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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Educators Discuss What Wisconsin Can Do To Create A More Diverse Teacher Workforce

Courtesy Darnell Hamilton
City Forward Collective
Darnell Hamilton, a teacher at Golda Meir High School in Milwaukee.

A recent report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum studied the barriers to building a more diverse teacher workforce.

The report outlined challenges at every level of the teacher preparation pipeline, including: a higher education system that favors white, wealthy students; teacher certification tests that disproportionately screen out Black and brown people and school environments where teachers of color are “pigeonholed” as disciplinarians.

>>Report Examine Barriers To A More Diverse Wisconsin Teacher Workforce

These factors and more contribute to a Wisconsin teacher workforce that is 95% white.

WUWM hosted a roundtable conversation with four diverse Milwaukee educators to talk about their experiences. Two of the educators participated in focus groups for the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s research.

Lauren Richards, a first grade teacher at Milwaukee Academy of Science, says traditional teacher preparation programs “enforce the class system we already have in place.” Richards studied education at Marquette University.

“If you are white and middle class, it’s very easy to be a teacher,” Richards says. “I started off with two or three other teachers of color in my program, but by the time I got to my senior year and we had to student teach, they had to stop because they had to find something that paid them more … that whole semester where you work a full-time job without getting paid a full-time wage. There are so many barriers.”

J.F. Marin, an English teacher at Carmen High School, had trouble getting certified as a teacher in Wisconsin because of the standardized tests prospective teachers are required to take — the Praxis and Foundations of Reading Test.

“When it came to that first test, the reading and writing portion — aced it. The math portion — failed it,” Marin says. “[Wisconsin should] find another means to assess whether this person is qualified to be a teacher. But it doesn’t appear the system wants to do that.”

Top row: Darnell Hamilton, Emily Files. Bottom row: Yaribel Rodriguez, Lauren Richards, J.F. Marin.
Screen capture
Top row: Darnell Hamilton, Emily Files. Bottom row: Yaribel Rodriguez, Lauren Richards, J.F. Marin.

Darnell Hamilton says a major obstacle for him as a teacher is not feeling appreciated and validated in a predominately white school workplace. Hamilton is a special education teacher at Golda Meir High School.

“It comes down to the idea of: how do you retain us?” Hamilton says. “I’ve seen many a friend, many a colleague, many an intelligent person walk away from MPS completely. I’m the only Black male in this building. Imagine how tough that is. You have to really work hard to retain me.”

The teachers are acutely aware of how important it is for their students to have teachers who look like them. Yaribel Rodriguez, a former teacher and principal who now works for the education nonprofit City Forward Collective, recounts an experience early on in her education career. She was placed in a fourth grade classroom with a student who was misbehaving.

“A girl became really upset and she threw a chair across the room,” Rodriguez says. “Her classmates were looking at me like, what is the teacher going to do? Is she going to yell?”

Instead of punishing the student, Rodriguez responded calmly, saying she knew the girl was having a difficult time. She told the student to come talk to her once she had calmed down. After that, things turned around for that student and the class.

“These are little humans, they’re brilliant, and what they need is someone who is going to advocate for them, someone that’s gonna teach them, and someone’s that gonna have empathy while holding high standards,” Rodirguez says.

Richards says her Black students are taught they need to “dim their Blackness in order to be accepted” by white teachers.

“Teachers of color really are often those islands of sanity for kids of color, like ‘OK, I can be myself in this space,’” Richards says.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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