Diversity improves both teaching and learning. And it’s not just about having a diverse student body. The diversity of your staff impacts your students’ education. 

“There are a number of advantages to putting together a staff that includes all sorts of people—those with different ethnic and racial backgrounds, but even those who have various other strengths or personalities—who may be analytical, or caring, or strict, or have another different approach to teaching,” says Michael Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District in Arkansas and a veteran administrator with 33 years in education.

Little Rock School District has worked hard to find educators who reflect its students’ diversity. For instance, a majority of the staff is now from a minority background, and a quickly growing number are Asian. Plus, the district has succeeded in having a higher percentage of administrators of color than students of color (although it is still trying to match that in its percentage of nonwhite teachers). 

“It’s a challenge for schools, and it involves hiring carefully,” Poore says. “But it’s also key to support and keep the talented people that you have.” Next year, the district hopes to improve the diversity balance with a plan to retain good teachers (see sidebar below), which research suggests is hardest at the more challenging urban schools where well-intentioned new teachers too often become overwhelmed or disillusioned and don’t stay. 

New Research

Lisette Partelow, director of K–12 strategic initiatives at the Center for American Progress and author of two recent studies on minority teachers, says there are persistent issues at the center of the debate about diversity. “For the past three decades, two concerns have dominated the national conversation about the teaching workforce: diversity and talent,” she says. “And it’s important to note that even though these two issues are portrayed as being in conflict, that really isn’t the case.”

“We need both,” says Susan Zinkil, principal at Creekland Middle School in Canton, GA. “If you don’t have diversity, you won’t have the best possible staff.”

The Center for American Progress promotes the idea that the nation can increase diversity while improving the quality of teachers by making the profession of teaching more attractive and by more thoroughly supporting educators. “But we also found that our teacher training programs are not selective or rigorous enough, and recruitment efforts are not effective,” Partelow says.

Richard Ingersoll, an education professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has found that while recruitment campaigns have doubled the number of nonwhite teachers in schools, minority teachers were 24 percent more likely to leave the profession, often because they are working in challenging urban schools, in addition to experiencing changes in education. “The data indicate the strongest factor related to minority teacher turnover is a decrease in classroom autonomy and discretion,” Ingersoll says. “The increase in standardized curricula and teaching to the test has led to less retention.”

In a new series of articles, the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution also shows that the “diversity gap” is evident in more than just urban schools, and that it is considerably larger among Hispanics.

Paying Dividends

Brookings’ experts in a separate recent study reviewed research showing that diversity benefits schools in three primary ways:

  • Minority teachers can be role models. Students with similar profiles to their teachers can imagine themselves in professional positions and strive for them. At the same time, these students are less likely to be limited by the stigma of succeeding and “acting white,” a circumstance in which studious black students are criticized by peers for success.
  • Minority teachers may have higher expectations for their students of color, which can lead them to have greater success.
  • There may be greater cultural connections between a teacher and student of the same background, meaning there is less chance of bias, greater interpersonal relations, and increased prospects that the material will offer a perspective the student will appreciate.

Past research has shown that students perform better academically, do better on tests, and gain advantages in a number of other ways when there is a diverse teaching team.

Brookings’ experts find that “students assigned to demographically similar teachers say their teachers notice if they don’t understand a topic and explain it another way. Also, difficult material is explained clearly, and teachers take the time to provide feedback on students’ written work so they can understand how to do better in the future.”

“Some of our tough-to-teach-and-reach students really need positive relationships in order to get the most out of school,” Zinkil says. “Establishing these bonds comes much easier when there is an adult with whom you have similarities. Your staff profile should resemble your student profile when at all possible.”

Recognizing and Recruiting Diversity

In Wyoming, Wheatland Middle School sits in an area of the state where there’s an average of four people per square mile, and only about 5 percent are minorities. But Principal Cory Dziowgo still wants a diverse staff for his 200 students. “It is important to me to have male teachers and teachers who have different ways of interacting with the students,” says Dziowgo, who is president of the Wyoming Association of Secondary School Principals. 

