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October 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2

Building a Diverse Teacher Pipeline Starts with Students

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When students of color feel supported and represented in schools, they’re more likely to consider becoming teachers themselves.

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EquityProfessional Learning
Building a Diverse Teacher Pipeline Starts with Students
Credit: DRAZEN ZIGIC / iSTOCK
This past December, a former student, Jonathan, reached out to tell me how important it had been to him to have a Black male principal in elementary school. It was certainly a moment of joy to hear from Jonathan; however, a particular statement he made during our conversation made me pause. I learned he was now in his last year at a community college and was deciding what four-year university to transfer to and what major to declare. Considering Jonathan's many talents and knowing the need for more Black male educators, I suggested teaching. I would like to say his response was shocking but, unfortunately, it was an all-too familiar confirmation of the diversity challenges in education today. Jonathan was not sure teaching was for him. He thought he would feel isolated, considering the lack of representation among teachers he'd had as a student. He had also seen the stress on some of their faces, and he worried about not making enough money.

Creating Affirming Experiences

My conversation with Jonathan indicates that to build a more diverse teacher workforce, we need to expand our teacher recruitment focus beyond higher education institutions to include preK–12 schools. That starts with creating experiences for students of color that affirm a sense of belonging or connectedness to school and challenge perceptions that depict education as a nonviable career option. The process of drawing students of color into the teaching profession begins the very moment they start their education journey. Though many may not choose to become teachers, each experience and interaction within the school environment allows students of color to see and feel what the profession offers for themselves and others.
For 13 years, students of color are a captive audience for the teaching profession, and when school systems demonstrate that the experiences of these young learners matter, they are priming diverse pipelines of future teachers. Yet if students of color feel isolated from learning, experience harsher discipline, have their abilities go unrecognized, and consistently face unintentional microaggressions as part of their schooling, the next generation of teachers will never mirror the student population.
But schools can take steps to disrupt such negative experiences and invite students of color to see a future career in education. Here are some of those actions, stemming from my own experience as a student of color and time spent serving preK–12 schools as a teacher, a principal, and then an executive director of school support and higher learning.

Grow Your Own, Inclusively

Increasingly, high schools are offering prep courses, including education career pathways, that help students learn more about the education profession, a strategy districts refer to as "growing their own." There are generally four central areas of focus within this approach:
  • Child Development: The physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of children.
  • Principles of Education: The history and philosophy of education, roles of educators, diversity of cultures, and communities related to educational settings.
  • Best Instructional Practice: Topics related to instructional and assessment methods and professional development.
  • Education Internships: Applying knowledge and skills into a structured workplace experience with coaching from supervising professionals.
Prep courses are a great strategy to help students build an understanding of the profession. However, for students of color to feel comfortable registering for these courses, schools must carefully consider their design and inclusivity. Here are steps schools can take to support diversity in prep courses as a pathway into education:
  • Create affinity spaces for students of color. Getting the opportunity to talk with peers who share their identity can help students feel safe and explore their authentic selves. Try to create spaces where they can talk about the foundation of what they are learning and how it applies to some of the unique challenges they face. If you can't form affinity groups within the immediate environment, seek partnerships with other schools, perhaps virtually, to connect students to diverse groups.
  • Connect students to mentors of color who can validate and reframe their experiences. Hearing a mentor's personal story can benefit students by helping them see and learn from their mentor's resilience, identify how their own story can make a difference to the students they may one day teach, and learn from their mentor's successes.

The process of drawing students of color into the teaching profession begins the very moment they start their education journey.

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When a mentor shares their experiences of, for example, navigating racial issues at school or their personal journey in teaching, they can uplift students of color by helping them identify and develop their strengths, foster a safe space to problem solve, and feel comfortable collaborating and discussing their future.
If you cannot find educators of color to serve as mentors, provide mentors who can engage with students in culturally responsive ways. This means that they can shed their personal experiences or biases and do more active listening to understand the thoughts and experiences of their mentees of color. A mentor taking an active listening stance might ask, for example, "What would make you feel heard right now?" or "My life experiences have taught me to believe ___, but what are your thoughts on this?"
  • Focus on building efficacy and confidence. Create a classroom culture centered on building student self-efficacy that allows students to take risks in learning without fear of social consequences. In such environments, even when students make an error in their thinking, they are not met with negative comments or gestures that make them feel inadequate. Teachers must be purposeful in affirming student thinking; encouraging inquiry; and helping them identify, explore, and build upon their gifts.
  • Facilitate access to role models. Provide opportunities for students to identify with and learn from faculty and guest speakers who share similar cultural backgrounds or identities and can serve as role models (if not in-person, virtually).

