Visit nearly any public school, and you will likely see the evidence of the strain of the last several years on teachers and school leaders alike. Challenges abound, from anti-critical-race-theory rhetoric and policies to the impact of COVID-19 on mental and physical health and well-being. Educators are burned out, some have left or are planning to leave the profession entirely, and many of those who remain are working double time to keep their once-roaring flame of inspiration simply lit.
The effects of these personal realities, aggregated to the scale of a school, district, or state, are a growing concern in a more urgent analysis of the state of both teacher and school leadership pipelines. Given the profound demographic mismatches between a teacher workforce that is 80% white and a majority-minority student population in our public schools, it’s evident why diversifying those pipelines is also top of mind.
For a school leader so concerned, though, there can be an instinct—however well-meaning—to act quickly, a tendency to incent or gimmick their way out of such a crisis: “We need a recruitment campaign! Let’s create a sign-on bonus program! Should we start a school TikTok account to look like a cool place to teach?”
And while building healthy recruiting systems, paying teachers like the professionals they are, and even having a social media presence are worthy undertakings, in isolation they’re far from silver bullets and closer to a set of distractions. To formulate a concerted plan to address the lack of teacher diversity, one must take a hard look at how diverse teachers experience the school communities they have been invited into. Were they wooed by recruiters but disrespected by school-based supervisors?
Retention Leads to Recruitment
At The Center for Black Educator Development, an organization I am proud to have founded three years ago and continue to lead today, the first thing we tell partner districts that are looking to grow and diversify their talent pipelines is this: If you don’t have a retention plan, stop recruiting and get to work on building one. All the recruiting in the world will be for naught if those teachers and leaders who are already in the building are not adequately supported, compensated, and empowered.
The key is to begin with the end in mind. What about your leadership, your school or district culture and climate would make it a place that teachers and leaders choose to stay for the long haul? How do current Black and Brown teachers in your school or district feel about your leadership style and the school or district’s culture? Only when leaders are willing to ask those kinds of questions of themselves and their current practice as leaders, engage in meaningful self-reflection, and activate a feedback loop that informs policy and practice is progress possible.
Retaining teachers from diverse backgrounds begins with a culture that is intentionally nonhostile and supportive to those educators—i.e., anti-racist. If a school or district leader is first committed to achieving an anti-racist school and district culture, and the Black and Brown teachers and leaders in the system feel that commitment from leadership, retention of Black and Brown teachers will follow. And while embracing anti-racism and working to spread it is necessary, it is not sufficient. It is the floor, rather than the ceiling, for creating a culture that retains Black and Brown teachers.
Leaders must also recognize that even the most well-intentioned efforts to build camaraderie and collegiality in their school or district are often informed by a white—rather than a Black or Brown—experience and sensibility. This often takes the form of working to create a spirit of “belongingness.” We see the slogans everywhere: “Anywhere Elementary Stands as One,” “This Town Middle School Strong,” “Some Such Senior High Proud.” Such an ethos, however, can be unwittingly exclusionary of Black and Brown teachers, as it is at its core seeking to build a culture based on conformity and sameness, rather than one that privileges diverse experiences and perspectives.
Leaders and systems seeking to retain—and by extension attract—more diverse teachers will falter without architecting a culture that actually embraces and values them in their diversity.
Setting goals for diverse teacher recruitment and retention means taking a hard look at where a district or school is and where it wants to go. It means ensuring that everyone who can support (or undermine) these goals is aware of said goals, current data, and the supports in place to address any challenges within an ecosystem that might undermine them.
Cultivating and Supporting a Culture of Anti-Racism
Another key to successfully building a robust and diverse educator pipeline is to ensure that it is a shared goal, a distributed priority, throughout a school or district leadership team. This is vital. A single leader can be as committed to anti-racism and creating a culture that privileges diversity as they want, but without a leadership team that is similarly championing and stewarding the work forward, it is likely to be a fool’s errand.
This means that school and district leaders must intentionally build the capacity of their leadership teams—something too often left off the job descriptions of leadership positions in education. Great leaders are not determined by their ability to create more effective followers, but by how they develop more leaders within their teams. As those leadership team members are developed, the imperative to create a culture that retains and attracts diverse teachers should be a built-in expectation—and their effectiveness determined by the extent to which they meet that imperative.
