Luke Lee has always been in the minority.
Growing up in Pittsburg, he was one of only two African-American kids in his class. The other was his cousin. Still, he always felt like people were there for him. Now, as a teacher himself, he hopes to pass along that sense of support to the students in his second-grade classroom at Junction Elementary in Turner School District in Kansas City.
"No matter what race that kid is, they're going to have troubles in their life," Lee said. "All kids need help."
Lee, 26, was inspired to become a teacher by his sixth-grade teacher.
"She was just really positive and upbeat all of the time," Lee said, noting that she related well with the kids. "She showed me what a teacher could really be."
While Lee's role model was a white woman, some say that students benefit from having role models who look like them.
"I think I had to learn things on my own about things I was curious about," Lee said. "I missed out on a lot of things that I could have been exposed to as far as culture and things like that if I would have gone to a different school."
Many of the students in his class are Hispanic, and Lee tries to talk about Hispanic culture to show that he cares about them. He said the nation has come a long way toward promoting equality and diversity since the Brown v. Board decision, but there's still work to be done.
"I think the future of the country can do a lot of great things if we allow ourselves to," Lee said. "Even though segregation is not a true thing anymore, I think we segregate our minds a little bit."
While the number of teachers of color has slowly increased, minorities remain underrepresented among teachers at public schools.
"I have seen very few students of color go through our program whether it be at the undergraduate or graduate level," said Alice Sagehorn, chairwoman of teaching and leadership at Pittsburg State University. "We have seen an increase in the last few years in students of color at the graduate level, but that's because we've been focusing on adding students of color to our population. It's been working out better at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level."
Nationwide, the number of teachers of color doubled from 1987 to 2012, and the percentage of nonwhite teachers in public schools rose from 12 percent to 17 percent, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. But the report said those numbers don't reflect such concerns as lower rates of diversity among millennial teachers and greater diversity among students than teachers.
In Kansas, the percentage of white licensed personnel fell slightly to 93.08 percent at Kansas schools in the 2017-18 school year, compared with 94.78 percent in the 2014-2015 school years, according to data from the Kansas State Department of Education.
Various efforts are underway to increase the number of minority teachers at public schools in Kansas.
Pittsburg State University is working with Kansas City Kansas Public Schools to provide coursework to provisional teachers working toward teaching licenses. The university also received a grant from the Laura Bush 21st Century Library program to train library media specialists for school libraries serving the nine Native American Tribes in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. Another grant focuses on schools with large populations of Hispanic individuals.
"When a child sees someone who looks like them, whose name sounds like theirs, who may even speak their language, they see themselves reflected in what the teacher does," Sagehorn said. "That is critical to be able to relate with the teacher. The students don't care what you're teaching until they know that the teacher cares about them."
She said one reason more people of color don't go into teaching is because of the lack of minority role models in schools.
"We are nowhere near where we need to be with teachers of color," Sagehorn said. "It's not just good for the kids of color to see teachers of color. It's also good for the majority kids, if you want to call it that, or white kids to see teachers of color in their classrooms, too."
It's getting harder to find teacher candidates, regardless of race, she said.
In fall 2018, there were 612 teacher vacancies across the state, compared with 513 the year before, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards.
"It's a problem everywhere, not just in Kansas, not just in Pittsburg State, just getting kids interested in becoming teachers anymore," Sagehorn said, noting that various factors contribute to that, including low pay, high workload and negative perceptions perpetuated by social media.
Supporting diversity goes beyond hiring demographics. Heather Caswell, associate professor at Emporia State University, said the majority of teachers now are white women, and they can make efforts to provide exposure to other perspectives and be conscious of their own biases.
"I think we're always a work in progress," Caswell said.
Attending training and increasing their own exposure to diverse environments can help teachers create inclusive learning environments for students. Reflecting on what diversity means also can be helpful, Caswell said, noting that defining diversity based on race is limiting.
"I think it's very difficult and very complex to think about and summarize it because every individual has a different perspective," Caswell said. "I think it's important to hear all of the voices, as well as consider the voices of those who are not present in the conversation."
She approaches diversity through the lens of intersectionality, which encompasses the many overlapping factors that influence individuals and social groups and puts a wider lens on diversity, including race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, ability and other factors.
"I think that's the direction that I as an educator of educators would like to see the conversation going," Caswell said.
She has developed a class, with her colleague Melissa Reed, called "Creating Brave Spaces: Understanding Intersectionality in Learning Spaces." She emphasized the power of listening, sharing personal stories and finding the commonalities that connect people.
"I think diversity is relevant in all school districts," Caswell said. "If we don't have the conversation about race in all school districts in all communities, we're just contributing to the system of oppression."