Rita Kohli is an Assistant Professor in the Connie L. Lurie College of Education at San José State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles, with an emphasis in Race and Ethnic Studies. Her research interests include Critical Race Theory in Education, racial hierarchies in schools, teachers of color, and improving the educational realities of students of color. A former middle school teacher, and current teacher educator, Dr. Kohli has 15 years of experience working in urban public schools. She is the co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice, and currently serves as program chair for the Critical Educators for Social Justice Special Interest Group for the American Educational Research Association. She has published in journals such as Race, Ethnicity and Education, Education, Equity and Excellence and Teacher Education Quarterly.
When I was a teacher in Oakland, California, I worked at a school that was primarily African American, but also had over ten languages spoken within the student population. At a school that diverse, it is hard to imagine that, as a South Asian American woman, I was one of the only teachers on campus who was not white or black. The teaching staff was incredibly segregated, and at lunch, faculty would watch if I sat at a “white” or “black” table. I even had a co-worker ask me one day if I thought of myself as “white or black?” and was quite shocked when I said neither. A culminating moment for me was at a staff breakfast the day before we went on winter break one year. The principal passed around black and white Styrofoam Santa ornaments as a holiday gift, and as the box made its way towards me, the teachers next to me whispered, “which one is she going to take?” I ended up taking a black Santa, but as an Indian and a Hindu, it was clear to me that my identity, culture and religion were invisible to the broader staff.
When I began working in teacher education, I saw the same phenomenon in our program. Over 25% of the teacher candidates were Asian Americans, but there was not one mention about how they fit into the paradigm of urban schooling in either the readings or class discussions. However, even for black and Latina/o teachers, there was little literature or dialogue that spoke to their experiences or reflected their identity. Many teacher candidates of color complained that the program was not designed for them, and felt overlooked in their development as educators.
As I began to do research on the topic of teachers of color, I found that with 88% of teacher education faculty as white (Ladson-Billings, 2005), the majority of research and writing on urban teaching speaks to the experiences of white teachers, approaches race and culture from a dominant perspective, and stays within a black-white paradigm of race. In this context, teachers of color often feel invisible, silenced or tokenized, and their strengths and needs neglected (Amos, 2010; Villegas & Davis, 2008). With many recruitment efforts underway to diversify our teaching force, the demographics in programs and districts are beginning to change (http://www.nea.org/home/15200.htm). However, it seems we are not responding with a similar effort to diversify our perspectives within teacher education or professional development, and thus, we are underserving both teachers of color, and the students they teach.
Along with the chair of Mexican American Studies, Marcos Pizarro, I co-facilitate the Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice (www.facebook.com/teachersofcolor). A collaboration between the College of Education and Ethnic Studies, the goal of this institute is to support the development, success and retention of teachers of color struggling to achieve racial justice in schools. It is intended as a community building, professional development space for teachers of color to explore the racial climate of their schools, receive training to navigate these realities, and strategize how to create racially transformative classrooms and schools. With over 150 applicants this year, the institute will bring together around 75 black, Asian American, Latina/o, Pacific Islander, indigenous and mixed race teachers from around the nation to participate in three days of speakers and workshops related to racial inequality and justice in K-12 school contexts. From data we have collected, we have learned that for many participants this is a space of rejuvenation from the isolation they feel being minorities in their workplace; for others, it is a place to gain the skills and tools they need to navigate complex racial climates of their classrooms and school sites. Overall, participants have explained the institute as a “refuge,” “a place of healing,” and “empowering.” Each year, we have gained more interest, and it has become a powerful and transformative space for both teachers and us.
While we feel this conference is a step in the right direction of retaining a community of social justice oriented racial minority teachers, we also realize the need for an ongoing effort to support their professional growth. Teachers of color have much to offer students of color in their experiences, insights and cultural perspectives (Kohli, 2008; 2009) and it is important that school leaders, teacher educators and teachers see and respect their identities and the gifts they bring students and schools.
Amos, Y. T. (2010). “They don’t want to get it!” Interaction between minority and white pre-service teachers in a multicultural education class. Multicultural Education 17(4), 31-37.
Kohli, R. (2008). Breaking the cycle of racism in the classroom: Critical race reflections from future teachers of color. Teacher Education Quarterly, 35(4), 177-188.
Kohli, R. (2009). Critical race reflections: Valuing the experiences of teachers of color in teacher education. Race, Ethnicity and Education 12(2), 235-251.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2005). Beyond the Big House: African American Educators on Teacher Education. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.
Villegas, A. M., & Davis, D. (2008). Preparing teachers of color to confront racial/ethnic disparities in educational outcomes. In M. Cochran-Smith, S. Feiman-Nemser, D. J. McIntyre, & K. E. Demers (Eds.), Handbook of research on teacher education: Enduring questions in changing contexts (Third Edition), (pp. 583-605). NY: Routledge.