Minneapolis teachers of color share perspectives on their crucial role in the classroom

Tiffany Doherty in the classroom at Anwatin Middle School. Photos by Annabelle Marcovici

Tiffany Doherty loves teaching, and it shows. The wall behind her desk at Anwatin Middle School in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood is covered with notes from grateful students.

 A couple of examples: “I <3 YOU MS. DOHERTY” and “Ms. Doherty is my favorite teacher.”

“One of my best times in teaching, was one day I was telling some story as intro to lesson,” she said. “A kid looked over at the person next to them and they were like, ‘Hold on, wait, is this math?’”

She laughed warmly and for a moment it’s hard to tell she’s talking about a topic that, like math, is more often discussed with stern faces and solemn tones: racial inequity in Minneapolis public schools.

Doherty is one of a very few teachers of color in Minneapolis, a district where 67 percent of the students are not white and 87 percent of teachers are, according to Dirk Tedmon, communications specialist for Minneapolis Public Schools. While the national diversity gap between students and teachers has been growing in recent years, Minneapolis’ numbers are especially stark compared to other big cities.

A recent report by the Albert Shanker Institute found that across nine major U.S. cities—Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—white teachers make up 80 percent of the workforce on average. Despite numerous studies that show both white and non-white students benefit from having teachers of color, those numbers have been slow to budge.

With the district’s renewed commitment to equity as part of its Acceleration 2020 initiative, which aims to close the achievement gap between white and non-white students by 2020, it’s time to look closer at how the diversity gap fits into the problems facing Minneapolis schools. 

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Corey Yeager in a classroom at South High School.

Understanding why so many education experts find the lack of teachers of color troubling starts with a bigger question: what gets students to learn? If you ask Dr. Corey Yeager, a teacher with the Minneapolis Office of Black Male Student Achievement, he’ll tell you that it comes down to relationships.

“I can hit you over the head with all this information, but … if the relationship is the focus from the outset, there’s nothing I can’t teach you,” he said, leaning across the table for emphasis.

Yeager, a therapist by trade who is pursuing a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, speaks with the calm authority of someone who’s been there. This is his second year teaching BLACK, short for Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge, a course through the Minneapolis Office of Black Male Student Achievement that targets the unique needs of black male students. For most kids in the program, BLACK is the first time they’ve had a black teacher, which has proved important for building the kinds of relationships that help students succeed.  

Just a few weeks after the start of the school year, a group of students gathered in his morning class at South High School. It was a tutoring day, and for the most part Yeager hung back and observed as AVID tutors checked with students to see what they needed help with. Ishabor Makvandi (Ish, for short), one of the tutors, spent a lot of this period working through algebra with David Cribbs, a junior at South.

After just 20 minutes, Cribbs was glowing with the satisfaction of having finally understood concepts that had eluded him for years. “Ish was speaking his language,” Yaeger told me, reflecting on the moment. “He said, ‘OK your learning style is different … so let’s describe it differently.’”

AVID tutor Ishabor Makvandi works with a student on his math homework. 

It’s not just that Ish — or any other educator of color — can make ideas more accessible for non-white students. That’s the product of a longer equation: personal experience with a colorblind education system not designed for “minorities” plus firsthand insight into the student’s cultural background, multiplied by an emotional connection that’s built on those commonalities (or, at the very least, the student’s perception thereof). That is to say, educators of color may have more direct experience facing and overcoming challenges students of color encounter, and can use shared experiences and cultural codes as learning tools. That makes it easier to build a relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and understanding.

“Absent that relationship, [teaching] is gonna be a tougher sell,” Yeager said.

BLACK, however, is atypical. It was designed with a critical eye toward the many ways schools disempower black students, which means it’s set up for success in ways most classes are not. For instance, its class sizes are capped at 20, it uses curriculum specially designed by Dr. Keith Mayes, an African-American Studies professor at the University of Minnesota, and its teaching model is based on student empowerment and consciousness-raising dialogue. BLACK invites students to dig deep into the material they’re learning in other courses as well as the struggles they experience in their day-to-day lives, and to use the insight they gain to transform their worlds. 

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In other classrooms, teachers of color deal with many of the same obstacles white teachers face. Overstretched resources, large class sizes, and curriculums constrained by state testing requirements make it challenging for any teacher to form close bonds with students or cater to individual learning styles.

Even so, Tiffany Doherty, math teacher at Anwatin, has noticed that a lot of her white peers fight a steeper uphill battle in understanding non-white students’ perspectives and the contexts that shape them. This can make it harder to draw relevant connections between the material and students’ lives, a strategy Doherty considers essential for keeping class engaging. Landmark research supports her approach. Students learn best when they can draw connections between past experiences and new ideas, so teachers with more insight into student’s lives have an advantage, according to education experts Dr. Ana María Villegas and Dr. Jacqueline Jordan Irvine.

