Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng was 16 years old when his 11th-grade English teacher made him give a presentation about “The Joy Luck Club,” a book about four Chinese immigrant families in San Francisco.
The whole class was reading the novel, but Cherng’s teacher asked him to reflect on how the book related to his own experiences.
He remembers her saying, “this is a story of your people.”
But Cherng’s parents were from Taiwan and had immigrated years before most of the book took place. It was not at all a story of his people.
Cherng ended up stumbling through the presentation, feeling embarrassed the whole time. Looking back, he says he remembers standing at the head of the class thinking, “I feel very ashamed to be Taiwanese-American.”
Cherng is now a sociologist at NYU, studying marginalized youth. His latest research suggests that the “Joy Luck Club” fiasco might not have happened if his teacher hadn’t been white.
Cherng and his colleague, Peter Halpin, have published a study that finds students of all races show a greater preference for minority teachers over white teachers.
Cherng calls the findings “surprising,” but says they likely have a straightforward explanation: No matter a student’s race or ethnicity, all kids between 11 and 14 years old – the age group Cherng and Halpin analyzed – feel like outsiders in some way.
Minority teachers are often more naturally empathetic to those insecurities than white teachers, Cherng says.
“If they’re working with a poor white student, for instance, the teacher might not be poor,” he says. “But they may know that being poor in the US is highly stigmatized. So they may be able to make that bridge of just saying ‘I don’t know what it’s like to be poor, but I know what it’s like to be different.'”
The data Cherng and Halpin used came from the Measure of Effective Teaching study. Their analysis included responses to 1,700 surveys that were given to 6th through 9th graders in 300 US cities. Each student answered 30 questions about their teacher, such as “How much does this teacher challenge his students?” and “How supportive is she?”
The picture that emerged from the responses clearly showed kids liked black and Latino teachers more than white teachers. Even though the study didn’t include all minorities, Cherng says the results should motivate schools to hire more diverse teaching staffs overall.
He is skeptical that will actually happen, however, given the field’s barriers to entry.
A simple, more immediate way to implement the findings, he says, could be for schools to audit their minority teachers’ classes to learn how they connect with students, and then share that wisdom with all teachers.
“This story is not ‘On average, kids don’t like white teachers.’ That is a very, very sad story,” he says. “I think all teachers have to be trained in making these relationships with kids, and where we can start looking is looking at what minority teachers are doing.”