This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast, I’m interviewing Dr. Travis Bristol on how we can attract, support, and build relationships with teachers of color … and why that’s so important for ALL teachers AND kids.
My guest today is Dr. Travis Bristol, Travis is a former teacher and currently works at UC Berkley. A big part of his research agenda is centered on practices and policies that support teachers of color. Travis is also the principal investigator for the NYC Young Men’s Initiative, which focuses on recruiting and supporting 1,000 male teachers of color. Travis has been featured on NPR, the Washington Post, Education Week, NBC News, and more, and when you listen to this interview, you’re going to understand exactly why I’m so honored to have him share this experience and research with us here.
I’ve asked Travis to speak specifically to the role of the individual teacher here: What can you, the classroom teacher listening right now, do to ensure your school culture is one that truly believes in hiring and supporting a diverse faculty?
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Only around 2 percent of teachers in the United States are black males. And at one time, you counted yourself among their numbers — you’re a former teacher in New York City. What was that experience like for you?
I think that teaching in New York City continues to be one of the highlights of my career because I returned to a district where I was educated. I graduated from the New York City public school system. One particular challenge that I’ve shared, and that some of the participants in my study have also shared, is this idea of being burdened to manage disciplinary issues, and there was this assumption that just because I was a male teacher of color, a black man, that I would automatically know what to do with those students.
My administrators, my assistant principal, and principal would walk by my classroom and see students sitting in their seats, but there were many things that I was learning about. I needed some help engaging them and making sure that the content was rigorous. But just because they were sitting and complying didn’t necessarily mean that they were learning, but because they were compliant and sitting, people thought that I could handle more.
In many ways, my burden became heavier because the administration began transferring some of these students into my classroom without helping my colleague, who was a white female, understand what she could do to get the students to behave in some of the ways that they were behaving in my classroom. Instead of supporting her and building her capacity to engage students, they made my work even harder by placing these students into my classroom. They weren’t trying to understand that I was, in many ways, building relationships with students or doing the social and emotional piece, rather just believing that it’s just because I was a black man that I could engage.
It was clear to me that I was a novelty in some ways to my students. In many ways, I’m a novelty to the students that I teach at Boston University. Many of the students had few experiences or had not had a black male teacher, and I think they were really intrigued by me. But there was also this sense that because I was also this anomaly, that they also struggled to try to understand me. On average, they had not been presented (like through the media) with positive representations of black men — my presence in the classroom created some cognitive dissonance.
I think that there can be this assumption that just because you’re a black man, then automatically students will engage with you. But I think for some of my students — because they had never seen, on average, someone like me — it took them a while to grapple with the idea that I was their teacher.
We know that white teachers can do an excellent job building relationships with kids of color. I talked about that in Episode 106 with principal Baruti Kafele, and he explained some strategies that white teachers can use to build those relationships. So we’re not in any way saying that what white teachers do in the classroom isn’t valuable, because kids can learn well from any teacher who genuinely cares about them and really works to understand them and understand their culture on a personal level.
But what we’re talking about here is having kids move up through the entire K-12 school system and only encountering one or two teachers of color, if that. Can you explain why it’s so important for kids of all races to have teachers of color?
TRAVIS: Great question, Angela, and I think that to your point, we aren’t saying that there isn’t a place for white teachers. I give the example of Miss Shapiro, my 11th grade English teacher, a white woman, who in many ways made me want to become an English teacher. I talk about the story of Miss Shapiro getting on a desk when we were reading “A Streetcar Named Desire” and yelling, “Stella!” And then I said, “I want to become an English teacher one day,” and lo and behold I did, and I taught for several years and I train English teachers now.
So of course, in my own life story, white female teachers have encouraged me, but I think that what we have to ask ourselves is that anytime we see disproportionality, we have to examine what might be some of the root causes for that disproportionality. And so if 82 percent of all teachers in U.S. public schools are white, and about 50.3 percent of all students in U.S. public schools are of color, we have to ask ourselves, why is there this demographic mismatch? So some of my work attempts to understand and unpack why that demographic mismatch is there, but sort of to your question, why is it important?
There is some convincing evidence, both qualitative research — that’s research looking at smaller sample sizes, talking to individuals — and much larger quantitative research — that’s looking at larger numbers of people, looking at test scores — and much of that research is pretty convincing that children of color benefit and perform better in school when they have a teacher of color. There is actually some emerging research that is providing evidence that all children, that white children are saying that they prefer a teacher of color. So we do have some qualitative evidence.
We are living in a global society, and if we are preparing children to be global citizens, then we have to have people in front of them who do not look like them, who bring different perspectives to the world, who can prepare them to be global competitors. I think that having a black male teacher, or a teacher of color in a position of intellectual authority can create some cognitive dissonance that can be helpful in making you realize that not only is this person picking up trash, but this person can actually teach me something, and that prepares you to navigate and engage with a world where people are different from you.
So not only do children of color benefit from having a teacher of color, but white children who are going to be global citizens deserve and are missing out on the opportunity to have a teacher of color teach them.