Establish Relational Value

I will never forget my 4th grade teacher Ms. Clevenger. I had a fear of testing at the time, but I discovered the power of being the class clown to avoid showing my peers that I didn't feel as smart as they were. I dreaded parent-teacher conferences. My father was a military man who did not tolerate fooling around in class, so I was always anxious about what he was going to discover. At one of these conferences, Ms. Clevenger decided not to share with my father all that I had done wrong, but instead told him how much she loved having me as a student and celebrated how I was able to bring joy and laughter into the classroom. In that moment, I had never seen my father so proud, and I had never felt so valued by a teacher. I truly believe that this feeling led me into the field of education because I wanted to do for students what Ms. Clevenger did for me by helping me see my value.
Each experience within a school has significance, and if students of color consistently sense that their schools care about them, they will more likely consider investing in a continued relationship with education. The key is taking time, committing to cultivating the right connections, and adding value to how students of color view themselves. Here are a few examples of how schools can do this:
  • Celebrate students of color and their education in ways that are sensitive to who they are and what they value as individuals. For example, some students may not want widely shared recognition. They may not like being the center of attention or could feel that this outward approach lacks sincerity. The key is understanding the unique circumstances of each student and what they appreciate or value.
  • Discover their genuine needs. Once, as a 5th grade teacher, I attended a school function in which we provided coats and hats to underprivileged families. One parent told me, "I actually don't need these things, because I already know where I can get them out in the community. I take them because you give them to me. I just wish someone would have taken the time to ask me what I really needed." It is the same situation with students. There are often things that we do "for their benefit" that do not meet their actual needs. Solicit the voices of students of color to learn more about their experiences and needs.
  • Promote well-being through relationships. Because feelings of isolation can have a profound effect on the psyche of students of color, educators must commit to building authentic relationships. This requires an understanding of personal biases when interacting with students of color and the ability to provide these students with a mirror of their strengths through encouragement, help them build confidence in their abilities, and be an ally by challenging social injustice within the school environment. Show students of color that their voice counts by seeking their input and allowing them to influence change. Also, practice listening and understanding. Be slow to pass judgment, and show sincere care while supporting students of color as they work through challenging situations. As teachers promote and model well-being, they are painting a picture in the minds of students of color that the world of education is a place for them.
  • Protect them from unfair consequences. Each time a student of color sees rules or discipline applied differently for white students, it further removes them from seeing schools as a place for them.
  • Come to know your impact by asking hard questions. Go beyond the surface level and seek to understand how school culture is impacting students of color by looking at the learning environment through their eyes. To go deeper, school teams might consider asking themselves, "What is our data showing about the daily experiences of students of color and our ability to be culturally responsive?" or "Where are we perpetuating unfavorable conditions for students of color? How is bias reflected in our grading or behavior practices?"

Ramp Up Encouragement

Schools must be intentional in encouraging students of color to explore teaching as a profession. History reflects a lack of diverse representation of teachers and thus students of color generally are not inclined to see themselves in the role. Implicit bias communicated by teachers also reinforces the message that their abilities do not lend themselves to teaching (Fergus, 2017).
For example, Cameron, a close family member of mine, was a gifted high school student who had committed to becoming a teacher. When she shared her desire to teach with her advisor, she was immediately interrupted by the comment, "You are much too smart to become a teacher." The counselor then recommended that Cameron consider the field of actuarial science and helped her get an internship with a local business. On the other side of the spectrum, there is Jonathan, whose talents and abilities never led anyone to recommend he become a teacher.
Because of public perceptions that the teaching profession is not worth the time or stress, educators and school leaders must work harder to change the narrative, increasing the likelihood that students of color will invest their future in becoming teachers. How we elevate the profession is critical. Here are some examples of how teachers can do this by conducting "community conversation time" with an emphasis on careers:
  • Make it a routine practice to learn about and monitor students' career interests. For example, a teacher or school might have a set time once or twice a month for conversations with students about their career aspirations.
  • Get students of color actively talking and learning about their future and the talents they possess. Teachers can do this by encouraging students to chat with peers and offering words of affirmation (confidently providing clear examples of the abilities you see within each student you are engaging) and classroom activities exploring areas of interest relating to their potential. When providing affirmation, use phrases such as "I see you," "Why not you?" and "You are not broken" to counter deficit thinking and help students understand the talents you see in them. The goal is to reiterate that they are gifted and possess the ability to achieve any career they desire, and to validate that their professional journey does not have to mirror anyone else's.
  • Invite students to have a conversation about careers that interest them. This can happen over a lunch period or during student work time. Look for students of color whose career interests involve collaboration, adaptability, leadership, creativity, and communication, as a potential avenue to elevate the teaching profession.
  • Discuss diverse career opportunities. If you find students of color who seem to be interested in careers with similar characteristics to education, introduce them to a variety of additional career options, including teaching, that can support their skills and interests.
  • Have students set goals that allow them to cultivate their abilities further. This could be part of a routine check in. Ask students to research career paths that align with their skills and interests and choose outside actions to learn more about each field. To further explore teaching, for example, students of color might interview or shadow a teacher of color. A teacher might also introduce students to various support groups for future teachers of color—for example, BOND (Building Our Network of Diversity) or the One Million Teachers of Color Initiative—allowing students to see the additional care that is available.

