an African American teacher works with studentsWhen I was in elementary school, I had something special in my class that not a lot of other kids had. It was something that, at the time, was rare not only in my school but in classrooms across the country. In my first grade classroom, my language arts teacher was Ms. Cheryl Evans, and she was black.

For many black children, getting a teacher who looks like them doesn’t happen often, if at all. Nationally, only 7% of teachers are black. In San Francisco, California when I was growing up, the percentage was 5.1%. Today, in San Francisco, it’s less than 4%.

At the time, I had no idea how unusual it was to see a black teacher in my classroom. I didn’t know about the research that points to the positive affect that this can have on black children. Nor did I know that having black teachers available to black children in classrooms means those children are most likely being seen in a way untarnished by and disconnected from inequity and injustice. All I knew was that I had a teacher who looked like me, who took a special interest in me and my academic work, and who pushed me to bring the best version of myself to class every day.

Today, Ms. Evans feels like a big deal.

That school year, Ms. Evans handed me the book Amazing Grace by Mara Hoffman, and in that book Grace learns at the end that “I can be anything I want.” You can imagine how impactful that book could be on a seven-year-old black girl; it was the first time I saw a black girl on a book’s cover, and as I filled with self-love, it felt good to see and read about someone who looked like me. Ms. Evans was also the first teacher to praise me for my writing skills, with feedback that was warm and encouraging. She was the reason that I wrote and wrote and wrote, with the creative flair of Grace.

Now, it’s well understood that many teachers, of any race, are capable of being responsive to the needs of their students in a classroom — all students, no matter their race, socio-economic status, gender, or cultural background. These teachers see and respond to their students as whole beings. But I also know that everyone needs to have people in their lives whom they can relate to; we deserve the opportunity to embrace our background and culture in our everyday experience and see ourselves in role models, in our heroes. Which, for me, was Ms. Evans. Representation in education matters — I know that from personal experience — and it has the potential to be the secret ingredient that makes all the difference in a child’s educational life.