Teachers in Mass. are mostly white. A Lowell program is trying to change thatPlay
On a recent March morning, students in Kendra Bauer’s 12th grade English class shuffled into the classroom and took their seats.
She asked them a question. Who wants to be a teacher?
The response was lukewarm: two wavering hands and just one solid yes.
Bauer, a Lowell High School teacher for more than 16 years, saw firsthand something happening across the country: scarce interest in teaching, fueled in part by low pay. And students of color, in particular, see little of themselves in teachers they have.
Nearly 9 out of 10 teachers in Massachusetts public schools are white, though students of color make up roughly 44% of the state's total enrollment, according to state data. This means many do not see themselves reflected in their teachers and might not consider teaching as a future career, Bauer said.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said. “It’s almost like they don’t see that as a career path.”
Lowell is the sixth-largest public school district in the state. Its students are among the most diverse. Nearly 38% are Hispanic, 28% are Asian, and 8% are Black.
Yet many of those students rarely see a teacher who looks like them. District officials say seven out of 10 Asian students in Lowell Public Schools did not have a single teacher of the same race during the 2020-21 school year. That gap was similar for Hispanic and Black students.
State data shows 90% of full-time teachers in the district are white, as of the 2021-2022 school year. Black, Asian and Hispanic instructors make up just 1%, 4% and 5%, respectively.
That makes students like Elizabeth Zhan, an Asian American junior at the school, pause and think.
“All of my teachers are white,” she said, “including any staff and support that I know of.”
When students of color have teachers of color, they put more personal attention on school and have stronger post-graduation plans, according to a Learning Policy Institute study released in 2018.
District educators teamed up with the University of Massachusetts Lowell to offer college credit and potential scholarships to high schoolers interested in teaching. It’s a push for students to dream of becoming teachers.
This is the first year of the education pathway at Lowell High School, also known as the “Grow our Own” program. Last fall, 13 high schoolers from the cohort taught in elementary classrooms. They read stories to students and developed lesson plans.
Zhan got the chance to lead a first-grade class at Bailey Elementary School as a student-teacher. She was surprised by the experience — in a good way. One student looked a little familiar.
“She had the same little outfits that I used to wear, the white tights and the little pigtails,” Zhan said. “I kind of saw myself in her as a student, so I would hope she saw herself in me.”
One of the program's goals is to encourage students of color to return to their communities as educators. Another goal is for participants to learn how to lead classrooms where all students feel included, program leaders said.
Lorena Minikowski, a junior at Lowell High, wasn’t always interested in teaching as a profession. Her mom runs a daycare at home, so she was used to the hustle and bustle of young children.
"I would like, wake up in the morning and I would just like, hear kids crying when I went downstairs,” Minikowski said. “And I was like, 'I don't want to deal with this all day. This is insane.'”
But last summer, Minikowski got a job working with young students at McAvinnue Elementary School. In the fall, she joined the inaugural education pathway at Lowell High and taught in a kindergarten class.
One of her students only spoke Portuguese, so Minikowski, who is Brazilian, spoke to him in their home language.
“I was teaching the entire class, and him. So, it wasn’t like he was being separated from the rest of his class,” she said. “He was, like, being included in the same activity as … other students.”
Teachers build connections
The new teaching pathway program isn't the only push from Lowell Public School administrators to try and boost teacher diversity. Staff visited historically Black colleges and universities in Atlanta to try and recruit students to come work in Lowell. A separate effort focuses on retaining newly hired teachers of color with leadership opportunities and mentorship.
Ralph Saint-Louis, a Haitian American biology teacher who’s been at Lowell High for the last four years, is part of the fellowship. He said some students do a double take when they see him in the hallway.
“I’ve stood outside of my class, and I’ve had students like stop and stare and be like ‘Are you a teacher here?’ ” Saint-Louis said. “ 'Really?' and I’m like, ‘yeah, this is my class.’ ”
Students rarely see a Black science teacher at school. Saint-Louis emphasized how he’s been able to build strong connections. During an interview in the hallway with WBUR, students stopped to say hello.
"We really developed these really supportive teacher-student relationships and they continued to follow up with me year after year,” Saint-Louis said. “And I was like, wow, this is something that really they needed, they wanted to find representation in the classroom.”
Saint-Louis said he had influential teachers long before he considered the education field. They made space for him to explore his skills in the classroom. He tries to recreate a similar nurturing environment for his own students.
Lowell's "Grow Your Own" initiative is new, but there is strong participation. Of the nine Lowell High seniors graduating from the pathway this year, three are students of color. And in the class behind them, 16 of the 24 participants are students of color.
Stacy Agee Szczesiul is an associate dean in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at UMass Lowell. She helps oversee the partnership and said it opens the door to giving students more agency over K-12 education.
“We feel like if we can do that early, that they will understand they’re coming into a profession that will validate them, and that is not going to continue to work against them,” Szczesiul said.
Back in the classroom, Bauer asked her students to imagine what it would feel like if they walked into their third grade classroom and saw themselves standing at the front of the room.
“Inevitably I get this slow smile that spreads across their face,” she said. “And so I say, so why not you?”
This segment aired on April 7, 2023.