Now More Than Ever, Representation and Advocacy Matters for Our Students and Their Families

By Nicole Brisbane, DFER New York State Director

The day after the election I received a call from my friend who is a Latina teacher in upstate New York. We were all suffering from the whiplash of the presidential election that day. She told me that her elementary students, many of whom are children of immigrants, came to school fearful of what would happen to their families. She decided to put her lesson plans on hold for the day and allow some reflective and community time with students. Her white male principal came to her class, observed the conversations and called her to his office after school that day to remind her not to make her classroom conversations political in nature. She advocated for what her students needed during this time.

I was immediately reminded of the countless times I advocated for my students and served as a cultural translator to my all white school leadership team. I taught at a middle school where 99% of our student population was black and Latino, over 90% were on free or reduced lunch and our school leadership contained no racial diversity. This lack of diversity at the school leadership level lead to low expectation for our students, affected decisions about discipline, created a lack of understanding about the challenges our students faced outside of school and gave students the impression that people of color did not lead schools.

Diversity in the teaching profession matters for so many reasons, as many studies show. Teachers of color become advocates for students, develop trusting relationships with students and their families, provide culturally relevant teaching and hold minority students to higher expectations. For white students, having a teacher of color can break down stereotypes and cut down on racial bias early in a child’s life. Teachers of color teach about their diverse cultural backgrounds and life experiences, which are often missing from culturally biased curriculums and absent from white teacher led classrooms. Often, I was the teacher who explained student behavior rooted in cultural differences to my administrators who didn’t share the background of our students. I was the teacher who challenged the idea that my black male student was aggressive as an inherent quality as opposed to acting out after the loss of his father, a label too quickly applied to young men of color in schools.

Now, as a policy advocate for students, my identity plays a different role. I use my lived experience and my time in public schools to advocate for polices that are in the best interest of the most underserved students. I continue to challenge the stereotypes about students and families living in poverty. In the education reform space especially, leaders of color are few and far between, creating a gap at the policy level that is rooted in the true needs and desires of the communities we seek to serve.

Representation and advocacy matters for our students and their families in classrooms and in decision making. Now more than ever, it is important to have more teachers, school leaders and advocates who share the backgrounds of our students and families.