Cultivated at Home

Cultivated at Home: Using Homegrown Teachers’ Capital to Address Educational Equity in The South

Iwinosa Idahor, SELI2018 Fellow

As a transplant teacher to the area during college, I realized that as a beginning teacher in my new school, I was consulting with teachers and administrators who were from the area and could rattle off the history of the school dating back 10-15 years. I shamelessly admired their use of relationships, old Baptist church sayings and impromptu dance sessions to get otherwise disengaged students to complete intimidating class assignments or to mediate tense (and sometime volatile) situations. These teachers and administrators were achieving results, often in an unconventional way. However, students were responsive and over time, I found myself adopting many of the same strategies in my own classroom to not only get results but contribute to the culture of the community that I was in.

Those homegrown educators recognize the value of the community that they are serving in and utilize that to establish relationships and create transformative spaces of growth and impact. Like many educators, the homegrown school or district leader also has a passion to serve that is nestled in a deep-seated desire to support students from underserved and marginalized populations, those closest to home. It is this same understanding that inspires many community members to enroll in teacher education programs, principal preparation programs, or pursue other forms of educational training and return to their communities to serve as educators. 1 (Valenzuela, 2017).

The essence of engaging and collaborative student learning, effective teacher instruction, consistent parental involvement and community partnerships lies in the building of meaningful relationships, along with a genuine understanding of local context and its effects on community members.2 (Klem et al., 2004).  However, this list of elements that contribute to an overall progressive school environment is sometimes unsettled by the presence of unrecognized implicit biases of teachers who may be inexperienced or apathetic in working with students of varying backgrounds from their own, leading to a myriad of issues, including a disheartening disproportionality in disciplinary infractions received by students of color, especially African American students.3 (Staats, 2015). The placement of homegrown teachers and school and district leaders, who are serving in the communities in which they were born and/or raised, as leaders in implementing school-based equity initiatives is key to addressing the factors that affect student outcomes. Homegrown teachers and administrators can be instrumental in addressing issues that impact students’ educational experiences such as disparities in student disciplinary practices, teacher attrition, and a lack of teacher diversity in schools across the country, especially the South. This unique group of educators may be able to effectively support the design, implementation and evaluation of programs to address these challenges because they typically have a prior understanding of the local context, have established relationships within the community that they are serving, and are invested stakeholders in several different capacities. How often have we learned of educators who also serve as faith leaders, community business owners or local hometown celebrities?

Emerging research supports the influence of the demographic similarity of teachers and students on student learning and perceptions.4 (Egalite & Kisida, 2015, p. 75). The use of “homegrown” teachers also signifies a demographic similarity to students and community members, which Egalite and Kisida (2015) refer to as having a ‘cultural understanding,’ which suggests that teachers of color may be particularly well situated to explain new material in a culturally relevant and engaging way” (p. 75), supporting Yosso’s (2005) discussion on the use of Community Cultural Wealth as a way of acknowledging and utilizing the resources and value within one’s own community to meet the various needs of its people.5 The recruitment and retention of teachers of color not only play a major role in the academic development of students, but also serve as a viable asset to the sustainability of a school. According to a report by Desiree Carver-Thomas (2018), “…teachers of color are a resource for students in hard-to-staff schools…[and] report feeling called to teach in low-income communities of color where positions are often difficult to fill” (p. v.).6

School districts across the nation are resorting to the use of “Grow-Your-Own” educator programs to meet the dire need for qualified and culturally responsive teachers in today’s diverse classrooms. From Gwinnett County in Georgia to Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, these programs are providing school districts with a practical way to meet the needs of students. According to Valenzuela’s November 2017 review on the emergence of “Grow Your Own” (GYO) educator programs across the nation, the recommendation to utilize these programs as a strategy to recruit, train, and retain educators who were born and raised in the communities in which they return to serve was identified as a viable solution to bolstering and diversifying the teacher pipeline. These programs target “nontraditional populations” that are representative of the diversity that is present within the community.7 This strategy, as a solution to the teacher shortage, attrition, and lack of teacher diversity that many districts and states are facing, could be a viable one. The emphasis on “equitable approaches and critical perspectives that combine the powerful role of ‘homegrown’ teachers, culturally-relevant curriculum and social justice pedagogy in addressing achievement and opportunity gaps, especially for the nation’s woefully underserved” marks this approach as community members’ and district leaders’ response to improving the state of many of the nation’s schools (Valenzuela, 2017). 8

The notion of cultivating potential educators within a community is a practical one due to accessibility, commitment, and the social capital that is present within communities, which Reed (2009) also refers to as a “localized knowledge of students and families and a network of relationships with community constituents”. 9 Not only is the use of “homegrown” educators a practical one, it is also effective in improving school culture and climate and may have an impact on student discipline and their overall educational experience. According to Thapa et al. (2013), “a sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributive, and satisfying life in a democratic society.” 10

My hope is that this post will empower homegrown educators, and all educators, to identify the various forms of capital that they possess to enhance the learning and working experiences of students and teachers. The capital that homegrown educators possess can be used to address a wide array of issues that continue to plague many of the nation’s schools, and perhaps most significantly in the South. Overcoming such a merciless and wretched past, in today’s classrooms, this indispensable cultural capital can serve as a viable solution to diversifying and enriching the teaching profession and classrooms across the South. Homegrown educators’ decisions to return to their home community may differ from teacher to teacher, however their core reason remains the same: to serve the communities that they call home and replenish them to continue to fulfill the needs of students and their families, despite their cultural background, zip code, socioeconomic status or access to resources.

 [1][8] Valenzuela, A. (2017). Grow Your Own Educator Programs: A Review of the Literature with an Emphasis on Equity-Based Approaches. Literature Review. Equity Assistance Center, Intercultural Development Research Association, 1–18.

[2] Klem, A. M., & Connell, J. P. (2004). Relationships Matter: Linking Teacher Support to Student Engagement and Achievement. Journal of School Health74(7), 262–273.

[3] Staats, C. (2015). Understanding Implicit Bias: What Educators Should Know. American Educator, 29–33.

[4] Egalite, A. J., Kisida, B., & Winters, M. A. (2015). Representation in the classroom: The effect of own-race teachers on student achievement. Economics of Education Review45, 44–52.

[5] Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91.

[6][7] Carver-Thomas, D. (2018). Diversifying the teaching profession: How to recruit and retain teachers of color. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

[9] Reed, W. A. (2009). The Bridge is Built: The Role of Local Teachers in an Urban Elementary School. The School Community Journal19(1), 59–76.

[10] Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Guffey, S., & Higgins-D’Alessandro, A. (2013). A Review of School Climate Research. Review of Educational Research, 1–18.