As a child, Travis J. Bristol remembers a black Jesus on the stained glass window of his private Christian elementary school in Brooklyn, New York. His teachers, who were black, introduced him to black writers, like slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and encouraged their black student body to write letters advocating to free then-South African political prisoner Nelson Mandela.
“For me, the world was black,” said Bristol. “It was an empowering atmosphere.”
But when, as a teenager, he began attending public schools, Bristol realized that his teachers, who mostly were white and taught a more Eurocentric curriculum, didn’t understand the historical traumas associated with the communities of color that their students came from.
“I had come from a place where, at assemblies, I sang songs like, ‘I’m a promise, I’m a possibility, I’m a promise with a great big bundle of potentiality,’ in elementary school,” said Bristol. “Then, I go to this school, and I’m being told by a teacher that, as a black male, I’m going to be dead or in jail by 18.”
“I don’t think many of my teachers related to us, or saw themselves in us,” he added. “It was a very horrible and traumatic place to learn.”
Those personal experiences have led to the crux of Bristol’s work and research as an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education and to his attention to making sure there is a diversity of public school teachers in urban settings to match the student populations they teach.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 1994, two-thirds of public school students were white. More than 20 years later, fewer than half were. In contrast, today, male teachers of color make up less than 10% of the workforce, and black males represent 1.9% of all public school teachers in the country, but have one of the highest rates of turnover.
Through his research with black male teachers of color in Boston public schools, Bristol found that black male teachers were leaving at higher rates because of poor working conditions and a lack of resources from school administrators.
“Black male teachers were not being given the tools to succeed,” said Bristol. “Also, these teachers felt like they were being treated as behavior managers, as opposed to instructors. That is, in part, due to the role black male teachers are put in when they are the only teachers of color at their schools.”
Putting research into action
Bristol’s research has shown that educational outcomes for student bodies made up of predominately students of color, particularly black and Latino students, would improve if there were more male teachers of color in those schools.
But Bristol doesn’t just study the problem. The Oakland resident has created a series of “affinity groups” for male teachers of color to address issues they share, including the lack of resources, typical feelings of isolation, and the physical and psychological effects of being men of color at the schools. His most recent group is with male teachers of color in California’s urban schools.
Bristol hopes teachers and administrators will develop the camaraderie and resources to improve those working conditions, thus decreasing turnover.
“There is clear evidence to suggest that, when teachers are adequately prepared and have ongoing opportunities to improve their practice, their students perform better,” he said.
At Manuel Dominguez High School in Compton, California, Bristol, along with John Reveles from Cal State, Northridge, has worked alongside the school’s principal, Blain Watson, for more than a year to facilitate the school’s group of teachers.
Watson said the meetings allow his teachers to give him and other educators valuable feedback that can be incorporated into a better working environment.
“This is a professional learning network for us, a space where men of color can talk openly about things that affect men of color,” said Watson. “The equity and access to this field is really challenging for men of color, so this helps teachers reconnect with the profession.”
‘Children are not learning together’
Bristol’s interest in an education career began as an undergraduate majoring in English at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
In a teaching course, he was exposed to the issues surrounding student outcomes in urban public schools in America. He also began tutoring at a local high school in Holyoke, where Bristol said he realized the problems he observed at the public high school he attended in New York City were also present in other schools with similar student demographics.
He wanted to learn more.
While later earning a master’s degree in education from Stanford University, Bristol was a student-teacher at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, where students were “hyper-segregated:” White students studied together in the higher honors classes, while students of color were in remedial and non-honors advanced classes.
“We have this idea that schools were integrated during (Brown v. Board of Education), but schools are still segregated in this way,” said Bristol. “Children are not learning together, and to be in a place where you see this kind of segregation was very disorienting.”
“But it also put a passion in my belly to really try and commit my life’s work to disrupting some of these gross inequities,” he added.
Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, said she remembers Bristol as a standout student who was already an inquisitive and driven leader.
“He was always sincere about doing the best possible job for his kids,” said Darling-Hammond, who is also president of the California State Board of Education. “He was a real organizer of other students in his cohort and constantly finding ways to improve their (teaching). He was a star from the beginning.”
After graduating from Stanford in 2004, Bristol moved back to New York and taught English at two local high schools, where he was sometimes the only black teacher. He started an afterschool program for students of color that he noticed were often getting in trouble at school.
Bristol connected the students with positive role models of color in an attempt to “show them a future they could not see.” He says the program helped the students, but they only thrived while under his tutelage.
While Bristol would go back to school to earn a Ph.D. in education from the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, his work with the afterschool program would inform his future research.
“Many years later, I realized the problem wasn’t with the students,” Bristol said. “It was my colleagues, the teachers at the school. They needed some tools and resources to understand how to support them.”
Understanding the trauma
In his research article, “The Added Value of Latinx and Black Teachers for Latinx and Black Students: Implications for Policy,” that was published last fall, Bristol outlined the benefits students of color get from having more teachers of color.
Bristol pointed to historical research that shows teachers of color were able to support the social and emotional development of their students during the state-sanctioned school segregation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Individuals of color, living in communities of color, have not had the same historical investments from local, state and federal government as white communities,” Bristol said. “But children of color, from those communities of color, are coming to school and expected to learn at the same levels.”
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has made it a priority to diversify the state’s teacher workforce and says Bristol’s consultation has been invaluable.
“(The) research shows that all students benefit from having a more diverse teacher workforce, and specifically students of color who deserve to see teachers who look like them,” said Thurmond. “Dr. Bristol’s collaboration with my team has enabled us to look at how we can enact statewide policy and set statewide goals for recruitment.”
Informing the next generation
At Berkeley, Bristol teaches a course, modeled on the one he took at Amherst, called What is the Role of Race in Urban Schools? As a black male professor, he hopes to bring the same benefits to his students of color at Berkeley that he has been fighting for in the K-12 educational system.
“I attended the same kinds of high schools that many of my students did. I understand some of that challenge in transitioning to an elite institution,” he said. “So, I think it has made me somewhat understanding and relatable.”
Fourth-year student Arushi Desai took Bristol’s course. She said it allowed her to get hands-on experience volunteering for local school districts as a tutor. An economics major who is minoring in education, Desai said she hopes to go to graduate school to study public policy.
“Professor Bristol is such an open and honest teacher,” Desai said. “I really loved his teaching style. He really pushed us to think about our preconceived notions and encouraged us to pursue what we are passionate about.”