Four representatives from Teach For America, including two UT professors and one graduate student, addressed students Tuesday to explain the organization’s focus on diversity as a critical element of student engagement.
Teach For America hires recent college graduates to teach at schools in low-income areas. Since its foundation in 1989, the organization has worked in 30 states to improve the education system.
The representatives said one of the largest obstacles to achieving diversity is a lack of a proper definition of the term.
“Diversity can be manipulated and diluted to mean nothing,” said Lily Laux, an American studies graduate student who has worked at eight different Teach For America institutes. “Many cannot even comprehend its necessity.”
Teach For America representative Alejandro Delgado said insufficient diversity is undervalued as a problem in education.
“We don’t think about diversity enough, and it is often oversimplified,” Delgado said.
Education assistant professor Richard Reddick said he believes the lack of teacher diversity is harming the students.
“Most K-12 teachers are white women. If there is a group of students not being taught by people they can relate to, it is crippling,” Reddick said.
According to the National Center for Education Information, 84 percent of public school teachers in 2011 were women, and another 84 percent were white.
Reddick, a UT graduate, used his personal experience to highlight the consequences of a lack of diversity and culture in the K-12 curriculum.
“I didn’t learn about black culture until I got to college, and it was empowering,” Reddick, who is black, said. “The reason kids have bad attitudes is because they miss out on learning about their lineage of greatness.”
He said one’s cultural history is a source of motivation and a necessary factor in grade-school education.
“[Black youths] begin to think if they are doing something well they beat the odds,” Reddick said.
Reddick said diversity is the key to bringing self awareness to the kids accepting their potential and learning who they are.
“It’s painful to see students exposed to narrow curriculum. Many are unaware of experiences other than their own,” Reddick said.
Laux said diversity in the classroom is what contributes to a student’s racial identity.
“Racial identity and results are not mutually exclusive and equally important,” Laux said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated a quotation by Lily Laux, an American studies graduate student. Laux said racial identity and results are not mutually exclusive.