We’re sharing reactions from students about how the lack of diversity among teachers has affected their education. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more from both teachers and students.

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Last week, we published the first batch of responses from educators across Washington to our coverage of the representation disparity between the state’s teachers and their students.

This week, we’re sharing reactions from students themselves about how the lack of diversity among teachers has affected their education. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more from both teachers and students.

The questions we asked students:

  • Do you feel your race has ever affected the way teachers interact with you? How?
  • Do you think it’s important to have teachers who come from a similar background as you? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever had a teacher who was the same race as you? How did it affect your experience in that class?

Because many of these students are minors, we are identifying them only by their first names. Here’s what a few had to say.

Nataya, now a junior in college, identified as white and said, as far as she could tell, her race never affected how her teachers treated her. Her high-school teachers did, however, approach her differently because of her socioeconomic status, which is why she believes it’s so important for students to have teachers who come from similar backgrounds.

“I was homeless in high school and had teachers bully me and discriminate against me,” she wrote. “They always choose favorites: the white, middle-class kids who do sports always get perks and more help.”

Ella, a high-school sophomore who identified as biracial, said that although she never had a teacher who was half white and half black like herself, she did have another biracial teacher who could empathize with her.

“I was able to resonate with her struggles and I think she did a wonderful job of normalizing discussions about race in class,” Ella wrote. “White teachers can never quite understand all the trials and tribulation black students and other students of color have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s very important to have someone who understands these challenges and can empathize more with their students.”

Ella also mentioned a recurring experience in which teachers “tip toeing around the idea of race” in classroom discussions would look to her to make sure what they were saying was acceptable, which she felt was an attempt to get her to lead the discussions.

Leah, another high-school sophomore who identified as African American, said her white teachers and substitutes “would often be very surprised when I would speak a certain way (I wouldn’t speak in the stereotypical black girl voice/grammar).”

She has only ever had one teacher who looked like her throughout her schooling, she said, and that wasn’t until this year.

“I never had seen an African-American school staff member that was actually a teacher and not a janitor or an assistant,” Leah wrote. “I feel like when we are on the subject of race in class often teachers who aren’t of color don’t understand or can’t fully teach the subject with clarity that’s often needed for someone who is living it.”

Maria, a college student who identified as mixed race, said it was “absolutely” important to have teachers who come from similar backgrounds as their students.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

“Not that someone of a similar background is always going to understand you, but it’s a much safer space and more flexible classroom atmosphere when you have a teacher who had to overcome some hurdles and knows what that is like, so is willing to listen and even be interested,” Maria wrote. “I’ve had so many professors (most often white) who have almost unreasonable curriculum expectations, no flexibility, and cultivate no real communications between the students and themselves … When you have students of color who are marginalized, overworked and unsupported not only in their day-to-day lives, but also in their classrooms, it’s a recipe for creating more drop-outs.”

Elliott, a junior in high school who identified as white, said he has had teachers who were also white, “but it wasn’t really a huge deal.” It’s important for all students to have teachers they can relate to, though, “because it gives students supportive adults that they can identify with.”