While working as an assistant principal, I helped to hire a smart and compassionate 20-something black man as a special education classroom assistant. He has a degree in English and the patience to work with kids experiencing significant trauma. He is a daily difference-maker with his students; I consider him my best hire ever. The problem with this? He should be a teacher.
As student diversity increases, our teaching force remains chiefly the same: the average U.S. teacher is still white, female, and 42 years old. But do race and gender even matter when it comes to learning? It turns out that, yes, teacher diversity is important to educational outcomes for all kids. Having just one black male teacher in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade makes a black boy 39% less likely to drop out of school, and 29% more likely to attend college. Additionally, exposure to teachers of color is beneficial to all students, since relationships with diverse people can dispel stereotypes and reduce racial bias, benefitting both individual interpersonal skills and our culture as a whole.
Even school districts actively looking to add diversity are having trouble recruiting and retaining teachers of color - and plenty of others aren’t even trying. So what can educators and parents do to increase teacher diversity in their school districts? Here are a few evidence-based ideas:
Dig into the data
Before looking for solutions, it’s important to know exactly where you stand so your team can evaluate programs and track improvements. State departments of education are required to post tons of data on their websites, but it’s often up to us to compile and interpret it ourselves. To test it out, I pulled up my county’s demographic information and took a look at the percentage of non-white teachers in each of our 23 school districts, and also looked at student demographics. While only 41% of the kids in our county are white, 96% of our teachers are white. This gap is significantly wider than the 85% of white teachers around the state; I plan to use this data to highlight the importance of solving the problem and advocate for interventions.
Look long and hard at your organizational culture
Breaking your data down even further can help you see details and patterns that need to be addressed. Of the 23 school districts in my county, the two most diverse districts for students have around 35% teacher diversity, much higher than the county average. This means the other 21 districts only have an average of 1.7% teachers of color, highlighting the segregation of both teachers and kids in my county; most of the other 21 districts have just one teacher of color on their staff, often a Spanish teacher. Those students unfortunately have very little exposure to people of different backgrounds and races. To break this pattern, establish practices that help teachers of color feel welcome. No one wants to feel like a token, or to be expected to be the primary source to educate their colleagues and students on racial issues. Read up on those issues yourself, or check out sites like Educolor and Rethinking Schools on Facebook to understand some of the stress encountered by teachers of color, doing your best to relieve the pressure with resources, appreciation, and a warm and supportive school climate.
Dispute unfair and inequitable practices
Be aware of systemic barriers that get in the way for prospective teachers of color. One point of debate in this area is the Praxis test, which functions as a gatekeeper to teacher certification, even though there is no correlation between Praxis test scores and high quality teaching. In addition to advocating for performance-based measures that more accurately reflect promise in the classroom, schools and organizations can assist teacher candidates in passing the Praxis through tutoring and study sessions, exam stipends, and strengths-based coaching. My teaching assistant colleague missed the cut-score on the Praxis when he took it, but he was also working two jobs and supporting his young family, and didn’t have the time to prepare like many of his classmates. More concrete support and encouragement during that process may have helped him overcome the test barrier.
Create a dynamic new-teacher support and mentoring program
Once new teachers are hired, orientation and mentoring programs are needed to ensure retainment, since turnover rates are 24% higher for teachers of color. Offering resources and support through weekly sessions can help, as can initiatives to address financial issues through loan forgiveness and service scholarships. A true network of genuine care is necessary for new teachers to thrive.
Create home-grown, active recruitment programs
Some of the best prospective teachers of color are already in your school districts, as classroom assistants, high school students, and parents of your students. Creating programs that support the assistant to teacher transition, designing a high school course in Teaching and Learning (possibly included in the school’s Career & Technical Education pathway), and starting Future Teachers Clubs in middle and high school can drum up interest and support at the same time. Offering college transition services, leadership training, and stipends for tuition and supplies can all help your prospective teachers accomplish their goals.
Talk to young people about becoming a teacher
Plant a seed early by encouraging kids to think about coming back to their communities to teach. Many may not have considered teaching (or college) before, and a vote of confidence from someone they respect goes a long way. As a first generation college student myself, I know that majoring in education helped me succeed in college; after all, I’d been going to school my whole life, and felt I could do well even if I didn’t have the generational knowledge of college that many of my classmates did. The New York City education chancellor promised jobs to kids who choose to come back to teach in the district, knowing that the teacher shortage is predicted to increase over the next few years. Even if you can’t guarantee jobs, letting future teachers know you can’t wait to see them become a teacher, and that you’ll help along the way, can help students know they have allies in the quest to become educators.
Our schools are stronger and students learn more if our teacher workforce is diverse. I hope the next time I have the opportunity to interview a talented candidate of color, the process ends with two key gifts: the first, the gift that diversity brings to the learning process, and second, handing over a set of keys to their own classroom.
Carver-Thomas, D. (2018). Diversifying the Teaching Profession: How to Recruit and Retain Teachers of Color. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
Farinde-Wu, A., Allen-Handy, A., Butler, B. R., & Lewis, C. W. (2017). The Urban Factor: Examining Why Black Female Educators Teach in Under-Resourced, Urban Schools. In Black Female Teachers: Diversifying the United States’ Teacher Workforce (pp. 73-92). Emerald Publishing Limited.