About an hour south in a more urban school in Cheyenne, WY, Johnson Junior High School Principal Brian Cox says he looks for a staff that reflects his student body and hopes to create a climate where there is an awareness of diversity. “It’s important to have a diverse staff in order to fully evaluate new ideas and initiatives, and encourage innovation. It is also important to welcome and teach diversity to staff as well as students.”

Noting that principals often hire staff members who think and act similarly, educational consultant and author Susan Kruger suggests a calculated method of evaluating new hires. She describes a system that uses color codes for personal characteristics as a way of looking for diversity in teachers. “During your next round of interviews, identify personality types of interviewees,” she notes. “Take that into consideration when making your final hiring decision.”

Debbie Brockett, principal at Las Vegas High School in Nevada, suggests considering candidates with new ideas about teaching styles or education theory to promote diversity among staff. Principals may otherwise tend to hire people who fit a prescribed approach, limiting their options in hiring and shrinking awareness in their school. “It is very important to hire staff of varying degrees of experience, too. New teachers to the profession bring innovative ideas, while experienced teachers guide and support our newest additions,” she notes. “I also look for teachers who go through different certification programs, because we find that adds different perspectives.” It’s also worth considering a candidate’s interests outside of school, because new hires might be able to coach teams or offer other support for clubs and activities, which helps the school and increases their connections.

Poore encourages his administrators in Little Rock to consider including various personality types in hiring, and says there are exercises that can help administrators recognize them and how they interact.

Keep in mind that diversity doesn’t have to just be about skin color or race. Physical disabilities might also be a consideration when thinking about diversity, says John Buckley, a professor at the University of Tennessee in Martin, and president of the American Association of Blind Teachers, which offers resources for school administrators about employing teachers who have limitations with eyesight. “It’s been my experience in dealing with dozens of blind and visually impaired teachers that, because they need to be superior to be given an opportunity, once that opportunity is given, they are above-average teachers.”

He suggests that administrators remain open-minded. “Resist the temptation to assume that because you can’t imagine how someone who is disabled would perform certain tasks, that those tasks are insurmountable,” he says. “Just because I don’t know how to do physics doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t master it and be outstanding.”

Amanda Trei, a teacher at Rock Valley Elementary School in Iowa, says she got into teaching because she wanted to connect with students who had physical and learning disabilities. Trei has been in a wheelchair since she was injured in a car accident as a teen. “I found that all students and staff benefit from developing relationships with a teacher who has a disability, and seeing them navigate their job and perform well. When the school staff reflects real people, it makes everyone more aware of our diversity—and the important things we have in common.”  

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE. 

Top Tips for Increasing Diversity

Explore these ways to increase the diversity of your school staff:

  • Plan for it. Set hiring goals and consider diversity when you are thinking about the hiring process. Discuss diversity with team members involved in interviews and with minority members of your staff. 
  • Recruit broadly. The Center for American Progress has found that teacher recruitment efforts are lacking, and experts suggest administrators be more thorough and seek candidates through institutions and communities where minority teachers can be found, including networks of existing teachers. Use social media.
  • Keep an open mind. Too often, experts say, principals have a preconceived notion about the type of person they want for a position and may bypass someone who presents differently. Go into interviews expecting to be surprised by candidates.
  • Look at your brand. What message does your school, the description of the position, the recruitment process, and your contact with prospects say about your real interest in diversity?
  • Grow your own. Connect at a local college or through your staff with young people training to be educators who would add diversity; assist them and encourage them to apply for positions at your school.
  • Advance current teachers. Look for ways to provide leadership opportunities to minority staff persons to increase their job satisfaction and encourage others who reflect a different type of teacher.
  • Retain them. Research shows that retention of teachers is as important as hiring when it comes to diversity. Consider the many ways you can make the workplace more attractive and meet the needs of a new minority teacher or one with a disability or distinct personality type. Little Rock schools are planning a program to help new teachers get more support and training in their schools or coursework toward a master’s degree through a relationship with a local college. Other programs offer assistance with housing, education, summer jobs, or even child care.