If you never see black males as teachers, as people who are in a position of authority to teach you something, it’s really hard to then see them in a position as your boss later. We want our students of color to one day be heads of companies or in other positions of authority, and that starts with what they see as children. So it’s important not only for kids of color to see teachers who look like them, but it’s also important for white kids, as well.
I want to give a little bit of a broader historical context here, because I think that’s really important anytime we’re trying to understand an issue as it pertains to race and gender. Can you talk to us about some of the reasons why almost all teachers in the U.S. are white women?
TRAVIS: I would say that historically, we have had large numbers of black teachers during segregation, or legalized segregation in the United States — black teachers were the only people teaching black children. As Vanessa Siddle Walker writes, one of the things that happened post-Brown or during school integration is that when black students went to schools with white children, when their black teachers tried to go work in those schools, those teachers were not hired. So thousands of black principals and black teachers were fired and were not rehired during or after Brown, during school integration. So historically you had them, but because of racist policies in the United States around hiring, we don’t see those teachers.
In many ways, some of those racist policies still continue. One example of why we don’t have large numbers of teachers of color is because when we look at which students are suspended and expelled from school, we see large numbers of children of color who are exited from the K-12 pipeline. If those children don’t even have an opportunity to graduate from high school, then they have never had an opportunity to go to college, and they don’t have an opportunity to become a teacher. So we lose large numbers of potential teachers of color from the K-12 pipeline because of harsh and discriminatory disciplinary practices that target children of color.
We also know that some of those practices around preferential treatment and racial bias, in terms of hiring that happened during Brown, continue today. There have been two recent studies that have found that when black teachers and white teachers apply to work at schools with larger numbers of white children, that only the white teachers were invited back for interviews.
In my study that I did on black male teachers here in Boston, I looked at black men in two types of schools. One set of schools had black men where there were three or more on the faculty and the other set of schools had only one black male teacher. Those schools that had one black male teacher tended to be higher performing schools. They had many more white students and white teachers, and when I asked those black male teachers (who were the only black men on the faculty) what they were doing to get more teachers of color, they said they would join the hiring committee. But their colleagues would always use words like, “this candidate wasn’t a good fit.” And so those same racist hiring practices or bias — the coded word for racism in the 21st century — that excluded black teachers from the workforce post-Brown continue today. That continues to be another reason why we see larger numbers of white teachers when compared to teachers of color, and black teachers in particular.
I think very few of us want to be the only person in a building of our gender or of our race or even age. I think we all look for communities where we can envision ourselves being part of a team and fitting in and having our contributions really valued. So schools with very few teachers of color and only white administrators aren’t likely to attract teachers of color. Am I characterizing the situation correctly?
TRAVIS: Partly. I think it is true, to use the word homophily — that people are looking for people like themselves because they believe that if they see people like themselves, then they’re more likely to thrive in those spaces. It is true that one part of why we see large numbers of teachers of color in schools with other teachers of color is because they may be attracted to those spaces.
I would add that as I just mentioned previously, that there is a growing body of research, and I have evidence from this from my study on black male teachers in Boston Public Schools, that schools that have larger numbers of white teachers are not actively seeking black teachers, that they are only looking to hire one or two to maybe demonstrate to the rest of the world that they believe in social justice or diversity, but they are not looking to hire many black teachers. And so I think that it is true that people are attracted to certain types of places, and it’s also true that certain types of schools are attracted to certain types of teachers.
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Throughout this conversation, you’re pointing to biased hiring practices, whether it’s done intentionally or unintentionally, where we’re looking to sort of tokenize — we need our token male teacher or Hispanic teacher or Black teacher, just so we can check off the boxes. But they’re not really looking for true representation or any kind of situation in which white teachers might become the minority or where there may be a real culture of diversity. Am I understanding that right?
TRAVIS: Exactly. And I would give you an example of this in some ways. When I say a certain type of black teacher in terms of white schools, that those teachers also have to have elite pedigrees. I believe, in some ways, that my pedigree from Amherst College (small, liberal art, white elite institution), my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree (from Stanford University), that those types of pedigrees made me more attractive to that school. If I potentially had a degree from a city university as a black male teacher, I would have been less attractive.
One of the things that I found in my study on black male teachers in Boston public schools was that the black men who were the only black men on their faculty, they were more likely to have degrees from elite institutions. And so it is the case that people are saying that they want diverse candidates, but they’re only willing to take a risk and have these sort of elite cut-offs for black candidates at particular institutions.
Can an individual teacher do anything to change this dynamic in hiring practices?
TRAVIS: I think that in all the school districts that I’ve been a part of, teachers can participate in making hiring decisions. If a teacher is sitting in on a hiring decision or part of an interviewing committee, then they can push the committee to have a more expansive view of what it means to be a good fit for the school. That’s one way that teachers could be agents of change in this process.
And if they’re not sitting in on hiring committees because they may not be senior in that way, they could also urge their principals or colleagues to say having a colleague of color might be helpful, because a colleague of color might be a cultural navigator potentially in some way. So while I may not be able to sit on a hiring committee, I do recognize that having a person of color will in many ways make me a better teacher, because they might be able to teach me things that I may not have been able to learn because of my Eurocentric K-12 or undergraduate schooling experience.
