Learning from the 10%: The Need for Teachers of Color in Oregon

Sep 8, 2020

 

High school junior Barbara Elliot and her mother Ayisha Elliot stand outside of Churchill High School.
Credit Denise Silfee

Studies show that students of color—as well as white students—benefit from having instructors of color. Diversity among Oregon teachers has  increased over the decades, but there’s still a need for ethnically diverse faculty.

 

Teachers aren’t just instructors. They’re the people kids look up to for advice and guidance. But it can be harder for students of color to relate to teachers that don’t share their experiences. Take a second and think about the demographics of the teachers you had. Were they the same gender as you? The same race?

Oregon schools have severely lacked teachers of color for years, which has partially contributed to some forms of school racism. In the 1986-1987 school year, only 2.1% of Oregon instructors were teachers of color. Retired 4J teacher and white ally Pete Mandrapa explains how recently deceased parent and activist Bahati Ansari’s experience inspired some change in the late 1980s.

“She had some problems with her son, and there were some racist stuff that went on in the classroom and the principal ignored it,” said Mandrapa. “He left school and Bahati stood up and said you know, ‘I’m not sending my child back to school until you guys do something about it. I was the multicultural teacher and special assignment at that time, so I worked with Bahati. And she basically kept Elliot out of school until she went to the superintendent and said I’m not sending him back,’ and made the front pages of the Eugene Register Guard.” 

In order to help diminish school racism 40 years ago, Mandrapa co-founded the Racism Free Zone, or RFZ for short. Which was in place for about 15 years at the old Jefferson Middle School, now  the Arts and Technology Academy.

Mandrapa credits his students for their efforts to provide a more inclusive learning environment. He said they worked for months on the RFZ declaration.

“The kids basically organized the whole idea, presented it through the school in an assembly, and had people sign the declaration. And that’s when we started changing the school,” said Mandrapa. “And some people left Jefferson Middle School because of the focus on multicultural and global education.”

But Mandrapa, who retired in 2019, said the program—which became school-wide—started to fade away in 2005, as teachers and administrators switched schools or retired. Plus the pressures to teach requirements for standardized testing limited teachers curriculum. 

Now, here's some more numbers. Remember the 2.1% of Oregon instructors of color in 1986-1987? Well in the 2018-2019 school year, ethnically diverse teachers were only 10.4%.

So the number of ethnically diverse teachers has more than quadrupled over the past few decades. But that’s still a stark contrast from the 38.1% of ethnically diverse students in Oregon. 

 

From left to right: Maurice Ross, Niyah Ross - both former students of Pete Mandrapa. Dr. Muabilai Tshiony - former Jefferson Middle School teacher, Mandrapa (right). The group stands in front of the mural of Dr. Edwin Coleman Jr., located near the Arts and Technology Academy. They talk about what students remember most from their classes and how those lessons—both academic and life lessons—have stuck with them as adults, and have been taught to their own children.
Credit Denise Silfee

As a current substitute teacher, Mandrapa knows how important it is for white allies to continue to provide inclusive classrooms, like the old Jefferson Middle School.

“We accepted all kids as they are,” said Mandrapa. “We accepted their language, we accepted their culture, we accepted their parents—we accepted their whole self when they walked into our building. Many buildings kids cannot walk in with their whole self. There’s a self that’s left outside, and then they become somebody else when they walk into the school building, in order to survive basically.”

Churchill junior Barbara Elliot is familiar with that feeling. Barbara has faced discrimination from her peers and teachers for quote ‘being too loud,’ as well as her physical appearance. When she inquired about an advanced science course at South Eugene High School’s freshman orientation, here’s how a teacher responded. 

“He had looked at me and he had looked at my hair, my nails, everything, and was like, ‘I don’t really think this is for you,’” said Barbara.

And she said this was in spite of her having high test scores.

“He never had asked me for my test scores,” said Barbara. “He never had asked me, ‘What are you interested in, what classes had I taken, if I liked science—those like teacher questions welcoming you to high school like, ‘what do you like, what have you done?’ Your projects, stuff like that. He never asked me any of that. He just looked at me and said ‘I don’t really think this is for you.’”

Barbara’s mother Ayisha Elliot, said all three of her children have experienced some form of racism while at school.

“My oldest daughter was called the n-word, and she smacked the kid that called her the n-word,” said Elliot.

Elliot said this happened at Cesar Chavez Elementary, when her other daughter was in 2nd grade.

“And I was called into the office,” said Elliot. “So when I got called into the office I asked where the other parents were. And they said well, ‘they didn’t hit her.’ And I said, ‘they called her an n-word, that’s why they got hit.’ And they were evaluating the issue—the n-word wasn’t as heavy for them as the fact that the guy that called her the n-word got smacked. That wa`s the bigger problem.”

 

Barbara and Ayisha Elliot.
Credit Denise Silfee

But one of the reasons Mandrapa said there aren’t a lot of teachers of color in Oregon is because they face barriers that isolate them and cause them to move elsewhere. In fact, a former 4J teacher even kept track of the number of teachers and administrators of color that went in and out of the district. The compiled documents are known as The eXit Files.

 

“A lot of times they become isolated in school buildings without any support,” said Mandrapa. “And it becomes too hard, and people leave.”

 

Mandrapa and the Elliot’s hope school districts will be able to hire and retain more teachers of color in the future.

 

This story will be updated.