Minorities understand what it feels like to be different, marginalized, even bullied. Generally speaking, the experience of being a minority hones a sense of empathy, compassion and invaluable nurturing instincts. A recent study found that these, often unquantifiable characteristics give minority teachers an edge in the classroom making students feel more encouraged to put forth their best academic efforts.

The study, backed by New York University (NYU), crunched raw data from a 2009-2010 survey sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Independently gathered statistical analyses found that middle school students ranked black and Latino teachers above white teachers in order of preference in a number of areas including the ability to challenge and care for them. Aside from reaffirming the undeniable need for more minority teachers as examples and role models for minority children, the study reveals that all students, regardless of race, can benefit from diversity of leadership in the classroom.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, study author and assistant professor of international education at NYU, Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng admits that he was surprised by the study’s findings. “In the middle school I taught in and high schools I did summer stints in … students knew the racial hierarchy which existed within the school, which is largely the racial hierarchy that exists in the United States. Which implies they would have more respect, more something, for white teachers than nonwhite teachers,” he said.

Cherng taps his experience as a former middle school teacher in San Francisco to give a real-life narrative to the survey, which focused specifically on whether students felt supported or motivated by their teachers.

“If you’re a black teacher, you understand you’re not in the mainstream and you know how to navigate the world essentially embodying an identity that is sometimes highly stigmatized,” said Cherng. In middle school, “kids are struggling with their own identities and how to come to terms with their own difference and development. I think these middle school teachers can use their own identities and experience to bridge that relationship with all types of students.”

While the U.S. Department of Education has long acknowledged the dire need for more minority teachers, this study just provides more evidence that the recruitment and retention of teachers of color should be a high priority across the board.

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