Expose Students to Quality Curriculum

The curriculum within a school does much more than just provide opportunities for rigorous learning. For students of color, it is also a window into the world of education, which means it is vital that they see themselves in it. If students of color cannot see reflections of themselves in the curriculum, they are more likely to overlook teaching as a career option because of the perception they cannot add value to the job and the discontentment they may feel if they try. Teaching is about a love for learning. If students of color can find passion through representation and relevance in the curriculum, they will be one step closer to envisioning a career in education. Here's how school leaders can help ensure this happens:
  • Examine how curriculum decisions are made and ensure that diverse representation is a priority. Challenge yourself to answer the question, "How can we be certain we have achieved diverse representation in the curriculum?"
  • Observe teachers engaging with the curriculum. Purposefully incorporate cultural relevancy into coaching conversations. This can be accomplished by leaders asking questions such as "How did you leverage the curriculum to support the diversity of your students?" or "Are there adjustments you would make to the curriculum to further connect students?"
  • Conduct classroom visits to learn how or if students of color find relevance in the curriculum. Ask students if they are making natural connections with questions such as "What are you learning and why is this important to you?" or "In what ways are you making personal connections to what you are learning?"

Expose Students to High-Quality Teaching

Recent research shows that students of color are more likely to have teachers with less experience in the classroom and that Black students are more likely to face lower expectations from teachers, resulting in less rigor (Schwartz, 2021). The most important thing schools can provide for students of color is exposure to high-quality teaching. Ineffective teachers not only set students of color back academically, but they also paint an unfavorable picture of the profession. High quality teaching provides appropriate modeling for students of color and inspires them to think about why they wish to become teachers. Here's how schools can support this modeling:
  • Leverage data and students' voices to understand how teacher instruction is culturally responsive and impacts the growth and development of students of color.
  • Engage teachers in routine reflective practice around cultural competency and goal setting to enhance the quality of instruction.
  • Provide teachers with quality leadership to model and support their growth and the development of a cultural lens cognizant of bias.

Cultivating Hope for the Future

Recent studies indicate that having a teacher of color has a positive impact on the academics and engagement of students of color, and in fact, of all students (Will, 2022). Such research offers hope that if schools can deliver in providing a greater diversity of teachers, they can change the trajectory of learning and opportunity gaps we have seen for decades. This promising future starts with the experience of students of color currently in our schools. Building a school culture that creates positive experiences for students of color will result in a more diverse workforce—one that allows students like Jonathan and Cameron to envision a path into education.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How can you help students in your school or district rethink ingrained narratives about who is right for the teaching profession?

➛ What are strategies you have used or would like to use to reflect with students of color on their career aspirations?

➛ What steps can your school take to cultivate stronger mentorship, especially for students of color?

Leading Your School Toward Equity

Veteran educator Dwayne Chism shows district, school, and teacher leaders a four-step process for taking equity work beyond talk and into effective action. 

Leading Your School Toward Equity
References

Fergus, E. (2017). The integration project among white teachers and racial/ethnic minority youth: Understanding bias in school practice. Theory Into Practice56(3), 169–177.

Schwartz, S. (2021, December 15). Black and Latino students are still more likely to have inexperienced teachers, study says. Education Week.

Will, M. (2022, February 8). Teachers of color are linked to social-emotional, academic gains for all students. Education Week.

Dwayne Chism is the Dean of the School of Education at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska. He supports equity work at the local, state, and national levels and works to support the development of current and aspiring leaders of color across the United States. Chism previously served as a principal supervisor, principal, and teacher. In 2018, he founded Shifting Perspectives, LLC, to help schools navigate diversity to create equitable conditions for learning.

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October 2022 Cover image
The Education Profession: Changing the Narrative
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