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December 1, 2015
Vol. 57
No. 12

Fixing the Leak in the Teaching Force

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Teachers of color are more likely to leave the profession. Here's how to address the conditions draining the passion and potential of these educators.
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At the start of the school year, 8th grade science teacher Alicia Johal inevitably gets asked by students, "Are you Mexican?" The question makes sense, says the teacher, who speaks Spanish and has been told she "looks Mexican;" plus, Mar Vista Academy mostly serves Latino students and is located in California, just four miles from Mexico's border. Johal embraces the opportunity to express her appreciation for her students' culture and its similarities to her own background, which is East Indian.
"Middle school kids have a genuine curiosity about who is in front of their classroom"—a quality the teacher greatly admires. She just wishes those conversations about race and identity occurred more easily with her colleagues. As a third-year teacher of East Indian descent, she sometimes wonders how she fits in among the faculty.
Feeling lost in the shuffle is one of many challenges that may be pushing teachers of color out of the workforce. A landmark report on teacher diversity from the Albert Shanker Institute, commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers, found that despite a nationwide push to recruit teachers of color, these educators are leaving the profession at higher rates.

A Civil Right

Richard Ingersoll, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, likens the phenomenon to a "leaky bucket." In an analysis of national data, Ingersoll found that there has been an increase in the percentage of minority teachers recruited since the 1980s—from 12 percent of the workforce in 1987 to 17 percent in 2012.
But those same teachers are disproportionately concentrated in high-poverty, urban schools where working conditions make retention a systemic challenge. "The reasons why teachers of color leave are similar to why [all] teachers generally quit," relates Jose Vilson, a middle school math teacher in New York City and author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education. "It just so happens that places where teachers of color work tend to be more subject to being shut down, restructured, or taken over by the state. You don't have as much wiggle room."
Now that more than half of the nation's public school students are children of color, the representation of minority teachers (just one-fifth of the workforce) is even more glaring. Vilson, who grew up in the Bronx, had just one black male teacher before college. But the experience left an imprint: "I was able to see someone like me actually be an instructional leader."
Having access to diverse teachers is the "educational civil right" of all students, the Shanker report maintains. Exposure to individuals of other backgrounds, especially at a young age, breaks down stereotypes, reduces implicit biases, and stretches students' perspectives of the world at large.
Vilson has noticed that for his white students, having teachers of color "changes their mindset about what it means to be intelligent, capable, and competent."


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Create a Culture Plan

To attract and retain teachers of color, principals have to be "honest and diversify [the] whole school system from top to bottom," advises Rachelle Rogers-Ard, manager of Teach Tomorrow in Oakland (TTO), a federally funded program that grooms local teachers to staff the city's most challenging schools.
It's not enough to "bring in that one teacher of color and think, 'Now I've checked the box for diversity,'" says Rogers-Ard. That could lead to "cultural isolation … as a result of that person being asked to desegregate the whole faculty."
In the Oakland Unified School District, the superintendent has asked all principals to submit a culture plan, which could include honoring diversity as part of the school's goals and values. Such work may take several years to implement and requires a close look "not just at student outcome data but [also] at who's on the campus and who's in a position of leadership," says Rogers-Ard.
As that work gets underway, schools have to "have honest conversations about race among staff" as well as within the community. Have your community do a simple equity audit: Ask them, "What do you see? Who comes to this school, who volunteers, what activities do we offer, which parents are participating?" suggests Rogers-Ard.
"Principals have to decide where their values are," she adds. "If your value is equity, it means you're going to be pushing and some of the people you're going to be pushing may not share those same values. But that prework shifts the culture of the school [to] become more welcoming and inclusive—then you're ready to start hiring folks who don't look like the folks who have been there."