Doherty also sees misunderstandings that come from cultural differences as a major source of behavior problems at Anwatin.

“We have lots of teachers who come from far out in the suburbs where they’re not used to being with African-American students, and they get here and it’s a culture shock,” she explained. “They have all this friction trying to adjust what they think is acceptable in a classroom.”

Tiffany Doherty supervises students during a passing period between classes at Anwatin.

That friction can lead to misunderstandings that strain relationships between teachers and students.

It’s possible that multicultural sensitivity training could help prevent misunderstandings like that for white and non-white teachers alike, who can also struggle relating to students from backgrounds different from their own. However, the few trainings the district offers aren’t mandatory and take place outside school hours, according to Kleber Ortiz-Sinchi, social studies district program facilitator for grades six through 12.

More importantly, trainings don’t fix the underrepresentation of people of color in teaching positions, Ortiz-Sinchi said.

A lot of his job revolves around working with teachers to help them be more culturally sensitive, but he feels that work can only go so far because students of color need role models that they can relate to.

“If you never see those people in positions of power or in positions of professionalism, then you start questioning yourself. ‘Why are they not there? Well maybe because I don’t deserve to be there. Maybe because we’re not meant for that.’…That’s the message that it sends,” he said.

Kleber Ortiz-Sinchi at his desk in the district office. 

And, as Dr. Jacqueline Jordan Irvine’s research suggests, their absence also teaches white students that people of color don’t generally hold power.

The burden of underrepresentation can also weigh heavily on teachers of color, who may feel called to take on extra work to make up for gaps in cultural responsiveness in the classroom and at the district. 

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Norma Alejandro-Mattson, a literacy specialist and bilingual coach with Green Park Elementary School, carries the weight of being one of the few Spanish language literacy advocates in the district.

Although her expertise is in Spanish instruction, when she applied for the specialist position the interviewer only asked her questions about English literacy. She was turned down for the job, but her principal had seen her work and had confidence in her potential, so she took matters into her own hands and hired her through the school’s budget rather than the district’s.

Norma Alejandro-Mattson wipes away tears while reflecting on her challenging job.

Now at the district’s biweekly literacy specialist meetings, Alejandro-Mattson feels like an outsider. She’s one of only three people of color at these meetings, which she estimates about 50 people attend.

The alienation is palatable.

“In Minneapolis, we have a lot of different bilingual programs but [the meetings] will never address that we teach more than just English,” she said.

The lack of support from the district adds a heavy burden on top of the many roles she plays at her school, which include planning and co-teaching with teachers, serving on her school’s instructional leadership team, working with students in the classroom, coordinating professional development, overseeing Reading Corps, serving on the Family Engagement Committee, providing feedback to teachers after observing them in the classroom, and working with the dual-developmental language (DDL) classes to make them more culturally responsive.

“Now that I’m in this role, I can help the teachers, but when I was a teacher I didn’t have any help,” she said.

The lack of teachers of color is in some respects a vicious cycle.

Abir Ismail, a math teacher from Egypt, works with her students at Ramsey Middle School. 

Yeager said that without examples of great teachers who look like them, students of color are less likely to see teaching as a realistic possibility.

“The message you send to kids of color is it’s not worthy for us to get that number of teachers of color up. It’s just what it is. You can learn from anybody,” he said.

But he quickly added that doesn’t mean candidates aren’t out there.

“Often times folks may say we don’t have applicants of color,” he said. “It’d be like a football coach saying we don’t have any running backs. Well at a certain point you better recruit ‘em.”

The district has been working hard to do just that. Its main efforts have focused on providing alternative pathways to licensure that make entering the profession more accessible, said Maggie Sullivan, executive director of human capital with the district.

The most notable example has been the Grow Your Own Program, which helps Minneapolis Public Schools staff to go into teaching, many of whom are people of color.

Efforts are starting to pay off. In the last hiring cycle, over 20 percent of new teachers were people of color. Nonetheless, much work remains. “We’re such a data-driven profession that if you look at the data right now you’d say … obviously we’re not doing enough,” Ortiz-Sinchi said.

The issue, however, goes deeper than role models and recruitment.

As Ortiz-Sinchi pointed out, people of color are underrepresented in professional positions across virtually all sectors, and face a mountain of systemic hurdles that maintain that reality.

But like Kleber, Yeager is still hopeful.

“We can’t ever hang our head and say, ‘Well that’s such a big system, we can’t have an effect.’ We must start somewhere,” he said.  

He thinks the school system is a great place to start.