As a black boy growing up in Florida, Terrance Ruth was inspired to become a teacher not by anyone at his school, but by his mother. She was a nurse at a youth psych ward and often brought her children with her to work.
“We would play basketball with these kids and spend time with these kids, and my mom kept us around these kids who had very troubled backgrounds," said Ruth, now the executive director of the North Carolina NAACP. "And her whole life was devoted to supporting and loving these kids who had a very troubled start.”
Without his mom to look up to, Ruth, now 34, probably wouldn’t have considered a career in education. He later became a teacher to students serving long-term suspensions.
“I can’t expect you to say you want to be an educator, if you don’t have a human being to look to, to say, *'I want to be like that',” he said.
But black students don’t often have this type of interaction with educators. That’s according to Ruth and other experts who study the lack of teacher diversity, particularly black teachers, in North Carolina.
“If they don’t see teachers who look like them, if they don’t see teachers who appreciate what they bring to the classroom, the cultural capital, their nuances, the way they dress, the music they like, if those things are not valued in the classroom, then they won’t see the school as a safe place, they won’t want to stay," said Dawn Tafari, assistant professor of education at Winston-Salem State University. "And they definitely won’t want to become teachers.”
Eighty percent of North Carolina public school teachers are white, according to data from the Department of Public Instruction, while less than fifty percent of students are white. That means many minority students, who make up almost half of the state's public school enrollment, miss out on the benefits of having teachers who look like them. Earlier this year research published in the Institute of Labor Economics showed that black students in North Carolina taught by one black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade were thirty percent more likely to graduate from high school.
So how do you get more black students to consider going into education if they don’t see teachers who look like them in the first place?
“We need to increase those teachers, no matter what race or gender, that touch a kid so much that they look at the profession as a desirable place,” Ruth said.
These teachers, he said, meet students where they are.
“They stay late, they come early, they bring extra food for kids who don’t eat at home, they bring extra clothes for kids...I mean, there are some teachers who are just off the charts,” Ruth said. “We need more of them, so that that kid can see that person and think, this is what I want to do.”
But too often, black students are instead faced with low teacher expectations. A study recently published in the journal EducationNext analyzed how white and black teachers viewed their black students. The authors found that white teachers were 9 percent less likely than black teachers to predict the same black student would earn a college degree.
“So if I see a dark kid with baggy pants, with a certain hairstyle as a thug, when that kid enters my room, he must now prove that he is not that picture,” Ruth said. “He must now prove that he’s intelligent, he must now prove to me that he’s not negative, he must now prove to me that he’s not dangerous, without even saying a word.”
Some North Carolina school districts have implemented diversity training to help teachers confront their biases. But according to Ruth, that’s not yet happening on a meaningful scale.
“Very few school districts can afford, number one, or have it in their strategic plan, to be deliberate around creating a safe space for adults to be accountable for the biases that they walk into a classroom with,” he said, “when grading, when looking at certain behavior outcomes.”
Without this effort, Ruth said, you won’t get more black students to stay in classrooms -- or to consider returning to them, as teachers.
Data Reporter Jason deBruyn contributed to this report.