Set the Stage and Be Brave

The most successful Teach Tomorrow placements, notes Rogers-Ard, have been ones where five or six teachers in a cohort were hired at the same time in a single school. The program has a rich curriculum on race and equity, and the teachers have been able to elevate those conversations in the schools where they're placed, collectively transforming the culture.
Although not every school can fill multiple openings at once, principals can create affinity groups to connect teachers with like-minded colleagues. Teach Tomorrow created a "men in the classroom" affinity group to give male teachers the chance to discuss their experiences in a female-dominated profession through a social justice lens. Schools can partner with local nonprofits to facilitate those groups, says Rogers-Ard.
Vilson started #EduColor on Twitter to give teachers, students, and parents a safe space to grapple with deeper issues about race. The #EduColor feed is "definitely geared toward people who want to be comfortable with discomfort," he admits.
Johal is a member of the EduColor community and finds the dialogue it stimulates among teachers across the country refreshing. The reassurance from those facing similar challenges breaks down any nagging feelings of isolation. Johal, who has had a supportive administration from day one, just wants to get Mar Vista teachers talking. "I'd like us to build a community where we can discuss topics such as race, privilege, gender expression, and socioeconomic status in an open, safe, and honest environment."
"If we just had a simple way to sit down and talk, I could tell my colleagues this is who I am, this is where I grew up, my grandfather wears a turban, and this is what happens to us at airports," says Johal. "I need them to know what my heritage is, what languages I speak, and the fact that I've dealt with racisms and prejudices similar to our students."
She envisions a climate where school leaders spend at least one faculty meeting fielding questions such as, "Where does everyone come from? Who is serving our kids? Where can we find connections between where you're coming from and where our kids are?"
"Put us all in a room together," Johal says. "Let's set the stage and be brave about it, assume everyone's best intentions, and see what happens."

Identify Blind Spots

When schools begin to peel away at the layers, they can uncover blind spots in the way teachers of color are treated. For instance, there's a tendency to place teachers of color on nearly every committee to show a representation of races, says Rogers-Ard. Many of the Teach Tomorrow teachers are asked to do a "tremendous amount of outside work"—not because they believe "they're so wonderful, but rather [the school] wants people to know that it has diversity."
Teachers of color, especially male teachers of color, also tend to be disproportionately relied on for classroom management issues—exasperated teachers may send disruptive kids their way. "I walk into one of my teacher's classrooms and there are five or six children that have been sent out of other classrooms repeatedly, because those teachers can't 'handle' them," says Rogers-Ard. "To me, those are systemic issues. You can't just sent Ahmed or José out every time to the one black man's classroom."
"It's a double-edged sword," Vilson relates. Teachers of color are "often seen as the experts on race, but not as experts around pedagogy and instruction." When discipline and instruction are a core focus of all staff—and professional opportunities are transparent and equitable—then these blind spots will come to light.

Lift Their Voices

Drawing on a broader range of expertise from teachers of color may ultimately influence retention. According to the Shanker report, the high attrition of teachers of color is not due to salary or the demographics of the students they serve, but rather the working conditions in the schools they're assigned to. Specifically, teachers of color are concerned about a "lack of professional autonomy in the classroom" and a "lack of collective voice in educational decisions."
School leaders need to see teachers of color as pedagogues who can be tapped to share best practices throughout the building, advises Vilson. "Give [teachers of color] a voice and not just a narrow voice;" offer flexibility in how to conduct the classroom and democratize decision making schoolwide.
Research shows that, according to Ingersoll, where teachers have more voice and say, they stay. Therefore, "Hold teachers accountable, but don't micromanage them."

Passion with Potential

Although there are numerous factors that influence retention, many teachers of color come into the profession—and work in the most challenging schools—out of a genuine desire to make a difference. Finding ways to nurture that passion, professionally and socially, could mean the difference between a teacher staying or leaving. Vilson often quotes lyrics from KRS-One's "My Philosophy"—"It's not about a salary; it's all about reality." For him, that means teaching in an urban, high-poverty school is his "life's work."
Similarly, Johal chose Mar Vista Academy because she knew that the students, who were rebounding from a recent school shutdown, "needed consistency and [strong] role models."


Sarah McKibben is the digital managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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