Salma Abdi, a high school junior from Rochester, told the legislature she's only had a handful of teachers of color. One is the reason she's good at math, even though she doesn't like it. Credit: Minnesota House of Representatives Education Policy Committee

The star witnesses at one committee meeting of the Minnesota legislature Wednesday: Teenagers.

High school students of color from throughout Minnesota, as well as some recent graduates and a middle school student, logged on to a Zoom hearing of the House of Representatives Education Policy committee hearing to tell their state representatives they need teachers who look like them.

“Having teachers of color can motivate students to achieve bigger things in life,” said Daisy Molina, a senior at El Colegio, a Minneapolis charter school. “When they see themselves reflected in people of color that have made it, it gives kids hope with their own education and dreams.”

Minnesota’s predominantly white teaching workforce has long lagged behind the growing diversity of the state’s K-12 students. The Increase Teachers of Color Act, authored by Rep. Hodan Hassan (D–Minneapolis), aims to increase Minnesota’s teacher diversity by helping unlicensed school staff become teachers; mentorship opportunities for teachers of color and American Indian teachers; ethnic studies curricula; hiring bonuses for out-of-state teachers of color; adjustments to licensure and testing requirements; and improving cultural competency. Similar bills were introduced in 2019 and 2020, but they stalled in committee. 

This year, advocates hope the bill could advance to the governor’s desk with the help of renewed statewide urgency around racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd, plus bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Senate, including a Republican chief author (Jim Abeler, R–Anoka).  So far, 40 organizations including school districts, teachers unions, education professional associations, and youth groups have endorsed the bill. Students affiliated with those groups signed up to testify. Advocates hope that putting more teachers of color in classrooms can be an important step toward closing Minnesota’s notorious achievement and opportunity gaps.

Daisy said she was initially shy at El Colegio, where a majority of both staff and students are Hispanic or Latino. But teachers of color who affirmed her identity made her feel comfortable and helped her open up.

“Once I felt that confidence in myself, I have been able to achieve and actively learn in my class,” she said. “I feel like my voice is heard. Being in El Colegio gave me hope and made me realize that being a woman of color, I can get to places and do things that I want to do.” Daisy hopes to become an automotive mechanic, and has already been accepted into three colleges, she said. “That was possible because teachers of color in my school pushed me to be the best in myself.”

‘I remember everything he taught me, even though I didn’t like math’

Rizal Agaton-Howes, an eighth grader at Cloquet Middle School, said he was fortunate to have had three Ojibwe teachers in elementary school. In addition to reading and math, “I also got to learn about my Ojibwe ancestors and what they did,” he said. “And that’s something that’s not taught very often.”

He hoped that this bill to increase teachers of color and American Indian teachers would help more kids see themselves reflected in their teachers.

But most students testifying had very few teachers of color throughout their school years.

According to the most recent report from the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standard Board, teachers of color hold about 7 percent of all teaching assignments in the state (though the report cautions that due to changes in data collection and inaccuracies, this number cannot be compared to previous years or interpreted with certainty). In contrast, students of color make up 38 percent of the state’s pupils. 

Despite the problems with the data, Yelena Bailey, PELSB’s director of education policy, told the committee the number of teachers of color seems to be increasing. But those hiring gains are offset by problems with retention.

Salma Abdi, a junior at Rochester’s Century High School who serves on the Minnesota Youth Council, said that in her 13 years in school, including preschool and kindergarten, she’d only had four teachers of color.

In middle school, she had a Black math teacher. “He’s the biggest reason I’m good at math,” she said. “I remember everything he taught me, even though I didn’t like math.”

Her white teachers care, but most can’t fully understand her experiences as a Black student in a predominantly white space, she said. After complaining about a recent incident of racism to an administrator, she said, the only response she received was that her complaint has been addressed. But no one has told her how.

By creating a better school environment for students of color now, this bill would encourage more of those students to consider becoming teachers, Salma said.

“It’s not only meant to undo the systemic racism in education, but be an investment for the future,” she said.

Yahanna Mackbee, a junior at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, said she has only had two teachers of color, one in middle school and one in high school. By the time she was 7, she testified, she had grown to hate her brown skin, in part because of her experiences in school. She asked her mother if there was a way to lighten her skin.

“If 7-year-old me would have had a teacher of color to look up to, maybe she would have looked in the mirror and seen beauty,” Yahanna said. “And maybe she would have seen a future educator.”

‘You make me feel like power’

Qorsho Hassan, the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and the first Somali American to win the honor, recalled in her testimony her first week teaching at an early childhood center. 

“I knew then that I connected deeply and differently with my students than my white peers,” she said. “I knew what it was like to face food insecurity. I knew what it was like to be forced to hide internalized trauma. And I especially knew what it was like to not be understood by my teachers.” 

One student, 4 years old, came up after a reading lesson and whispered in Qorsho’s ear, “You make me feel like power.”

“I knew then, like I know now, the power I can give to my students,” Qorsho said.

When she read her fourth graders the picture book Something Happened In Our Town, about the police killing of a Black man, to help them process George Floyd’s death, the state’s largest police association publicly criticized her choice.

“My school administrators let me face the backlash alone,” she said. “Passing this bill will hold administrators accountable for being culturally responsive.”

In addition to evaluating administrators on cultural competency, the bill would prohibit discrimination against teachers for using curriculum materials by members of a protected class. It would also require schools to provide all students access to ethnic studies curriculum or classes.

Sylvia Jong Soon De Shazo, a student at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School and part of the coalition Youth for Ethnic Studies, spoke in favor of the bill’s ethnic studies requirement.

“Except for two experiences in middle school, all I’ve been taught is about white history,” she said. “We can’t truly understand American history without having ethnic studies. Racism is not going to go away, but if people had a better understanding of it, and a better understanding of each other, then we could have less racism. Having ethnic studies would bring us together with more mutual understanding of everyone’s contributions to history.”

After the testimony, legislators of both parties praised the students for sharing their stories.

“To our young people that presented today, you touched me in a way that I just have to say thank you for being brave, for being fearless, and for stepping up and speaking to us adults and letting us know what you need to be successful,” said Cedrick Frazier (D–New Hope). “I don’t know how anyone can hear what our young people said they need to be successful in this space, and not want to do everything we can to make sure it happens.”

“I think most everybody on this call would agree we do need more teachers of color in the classroom,” said Peggy Scott (R–Andover).

While Republicans on the committee praised the students and the goals of the bill, they appeared to have different ideas about how to achieve those goals than the bill’s DFL authors. Sondra Erickson (R–Princeton), a retired English teacher, offered an amendment to replace the bill with a proposal that would expand alternative teacher licensure pathways and prohibit the use of seniority as a determining factor in layoff decisions. Rep. Hodan asked members to vote no, but offered to work with Rep. Erickson to amend the bill before its hearing in the Education Finance committee. 

Erickson’s amendment failed, and the bill passed out of the DFL-controlled committee on a party-line vote.

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.