So they can encourage administrators and their colleagues to consider applicants of color if they’re not necessarily sitting in on those hiring decisions. So absolutely, I think teachers can be agentic in this process, as well as parents. I think that white parents, in particular, can play a key role in increasing the number of teachers of color, because as a parent myself, I know that school administrators listen to parents. They can take a step back and say, “My children are missing out on something because they don’t have people who reflect the rich diversity of this country. What can we do? How can we create incentive packages or look at hiring to ensure that they have a more diverse faculty?”
Are there things that individual teachers can do in their interactions with fellow staff members? What can they do to make schools a safe and welcoming place where the perspective of teachers of color are valued?
TRAVIS: One of the things that I found in my study on black male teachers, particularly those men who I call loners — these were men who were the only black men in their building — they often talked about eating lunch in their rooms by themselves or with their students. And so if I am a white teacher, and I’m recognizing that when it’s lunchtime, I’m sitting in the cafeteria and there are teachers of color in the building but they’re choosing not to sit in the lunchroom, what might be about the toxic nature of the lunchroom that’s not becoming a welcoming space for teachers of color? What conversations are we having about children or about their families that might make this space uninviting for faculty members of color?
I think that white teachers can look around the room and see when we have social gatherings, where are the faculty of color? With whom are they talking? And if we see them not talking or not present, we should ask ourselves: What are we doing? What’s the conversation that’s happening that’s not making it a space for all teachers to be present?
White teachers can learn from their black male teacher colleagues or their colleagues of color to understand: How are you engaging the student? What are you doing? What content are you teaching? How are you talking to their families? How are you talking to them? And then try to adopt some of those practices in their own classroom rather than just sending these students for them to police. So I think white teachers can try to understand some of the things that their colleagues of color are doing that are so successful and try to incorporate some of those practices in their own classroom.
Is there any sort of pitfalls or biases that white teachers should watch out for in their interactions with teachers of color?
TRAVIS: There can’t be this assumption that just because you are a man of color that you automatically will bond or want to be a father figure to a boy of color or a student of color. While I had men present and male figures in my own life, I personally did not grow up with a father in my house. I was raised by a single mother. So to have people assume that I knew how to be a father figure to other students when I myself did not have a father in my house becomes a sort of very dangerous positioning of people who themselves have never had this kind of experience. I think that one can’t assume that people know how to or even want to become a father figure. Ed Brockenbrough at the University of Pennsylvania talks about this idea that we can’t position black men to become father figures because they may not want to and the students may not want them to be.
What’s something that you wish that every teacher understood about his or her role in attracting, supporting, and building relationships with diverse faculty?
TRAVIS: Everybody can play a role. So many people want to bring people of color, school districts want to bring people of color into the profession and into their schools without thinking about the experiences of those and the conditions in those schools to keep people there. You can’t say first that you want to bring people of color into your school building if you yourself are not in the community with those people of color.
I would encourage people to first ensure that they are building really strong and meaningful relationships with their colleagues of color, because I think what many white teachers and white administrators fail to realize or recognize that if I, a person of color, am not having a positive experience in my building, then I am not going to reach out to my social network to encourage people to come and apply to this space.
And so white teachers have to ensure that they are building strong and positive relationships with their colleagues of color so their colleagues of color will want to share with their network that this is a place to teach. I think that in a very practical way, being in communion and in fellowship with your colleagues of color is important.
Can I ask you to give some specific examples? I’m thinking of the teacher who’s wondering, “Well, how exactly do I build those relationships? We have people of color in my building, but I don’t really know what to do to build that bridge.”
TRAVIS: I would ask a colleague of color who you believe is having some success with students if you could sit in on their class, and you might say: “There are some things that I need to learn. I see that you’re doing X really well. Could I observe your class and get some tips or pointers about what you’re doing so that I can incorporate it into my classroom?” And then after sitting in on their classroom and trying those things out in my own classroom as the white teacher, I would then invite my colleague of color and say: “Would you mind coming into my classroom? I’ve tried this particular teaching move or this practice. Could you give me feedback on it?”
I think that this interaction where you position yourself as a learner, as someone interested in understanding how this teacher is enacting practice and valuing their teaching, can suggest to their colleague that you clearly honor them and see them as a teacher. And those kinds of things can begin to build really positive relationships. As people come to your classroom and you observe them and they observe you, then you also begin to ask them questions about their trajectory to becoming a teacher: “Would you be willing to share this practice with other people in this school?” I think that those are some of the ways, but I think one particular way would be to begin the conversation around practice because the similarity there is that everyone is a teacher.
The conversation first, I believe, has to be around teacher practice as a way to build a relationship that might extend to create a positive social dynamic. But I think it has to first begin thinking about and giving feedback on and learning from someone’s practice. Start with the practice rather than just trying to build a friendship. Because that would strike me as someone being very inauthentic, because why are you trying to be my friend? We’re teachers — I would say how can you position yourself first as a learner from that person’s practice, and then from that practice, a relationship can develop.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
This episode is brought to you in part by, Peergrade, a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. The best part? Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. To learn more, visit thecornerstoneforteachers.com/peergrade.
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