this need an achievable reality— especially in Delaware.

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More about the author

Vanessa Hatton is currently a graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University. Vanessa can be reached at vanessalhatton@gmail.com