My 7th graders have finally reached that point in the year where I get to teach one of my favorite topics: the wolves of Yellowstone National Park. While many picture Yellowstone as a lush landscape filled with natural wonders, it didn’t used to be that way. In fact, without help from a small group of gray wolves, Yellowstone as we know it may not exist today. (If you’ve got a few extra minutes, check out this video on it.)
The scientists’ idea was that the reintroduced wolves would prey upon the elk, allowing Yellowstone’s forests to regenerate and thus putting an end to the problem of widespread soil erosion. The plan was successful, but it had an even bigger impact than the scientists had expected. The wolves literally changed the entire dynamics of that ecosystem. The regenerated foliage allowed a host of new species to live and thrive inside the park. And because the soil erosion gradually stopped, over time, the scientists even began to notice that the river currents were flowing differently. The moral of the story is one that I want all my students to understand: actions that may seem small at first can end up having a much larger impact than imaginable.
It’s the same message that I keep in mind when I think about public schools and what can be done to better support their good work of helping kids learn and be successful. Particularly, the story of Yellowstone’s wolves resonates when I hear calls like Kenya Bradshaw’s below to diversify our schools’ teaching force.
“Black children don’t just need these models on the big screen — they also need them in the classroom. While half of all students in public schools are students of color, 80 percent of public school teachers and principals are White. I have no doubt that many of these teachers and principals are doing great things for the children in their schools — but I also know firsthand that there are extraordinary benefits that come from having a teacher who looks and sounds like you.”
Considering the persistent achievement gaps that exist between White students and minority students, you can understand why public education advocates remain open-minded about any such effort that might help reduce those disparities. But just like we learned from the case of Yellowstone, the seemingly small act of having just one Black teacher can impact a young Black student’s future in surprising ways.
A recent study found that Black students are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college if they had just a single Black elementary school teacher, and for students who had two Black teachers, that rate rose to a remarkable 32 percent. Furthermore, having a single Black teacher in elementary school was also found to reduce the chances that low-income Black male students drop out by nearly 40 percent.
But that’s not all. Remember how Yellowstone’s wolves ended up impacting much more than just the elk overpopulation problem? That domino effect happens here as well. When schools make an intentional effort to recruit, support, and retain minority teachers, students of color aren’t the only ones who benefit. All students do.
That fact often goes unnoticed because the benefits that Black and Brown students experience are more pronounced. However, as research shows, teachers of color are often more effective at using culturally relevant teaching, building strong relationships with kids who struggle socially, and holding high expectations for all students. No matter what skin color your students have, that’s just good teaching.
Of course, that’s not to say that recruiting more diverse teachers is the silver bullet for fixing every injustice that goes on in public schools. It won’t end dumb displays of racism like this, and it certainly won’t absolve White teachers from their responsibility to embrace diversity. But it’s a start.
After all, sometimes the smallest actions can end up having a surprising impact.