"They would talk about stories of how they would go into stores and shop owners would follow them around, and the students would say, 'They only do that because I'm black.' Then they would look at me and ask, 'Mr. Cherng, do you have any stories like this?' " said Cherng, who is now an assistant professor of international education at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
"I thought about it, and ... I do have stories," he said.
Though he hasn't been followed in a store, Cherng, who is of Taiwanese-Chinese descent, told his students about how often people would ask him, "Where are you from?"
Even when he would answer that he is from Maryland, they would not seem satisfied and would ask again; it was as if they refused to believe that he was from the United States.
After Cherng opened up about these experiences with his students, they were able to comfortably discuss race in the classroom and build a bond, he said.
"Middle school ... is a time when almost all youth are forming and trying out new identities," Cherng said.
"Minority teachers, by virtue of their experiences negotiating the United States with identities that fall outside of the mainstream, can likely understand their students' struggles," he said. "This is certainly not to say that white teachers cannot do the same -- some of my mentors when I taught were white men and women that formed incredible bonds with their students -- but minority teachers draw from different experiences."
It turns out that students of all races seem to have more favorable perceptions of their teachers of color than their white teachers, according to a new study by Cherng and Peter Halpin, assistant professor of applied statistics at New York University, published in the journal Educational Researcher
The impact of teacher diversity
The study included data on 1,680 teachers in 200 schools and about 50,000 students in sixth- through ninth-grade classrooms from six large metropolitan areas across the country.
The data were collected during the academic years of 2009-10 as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching project
, which used in-depth surveys to measure how students perceived their teachers.
Cherng and Halpin analyzed the data to see whether any trends based on race emerged. They focused on black, white and Latino teachers since there were not enough Asian-American teachers or teachers of other races included in the data to draw conclusions for those demographics, Cherng said.
After accounting for student performance, teacher working conditions and other factors, the researchers found that, overall, students had more favorable perceptions of their black and Latino teachers than white teachers.
For instance, the students reported that their black and Latino teachers were "clearer" or easier to understand than their white teachers.
The students also felt more motivated and supported by their black and Latino teachers, according to the data.
Additionally, the researchers discovered that students' perceptions did not correlate with having a teacher of the same race as them.
"It was not always the case that minority students rated minority teachers particularly high. For example, the relationship between white students and Latino teachers was the same as the relationship between Latino students and Latino teachers," Cherng said. "White students had more favorable perceptions of Latino teachers on almost all measures."
The data revealed that black and Asian-American students had particularly favorable perceptions of black teachers.
However, more research is needed to build a dataset that can be statistically generalized to all students in the United States and can distinguish between individuals of Afro-Latino and non-Afro-Latino descent, Cherng said.
'Educators who reflect ... our nation'
What do other experts think of the new study? "The design of the study and methods used provide robust answers and insights into student preferences for teachers. The qualitative data from the study allow readers to hear the voices of participants in the study," said Rich Milner, a professor of education and director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh.
He added that the study results "are not surprising to me."
"Not to stereotype or generalize, research has shown that teachers of color tend to empathize with their students, relate to their inside and outside of school realities, teach to the multiple learning styles of students, develop instructional practices that are responsive to students and give students' multiple opportunities for success," Milner said.
However, there is a need for a more diverse pool of teachers in the United States, said Shaun Harper, a University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.
Despite the increasing ethnic diversity of the nation's school-age children, a whopping 83% of all elementary and secondary teachers are white, according to the Department of Education
"Perhaps students have a greater appreciation for faculty members of color because they see so few of them throughout their K-12 schooling experiences. It is also possible that kids, especially students of color, recognize the demographic mismatch between their peers and teachers. Hence, they appreciate exposure to educators who reflect the racial makeup of their classrooms and our nation," Harper said.
"Findings in this study show the appreciation that young Americans have for racial diversity, which is inspiring," he added. "Too bad their schools often fall short of satisfying students' appetites for teacher diversity and the integration of diverse perspectives in the curriculum."
Though it's vital to have more minority teachers, Cherng said, he doesn't think a drastic shift in teacher demographics will happen anytime soon.
Rather, "my experience working with and teaching educators from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds has convinced me that whatever it is that Latino and black teachers are doing in their classrooms can and must be understood better and taught," he said.