In a profession where over three million people share your occupation, being recognized as the National Teacher of the Year must feel a little like winning the lottery. It’s the “oldest, most prestigious national honors program that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching,” and this week a Baltimore County, Maryland, high school English teacher earned the top spot. He’s the child of two educators and is married to a teacher. Sean McComb is straight out of central casting. And I’m not mad at him at all.
In a system where we infantilize rather than elevate teachers, where we show little respect for their expertise, where politicians kill long-held teacher rights based on the marching orders of conservative billionaires, my heart swells to see a public school teacher stand in the Rose Garden with the President of the United States, surrounded by “exceptionally dedicated, knowledgeable, and skilled” peers from 49 states and U.S. jurisdictions.
What gives me pause isn’t the magnitude of this well-deserved honor, it’s that teachers of color receiving this national award for excellence are like unicorns – seldom seen at all, and never seen in pairs.
The NTOY candidate has to inspire students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn; have the respect and admiration of students, parents, and colleagues; play an active and useful role in the community as well as in the school; and be poised, articulate, and possess the energy to withstand a taxing schedule. In my little East Coast suburban county, I can think of at least half a dozen teachers – black, Latino and Asian – who fit these criteria. Extrapolate nationally and it’s hard to fathom how in the last 20 years only two teachers of color – in 1997 and 2006 – have been able to crack the glass ceiling that is the NTOY honor.
This is not an isolated incident when it comes to education accolades. It's business as usual. It’s a Foundation that presents awards for teaching excellence – and out of three dozen awardees, a scant two are "perceptible people of color." It’s a National Teachers Hall of Fame that annually honors teachers “who have demonstrated commitment and dedication to teaching our nation’s children” – and for the last two years could not find one committed, dedicated and unambiguous person of color. It’s the lists and rankings of who’s influential in education policy and who’s a “connected educator”, and the countless ways we order and sort and glaringly overlook who’s worthy of recognition.
In total, it paints a dismal and powerful picture of exclusion of teachers of color over many years, which can only be remedied with a course correction. Not quotas or rainbow scorecards or well-intentioned interventions, but an aggressive initiative to open the pipeline. More honorees of color are the byproduct when you accept that any process which results in a world of sameness is incomplete and flawed.
UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies came to a salient conclusion in a scathing report on racial diversity in film and TV:
“The idea that there is a necessary tradeoff between diversity and excellence has enabled this industry status quo. When confronted with abysmal diversity numbers, industry decision makers often resort to the ‘small pool’ argument as a justification for the situation: ‘There is a shortage of diverse talent out there.’…the lack of diversity in how the industry celebrates excellence works to reinforce this idea.”
Meanwhile, selection committees are stacked with people who often look like the awardees, and when hazelnut cream does rise to the top, teachers of color can face questions about their legitimacy and qualifications for the honor. Together, these factors create a cycle of marginalization.
Excellent teachers of color are not in short supply, and finding and including them should not be by chance or happenstance. It should be by design.