Turning students into teachers

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Tough problems rarely have quick fixes. The racial achievement gap, which has plagued our nation for as long as achievement has been measured, and has grown worse in recent decades, is that type of problem. However, new research suggests that if the teachers of today can inspire more young people of color to be the teachers of tomorrow, we may be able to narrow that gap significantly.

A recent study by Seth Gershenson et al. found that black teachers, all else equal, have immensely positive long-term influence on black students. Somehow, having an elementary school teacher of the same race really helps students graduate from high school and go on to college. Unfortunately, only 7 percent of teachers in the U.S. are black, compared to 16 percent of the student body. Similarly, while 24 percent of American students are Hispanic, only 8 percent of teachers are. These underrepresentations perpetuate disadvantage.

In their conclusion, Gershenson and his team recommend that school administrators ensure black students get assigned to at least one black teacher. Yet that isn’t enough. The researchers used data from over 100,000 black students in North Carolina and Tennessee, and when assigned per standard procedure, two in every three of those kids missed out on the advantage of having at least one same race teacher. We need more teachers of color.

Giving high schoolers opportunities to feel like teachers could launch them on an important career trajectory. High school is a critical time for career discernment, and although students are surrounded by the classroom environment, teaching may not seem like an obvious path unless young people are presented with the chance to try it. Organizations like Educators Rising, which reach into high schools to guide students into teaching, offer formal structure that can help boost the number of teachers of color. While not every school has such programs, every school has smart teachers and talented students. Those teachers can show these kids the ropes, develop their sense of self-efficacy, and increase the likelihood of their students entering the profession.

Having students lead brief didactic sessions for their peers would be a good starting place. There is a substantial body of evidence showing positive academic outcomes for peer tutoring and instruction in primary, secondary, and university classrooms, both across and within grades. However, most of these activities are based on cooperative group interactions, where students explain concepts to one another while still seated at their desks. If framed in a way such that students could see themselves as teachers, perhaps by having an individual stand in front of the class, then peer instruction would be more likely to lead students into teaching careers. While little research has been conducted into the career-exploration benefits of asking students to act like teachers, many students are surely capable.

When I think back to the classroom in which I was a student-teacher, I remember how one of my students—Daisy—always tutored her classmates once she finished her own assignment. I wish I had handed her a textbook and said, “Can you help me teach an upcoming lesson? We will cover this topic, and it would be awesome if you could give the class a two minute explanation after our warm-up.” Better yet, these brief student-run lectures could be a class-wide project, with a different student giving the talk each day. This strategy ensures all students can learn to teach and, perhaps more importantly, minimizes the risk of drama, a major concern for high school students.

Admittedly, handing over such power to teenagers may seem daunting, particularly given the danger of spreading a misconception to the whole class. Correcting a student lecture would be embarrassing and difficult, but could be avoided with prior planning, perhaps by asking, “Can you give me a practice talk the day before?” Indeed, the risk taken by the teacher in placing such responsibility on a student may demonstrate trust, strengthening the relationship between them.

This strategy would also benefit all students—not only those who ultimately decide to go into teaching. Learning to effectively educate others helps develop skills that are highly valuable in any workplace, including self-discipline, empathy, and verbal clarity. Although I plan to go into academia or industry, my training as a teacher helps me today and will continue assisting me tomorrow.

In essence, I’m asking teachers to reconsider the way they mentor students. In an age obsessed with college and career readiness, teachers have a great, perhaps unrecognized ability to prepare students for one of our most important jobs. It would be great if more of their black and brown protégés end up pursuing careers in the classroom because a more racially equitable teacher workforce could lead to a more equitable society. Those that choose other careers will still be better off taking pieces of a teacher’s toolkit with them.  

Daisy and her peers are graduating this year. Some of them could become great teachers, but only if they have a chance to discover that calling. 

Christopher Rom
Christopher Rom Former research Intern