Moreover, high expectations shouldn’t only be for students. Just as we ensure that those high expectations are paired with substantial supports for students, leaders must scaffold the development of their teams appropriately, creating a community of leadership practice built on a shared anti-racist vision.
From the school perspective, principals cannot be left alone to figure out something as vital as teacher diversity, and schools must not operate in silos in this work. Committed and tireless efforts pursued in isolation at the school level will always be undone by an unsupportive or nonaligned district or central office. This lack of support can take the form of continuing to mandate a curriculum that fails on the anti-racist front, professional development that doesn’t build cultural competency, or any number of other system decisions (lack of transparency in teacher diversity recruitment and retention, lack of support for affinity spaces, disconnected HR/talent teams from the teacher diversity goals, etc.).
Human resources teams at the central office, school boards, superintendents, and cabinets must have the same cadence if they are to succeed. I liken it to a marching band or an orchestra. While each section has its part to play, they all must do so from the same sheet of music. This analogy is best summed up by the “One band, one sound” mantra made popular in the movie Drumline.
The Need for Culturally Competent Teacher Preparation
As fraught as many districts’ track records are on teacher and leader diversity, our institutions of teacher education also have a history unworthy of celebration and ongoing replication. According to a study by TNTP, traditional teacher preparation programs have enrollments that are nearly 70% white. A meaningful proportion—better than 1 in 9 institutions—have enrollment that is more than 90% white. If not for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which account for 50% of new Black teachers, those figures would be even worse.
Meanwhile, alternative certification programs boast enrollments that nearly perfectly align with the demographics of our public schools: Around 47% of both public school students and alternative certification participants are white, while the majority of both are racial and ethnic minorities. Recruiting and preparing more teachers of color can be accomplished, as these programs demonstrate. But it must be an imperative that the whole of institutions embraces and champions.
Recruiting more aspiring teachers of color is but one piece of the puzzle. Our teacher education programs are also failing to produce culturally competent graduates. From disproportionate misperceptions about “problem behavior” to an experience of culture shock, new teachers are often poorly equipped to teach diverse student populations. A pre-pandemic study by the William Penn Foundation of teachers in my home city of Philadelphia found that 72% of new teachers felt unprepared to work in an urban classroom, and 62% felt unprepared to teach culturally diverse students.
My city’s experience, sadly, isn’t unique. We need teacher preparation programs to join school systems as willing partners in remedying the situation, as several in my home state are doing as part of the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium (paeddiversity.org), an effort of more than 50 school districts, charter networks, teacher preparation programs, and nonprofits, including The Center for Black Educator Development, to address the shortage of diversity and cultural competency in the educator pipeline. The work of the consortium will not be a panacea, but it is already moving policy levers in the right direction to support a more diverse and better-equipped teaching profession.
A Positive Effect on Student Outcomes
The impacts of more diverse and better-prepared teachers and leaders are powerful: Graduation rates increase, Black students are selected for gifted education and more rigorous study, dropouts decrease, fewer students are disciplined and pushed out of school, and all students benefit from having more Black and Brown teachers and those who affirm their identities.
Transforming schools and districts into places that are supportive and welcoming of diverse teachers and leaders benefits everyone who walks in the schoolhouse door or the central office. The tools and strategies for realizing that transformation are available to us all. We must commit to using them.
Sharif El-Mekki is the CEO of The Center for Black Educator Development and a former principal of Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia.
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Jordan, W.J., Kuriloff, P., Sutherland, D., Ponnock, A., & Hoffman, B. (2018). Preparing teachers for urban schools: The role of pre-service experiences and school context in classroom practice. Temple University. williampennfoundation.org/sites/default/files/reports/Preparing%20Teachers%20for%20Urban%20Schools_Summary%20Report.pdf
Muñiz, J. (2021, November 8). Consortium launches effort to recruit racially diverse and culturally responsive teachers in Pennsylvania. New America. newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/consortium-launches-effort-to-recruit-racially-diverse-culturally-responsive-teachers-in-pennsylvania
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