We’ve all been reading the heart-wrenching stories of families being torn apart by the aggressive deportation policies of the Trump Administration and the ongoing saga of what will happen to the “Dreamers”—the undocumented young people brought to the United States as children. Protected for now under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Dreamers’ futures remain uncertain under a president who treats the program like a political football. Meanwhile Congress has failed to step in with legislation to permanently protect the Dreamers.
Dreamers are cherished members of our communities, and there are more reasons than I can count for why they deserve to remain in the U.S.—the only home they’ve ever known. But as an educator, I often think about the ripple effects this toxic debate will have on our students and our teachers.
For a decade, I worked in the Houston Independent School District as a teacher, coach and administrator. Houston (and Texas as a whole) has a large population of immigrant students from all over the world. But Texas also has nearly 2,000 teachers who are in the DACA program. There are an estimated 9,000 teachers nationwide who are protected by DACA.
It is hard to overstate how devastating it would be for the nation to lose these educators. The U.S. public school teaching force is overwhelmingly white (about 80 percent in 2017) while the majority of our students are kids of color. That disparity will only increase over time as our nation becomes more diverse.
It’s important for students to see teachers—figures of authority and respect—who look like them. Why? For one, we know that the teaching profession is not immune from the same implicit bias problem that plagues society generally. Implicit biases are the subtle, often subconscious stereotypes that guide how we interact with people and what we expect of them. This manifests in school with higher and harsher rates of discipline for students of color and tracking into less rigorous classes and other inequities.
Research has also demonstrated that teachers of color are more likely than their white colleagues to have high expectations of students of color and more positive appraisals of their academic potential. A report from the Center for American Progress shows that the reverse is not true. White students’ ability was judged similarly by teachers of color and white teachers.
At the Raikes Foundation, one of the things we focus on is research about mindsets and how learning environments shape students’ experiences in school and academic success. One critical mindset is belonging—students who are confident they belong and who feel valued by teachers and peers engage more fully in learning. When they are uncertain that they belong, they are constantly looking for cues in the environment to signal whether they fit in or are welcome there. They also carry concerns about confirming negative stereotypes about their identity. The energy students spend on these concerns uses up valuable cognitive resources that are essential for learning.
Imagine what it would feel like for a Latina student to see her Latina teacher—a adult who makes her feel like she belongs and can succeed—removed from her classroom and deported? Teachers are an essential thread in the fabric of communities. Just one teacher impacts hundreds of students and families during his or her career. Multiply that by the 9,000 DACA-protected teachers, and many thousands of lives will be negatively impacted if we don’t act to protect Dreamers.
In a country facing widespread teacher shortages and stubbornly slow progress in diversifying our education workforce, we cannot afford to lose those who would commit their careers to serving our young people. Dreamers are a vital part of our communities and schools, and their students depend on them to create safe, inclusive spaces where learning can flourish. DACA protects far more than the Dreamers—safe classrooms, students and communities are at risk if we don’t act.