Schools need BIPOC educators now more than ever

Schools need teachers who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour more than ever. I am an educator and I also happen to be Black — a rare occurrence in Saskatchewan schools. A rarity that needs fixing.

There are too few teachers who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour, and students suffer as a result

Helen Vangool is a teacher in Saskatoon who shares her experiences of racism with her students and encourages students of colour open up to me about their own experiences. (Submitted by Helen Vangool)

This piece was originally published on Sept. 3, 2020.

Take a minute and think about every single teacher you have had from kindergarten to Grade 12. Were any of them a person of colour? Highly doubtful.

I am an educator, and I also happen to be Black — a rare occurrence in Saskatchewan schools. A rarity that needs fixing.

Post-secondary education programs in this province should do more to recruit people of colour and support them. Seeing more Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in teaching positions will encourage students of colour to join the profession and at the same time reframe some of the narrow-minded thinking I encountered when it comes to the concept of white privilege and systemic racism in Saskatchewan.

Growing up, I never had a teacher that wasn't white. In fact, I was surrounded by whiteness.

In elementary school, I was always the only visible minority in the class. Everything was taught from a Eurocentric point of view. For example, Canada's involvement in the underground railroad was celebrated, but we did not learn that Canada had slaves for more than 200 years. I don't recall images, books, or teaching materials that contained diversity.

Even when there were incidents of racism that occurred in the school, I was never aware of substantial consequences or teaching behind it.

It was the microaggressions that I experienced daily — comments on my hair, skin and abilities — that made me feel like I didn't quite fit in.

In school, Vangool writes, she felt isolated as a Black student surrounded by whiteness. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Voiceless and invisible

High school was a little different. There were a few more BIPOC in my classes, but nothing really changed for me. 

All the teachers were still white, and when they did incorporate diversity in their teaching, they only seemed to use materials that dealt with the trauma of BIPOC, never joy.

One day in English class, my teacher was reading the novel Of Mice and Men. I will never forget the way it made me feel to sit in a classroom full of white people while my teacher used the N-word with no hesitation. I felt like all eyes were on me. I had this feeling of dread wash over me.

It happened again when another teacher was reading To Kill a Mocking Bird to our class and used the N-word. No one even thought to talk to me about using the word, discuss the contents before teaching these novels or even, dare I say it, leave the slurs out. No one thought to talk to me about these things because none of the teachers knew what it was like to be a person of colour, and truly, it felt like no one cared.

I felt lost in the school system, voiceless and invisible.

I had this feeling of "otherness" that I couldn't quite shake.

Vangool says schools at all levels must make an effort to hire more diverse teachers so students can see themselves reflected in these roles. (Submitted by Helen Vangool)

Break down barriers

I was eventually drawn to the teaching profession after taking a native studies class at university in which the professor, an Indigenous man, was working to help his students understand the effects of colonization. He was using his position to help break down barriers of race and discrimination by providing his students with a different lens to view society.

He changed my life.

Although the Black and Indigenous experiences are very different, I felt connected to that teacher and not alone anymore. Being a teacher was not something I considered before because I never saw anyone who looked like me in a position of power in schools. I never felt like I fit in the school system, so I had no desire to teach in it. 

I became a teacher because of that class.

Learning about white privilege through a white lens

When I attended the college of education at the University of Saskatchewan, I was again the only visible minority in my classes.

I was learning about white privilege and racism except it was still taught from a white lens, by white teachers. We were told that "we need to start recognizing our privileges as white people." But I was not white.

My classmates would remark how they hadn't considered how non-white people couldn't just go anywhere to get their hair done or buy a Band-Aid that was "flesh" coloured. But I knew.

I felt disconnected and ignored in those classes, discussing racial issues in a class where I was the only BIPOC.

I almost dropped out because of it. There was no one that could relate to what I was going through at the time, and I felt alienated. I stayed in the program because I had a solid group of friends who encouraged me to keep going.

Vangool is of Eritrean and Ethiopian descent. (Submitted by Helen Vangool)

Teacher diversity gap persists

While the diversity of students I see in classrooms is increasing, it appears that teachers of colour are not.

No one, to my knowledge, keeps statistics on teacher diversity in Saskatchewan, but when I look around at teacher conferences, classrooms and other educational events, it still seems as though at least 90 per cent of teachers are white or white-passing here. 

This "teacher diversity gap," as it's known, has been talked about in Canada for years. Even in Toronto, for example, where more than half the population identifies as visible minority, only about one-fifth of teachers are non-white, according to data compiled by the Turner Consulting Group in 2014.

Discussing the need for teachers of colour in Saskatchewan is important. The truth is race matters and individuals who are white have privileges that BIPOC do not.

We can counter white privilege by empowering and hiring teachers of colour. We need to see educators who are reflective of the diversity of our Canadian population. We need to see teachers of various races inspiring their students to speak out against the racial hierarchies that exist within society. Seeing a teacher of colour in the classrooms can help motivate students of colour to strive for powerful positions in society — or become teachers themselves, like my professor inspired me.

Post-secondary institutions needs to do more to encourage and recruit BIPOC to become educators in Saskatchewan. Additionally, they need to implement a support system for students of colour in the program, so they don't feel alienated and alone. Creating programs that specifically target and support visible minorities to enter the teaching profession is essential.

I am not implying that white teachers cannot encourage their students of colour. I believe seeing teachers of colour working within the education system would help improve the academic success of students of colour by providing them with the hope, confidence, and strength to succeed while at the same time, give white students the opportunity to listen and learn from the voices of the oppressed.

See the world from different perspective

I became a teacher so that I could make a difference.

I wanted to help students of colour feel like they belong while at the same time provide a different lens for all of my students to view the world — and I feel like I am doing just that.

When I am in the classroom, I do my best to create an inclusive environment where students can see themselves in the learning. I share my experiences of racism, hardships and successes with students so that they can have an understanding of what it is like to be a woman of colour in Saskatchewan.

Because of this, I have developed meaningful relationships with my students, and I have had students of colour open up to me about their own experiences and have provided them with a space where they are comfortable enough to share that with me.

There is an unexamined whiteness in the education system that ignores the diversity of students in the classroom, and as a result, I had to find my own way through the education system.

It is because of those experiences that I have made it my mission to never have a student who walks into my classroom feel the way I once did. Instead, I am committed to helping students of colour see that they belong and are capable of greatness. 

This story is part of a CBC project entitled Being Black in Canada, which highlights the stories and experiences of Black Canadians, from anti-Black racism to success stories Black communities can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Helen Vangool is an educator from Saskatoon. She attended the University of Saskatchewan and has degrees in both psychology and education. She is of Eritrean and Ethiopian descent. Helen's passions lie in social justice and anti-racist education.