Another View: The need to diversify Illinois teachers

If you are a family of color living in northern Illinois, it’s unlikely that your child’s teacher looks like you.

That’s because there is a big difference between the racial makeup of teachers in the classrooms of Illinois schools and the student population.

State education leaders have acknowledged the need for more diversity among teachers, and starting in 2022-23, all teacher preparation programs are required to set enrollment targets for candidates of color. Additionally, the state has invested $6.5 million in partnership with teachers unions for a statewide mentoring and virtual coaching program for first- and second-year teachers.

They also should be sure to talk to Justin Johnson, a Mundelein resident and a band instructor at Niles West High School in Skokie. Johnson is the 2021 Illinois Teacher of the Year – a distinction that earned him a yearlong sabbatical, during which he plans to focus on increasing recruitment and retention of minority teachers and mentoring new teachers.

Johnson, who is Black, said that while having a teacher workforce that reflects the student population is crucial, it’s also important for school leaders to go beyond simply hiring teachers of diverse backgrounds. They must create a culture and climate in which minority students and employees feel welcomed and will thrive.

Johnson has helped District 219 increase its hiring of people of color by 200% during the past three years, although there is more work to be done there.

“[Teachers need] a place where they actually feel like they belong, because if you just hire them and you don’t address any of those things, they’re going to leave,” Johnson told reporter Madhu Krishnamurthy.

In Illinois, there’s nowhere to go but up, as the percentage of minority teachers is far from reflecting the racial breakdown of the population. The state’s more than 130,000 teachers are 82% white, 7% Hispanic, almost 6% Black and 2% Asian. Its almost 2 million students are 47.5% white, 26.6% Hispanic, 16.6% Black, 5% Asian and 3.5% two or more races, data shows.

Johnson noted diversifying teaching ranks is an issue nationally. Changing that can help close the achievement gap that disproportionately affects Black and Latino students and provide examples for minority students to follow as a career option.

He said initiatives such as the Golden Apple Scholars program help minority students see the value of a career in education, but the state also needs to make it more affordable for students of color to take the required certification tests. And schools must develop mentorship programs pairing first-year teachers of color with experienced teachers like themselves, then provide resources to support them.

Diversifying the teaching ranks is long overdue in Illinois, but that change, with input from teachers of color such as Johnson, will help boost opportunities and performance for minority students and better reflect the face of education in the state.

– The Daily Herald