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Closing the Teacher Diversity Gap


This article argues for teacher diversity, explaining why and how it is so important. Teaching is an extremely complex profession. On the one hand, there is the mastery of the content being taught that is necessary for teachers to earn the respect and learning of their students. You simply cannot teach something you do not understand yourself and will never be able to explain a concept unless you have mastered it – or at least some elements of it – yourself. This is not to say that the teacher knows everything of course: great teachers are knowledgeable but they also keep the spirit of enquiry and open-mindedness alive.

Nor is teaching merely a question of explaining concepts. Lecturing facts to a silent audience is not teaching, it’s the broadcasting of information. The transmission of knowledge is core to teaching, but the way it is done is what is key. Great pedagogues build relationships with their students, use a number of techniques to get them to think, investigate, discuss; they keep learning lively and engaging, they design powerful and differentiated tasks and assessments that allow students to show what they can do in creative, diverse ways.

But there is more: who the teacher actually is. When someone teaches, it comes from the heart and the gut. Teaching is opening up who you are, whether that is intended or not. This is where the question of culture comes into force, because teaching is always an act of cultural transmission: the teacher brings across their/her/his cultural biases, beliefs, experiences and behavioral codes, often unintentionally. And it is this that so many students remember most, not what was taught, maybe not even how it was taught, but the aura, the emotional connection, the spirit of the act of teaching, the human being in her/his/their totality: an embodiment of values, beliefs and culture.

Therefore, a student’s experience in a school or university is made up of numerous cultural interactions. It stands to reason that the richer and more diverse those interactions, the richer and more diverse the learning. This is why diversity in the staffing of teachers is so important. If leaders populate their schools or universities with teachers who come from similar backgrounds, the cultural experience will be limited, monochromatic, inward-looking.

It can also be alienating for students who do not see themselves represented in the teachers they are learning from: students need to see and hear role models who look like them, to give them confidence and to feel included (see the theories of bell hooks on this point).

A teacher’s cultural identity is not secondary to their teaching skill, it is right at the centre of it, a burning flame that lights up everything they do. And the cultural identity of the student interacts with that of the teacher. This synergy of cultural interaction is a powerful, potentially enriching encounter: differences are explored, reflections on self and other extended, biases unearthed.

The greater the teacher diversity, the greater the range of energies and stories that will be told, the more diverse the approaches to learning, the more enriching the meeting points of minds.

Heterogenous, culturally diverse experiences in school and university are particularly important in the interconnected, mobile world of the 21st Century, to prepare young people to work in multifaceted teams. Diversity increases productivity, which is why many of the best performing industries place a high value on diversity. Knowing how to flourish in a diverse setting is an empowering, professional skill since some of the highest-performing industries are extremely diverse in their human constitution.

Decolonising the Curriculum

As universities and schools across the globe intensify the rallying call to decolonise the curriculum and break away from the cultural hegemony that has dominated the history books, literature canons and references in STEM since the mid-1800s, one question that might be asked is: who will decolonise the curriculum? Who will teach first peoples history, who will deconstruct the syllabus from the perspective of feminism or gender studies? Who will teach literatures from Africa, Asia, Australasia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe?

Teacher diversity means that these elements of curriculum rethinking can be driven by those who are speaking from their own experiences and cultures, making the enterprise even deeper and more authentic.

The need to decolonise the curriculum is not just a question of syllabus content, it is also a question of approach: a decolonised curriculum should be a living reality every day in the classroom, brought to life by the vibrancy and passion of cultural expression. A diverse faculty will be able to drive a decolonised curriculum more easily than a monocultural one.

What is Happening on the Ground?

Unfortunately, faculty diversity in many educational institutions is either not happening or happening too slowly. The National Council on Teacher Quality in the United States shows that “fewer than half of all public school students in the nation are white, yet four out of five teachers are white” whereas the Brookings Institute has shown that:

“The racial makeup of the teacher workforce [is] about 80% white and mostly female. This is at odds with the racial composition of U.S. public school students, which has decreased from 70% to 50% white in recent decades [going on to explain that] this is detrimental to students of color”.

The situation is not much better in the United Kingdom: studies run at University College London have shown that close to 50% of English schools have no BAME teachers whatsoever and that leadership teams were almost exclusively white.

As concerns universities, the Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy found that in the United States, between 2013 and 2017, “the number of Hispanic and Latino faculty members grew by less than 1% and the number of black faculty members grew by only one-tenth of a percent”.

International Schools are frequently criticised too for a lack of cultural diversity among heads. Although the teaching profession is mainly dominated by women and there are more women than men in higher education, studies in the UK show that men are more likely to reach leadership positions in education and represent an imbalance in this regard.

What Can Schools and Universities Do?

The answer is simple: recruit more diversely, understanding that diversity is a vital criterion for the intellectual, cultural and social growth of every student and faculty member.

But there is more, in my 2017 book Understanding Education and Prejudice (2017), which was the fruit of my doctoral work on the subject, I synthesised what the research tells us about how education can reduce prejudice. Faculty diversity is critical, but so are institutional messages to all stakeholders that make it clear that diversity is important. This sends out a message that protects, defends and embraces diversity.

University of the People, for example, celebrates its diversity openly and emphatically: with “students from over 110 countries. For each subject, 20 students are likely to be with students from around 20 different countries in the same virtual classroom.” The list of academic leaders shows diversity in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, age and country.

When diversity is celebrated openly, students feel safer and teachers feel more empowered to express their culturally embedded perspectives and not to comply with a monocultural norm, it generates more confidence and more creativity.

For all those involved in education, let’s make teacher diversity one of our main focuses for today and tomorrow.