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November 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 3

Leading Together / Leading Alongside New Teachers of Color

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School leaders must embrace these novice—and passionate—teachers as changemakers.

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Just as educators take extra care to ensure that students in the early grades develop a love of learning, build sustaining relationships, and establish the habits of mind and habits of work that will serve them for years ahead, so too should school communities take extra care to support teachers in the early years of their career—especially teachers of color. School and district administrators nationwide have made noticeable headway in recruiting teachers of color. But this effort to approach racial proportionality in their faculty has been largely futile in the absence of specialized early-career support. While the number of teachers of color entering the profession is increasing, it is far exceeded by the number of teachers of color leaving teaching (Ingersoll, May, & Collins, 2017).
Why might teachers with black and brown skin turn away from a profession that once called to them? As teachers of color who have worked as teacher leaders—and who have seen many colleagues come and go—we know that these educators are often drawn to the profession out of a desire to change it. They want to be a part of dismantling and redesigning a system that they see as fundamentally flawed. They choose to teach because they have reflected on how teaching and learning have been used to advance or hold back their ancestors and they have observed the transformative power of education in their own lives. To teach is not just a job; it is an investment of one's body, mind, and spirit in creating a better future. If novice teachers of color feel they are unable to be change agents in the system, they will move on.
This is unfortunate because administrators do claim that they want change. In theory, they recruit teachers of color for the unique skills, perspectives, and experiences that they bring to the table and for the positive influence these teachers stand to exert on both students and colleagues (Carver-Thomas, 2018). Yet, in practice, these teachers' unique skills, perspectives, and experiences often conflict with preexisting cultures and structures; they can even be perceived as liabilities or threats by administrators instead of assets for organizational learning and change (Philip & Brown, 2020). School leaders can retain and sustain teachers of color by looking out for these contradictions and reflecting on the role they can play in disrupting them.

Communication and Collectivism

One asset that many teachers of color bring to their school communities is their ability to connect with families of color. Community members of color may be predisposed to trust these teachers and may be more comfortable, for example, with the way they speak. Yet, to be certified as a teacher in most states, candidates must pass a standardized test that privileges a communication style to which they may have had less exposure—formal Standard English. As a result, they are up to 38 percent less likely to pass these costly tests the first time (Carver-Thomas, 2018), and many enter the profession on a licensure waiver.
While their communication style may be regarded informally as an asset, formal entry requirements convey a different message about what type of communication is valued. On a systems level, a critical look at states' methods and standards for assessing teaching readiness is called for. In the meantime, administrators can show that diverse communication styles are valued by inviting many voices to speak for the school. They can support novice teachers of color who are hired on a waiver by arranging for mentor support, access to study materials, release time for test preparation, and coordinated study groups. If this is done right (with respect for the teachers' diverse backgrounds and assets), these teachers will emerge feeling supported and valued, and the school will have cultivated a culture of communication and collaborative learning for teachers throughout the career continuum.
Another asset that many teachers of color bring to their work is a collectivist orientation. Communities of color have persisted through historical patterns of discrimination for generations by extending the notion of "family" far beyond their own households and sharing in each other's joys and sorrows; we tend to privilege the community above the individual. "Whole child" and "community school" approaches are not mere initiatives to communities of color, but ways of life. These values shape our view of the purpose of schooling and are often espoused as vital by the schools that hire us. Yet, too often, teachers of color do not see deeds that match these values, and their own efforts to support students' home lives or partner with community organizations are regarded as individual initiatives instead of supported as whole-school efforts.
School administrators can create a culture that not only nurtures novice teachers of color but maximizes their agency when they ensure a clear, shared vision is alive in the day-to-day work. A vision that both shapes and is shaped by action and reflection among the school community members empowers educators to action because they know there is a shared commitment to the community's goal and the change it requires. New teachers come ready to make change for the community, and they want to be a part of doing so with the community. But securing collective commitment to a common goal and to the hard work required to achieve it takes active and ongoing stewardship of a shared vision.
Owing to their positional authority, administrators must play this role and hold all accountable for upholding the vision. They must allocate the time needed for collaboration toward this vision and cultivate the psychological safety required to raise challenging ideas. They will find new teachers of color to be powerful catalysts for innovation toward the faculty's shared vision.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to heighten our attention to longstanding inequities, calls for change in education are increasing. Fortunately, today's newest teachers of color are rising to the challenge, ready to make change. In return, school administrators must make space for these teachers as leaders. If they don't learn to lead alongside them, they will lose them.
References

Carver-Thomas, D. (2018). Diversifying the teaching profession: How to recruit and retain teachers of color. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Ingersoll, R., May, H., & Collins, G. (2017). Minority teacher recruitment, employment, and retention: 1987 to 2013. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Philip, T. M., & Brown, A. L. (2020). We all want more teachers of color, right?: Concerns about the emergent consensus. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

Jill Harrison Berg is a leadership coach, school improvement consultant, researcher, and writer committed to supporting education leaders to recognize and maximize the critical role of teacher leadership in ensuring instructional equity.

Berg is an educator of leaders at all levels. She began her career in the classroom, teaching students to be leaders who take ownership of their own learning and are a positive influence on others, then moved into supporting teachers and other education leaders to do the same. Berg earned her doctorate at Harvard’s GSE while working as a researcher with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She was one of the first teachers in Massachusetts to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

 

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