An urgent call for a more diverse teaching workforce was front and center at NYSUT’s Take a Look at Teaching summit in Yonkers Thursday, as students, educators, community activists and state policymakers explored ways to make that happen.
“New York State’s student demographics are changing but our education workforce is not keeping up,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango. While 43 percent of students statewide are Hispanic/Latino or African-American, just 16 percent of the teachers are.
Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Samantha Rosado-Ciriello, who co-hosted the summit with DiBrango, said the union is working to expand the district’s “Grow Your Own” program to convince promising Yonkers students to become educators and come back home for their career. She asked how many teachers in the audience were Yonkers natives and many hands went up.
“We’re making progress but we still have a long way to go,” Rosado-Ciriello said. In Yonkers, 77 percent of the students are Hispanic/Latino or African-American, while 26 percent of the teachers are.
DiBrango said the union’s initiative is aimed at elevating the profession and encouraging students and career-changers from all backgrounds to take a look at teaching.
She noted enrollment in NY’s teacher preparation programs has declined 53 percent since 2009.
“That’s scary,” DiBrango said. “We need teachers in the pipeline.”
The statewide union is also focusing on beefing up support for educators early in their career.
“We want to work on retention just as much as recruiting,” DiBrango said. “Those first five years are tough.”
The summit, which was the sixth in a series of events around the state, was a who’s who gathering of elected officials voicing their support for the initiative.
Senate Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, said the state needs to do everything it can to encourage new people to enter the profession and make it more diverse. She said it’s time to lift up the profession and get the word out about how rewarding the career can be.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a former teacher herself, told the students how good it feels to be that role model, the one who helped a youngster beat the odds “because you stood in front of the room and told them, ‘You can do this,’ and ‘You matter.’”
Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Baychester, also talked about the incredible impact teachers have on their students, naming all his teachers between kindergarten and eighth grade to show how important they were to him. Bailey emphasized, however, how crucial it is to have more teachers of color.
“My first experience with a black male teacher was ‘Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper’ on TV,” Bailey said. “It wasn’t until I was a junior at Bronx Science that I had my first black male teacher... Representation matters.”
He looked out into the audience and urged the students to think of teaching as a mission. “What you do is much more important than what you say,” he said. “Your kids are not going to forget you.”
Mayor Mike Spano echoed DiBrango’s call for a strong support network for educators starting out. He said that when his niece became a teacher she was initially very frustrated but the union gave her a mentor who provided that crucial support. “That made all the difference,” Spano said. “She now loves being teacher and her students love her.”
Spano said policymakers need to find new ways to get young people excited about entering the profession. “It’s a very noble commitment,” he told the students. “Listen to these educators and how much they love to teach.”
After working in small group breakout discussions, students in the audience seemed to hear the message loud and clear.
Jazmilya Jimenez, a junior at Yonkers Montessori Academy, said the summit discussion definitely made her think more seriously about becoming a teacher. She suggested expansion of programs where high school students tutor and mentor elementary students.
Aalyssa Martinez, a junior at Gorton High School, said the event was inspiring and suggested extending the idea to offer sessions on becoming a special education teacher, or other subject areas.
As she reported out on her table’s discussion, Martinez looked out in the audience and gave a big shout out to her former sixth grade teacher. “Miss Murray was one of my faves,” she said.
After the program, the two got together for a big hug (pictured).
“It makes you feel so good when students come back and tell you what a difference you made,” said Brigid (Murray) Arpa, a teacher at Cesar Chavez School. “There’s really nothing better.”