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February 23, 2022

Retaining BIPOC Educators Starts with Belonging

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Teachers of color share their experiences in predominantly white schools and what changes would help them stay.



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Credit: Ebony Eyes on Unsplash
For an assignment in my qualitative methods course during the first year of my doctorate program, I facilitated a focus group with seven Black faculty and staff to explore their experiences in the predominantly white independent school where I taught. My reasons were both personal and professional. As a mentor teacher and academic dean in the school, I valued the deep relationships I had developed with my colleagues and was committed to nurturing an inclusive learning and working environment for adults and students in our community, especially folks who may be marginalized in a predominantly white school.
As a white Puerto Rican, the examination of identity and belonging is perennial for me. I was motivated by my racial identity awareness to explore the importance of belonging and support for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) teachers. I wanted to better understand my colleagues’ experiences and communicate this understanding to school leaders.
It’s a well-known fact that the majority of the U.S. teaching force is white (79 percent of public school teachers and 81 percent of independent school teachers identify as white, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Association of Independent Schools), even as we also know that a diverse teaching body has proven for decades to have a positive impact on student achievement and well-being, especially for BIPOC students (Gurin, 1999; Darling-Hammond, 2019). BIPOC students make up over 50 percent of the public school population and over 30 percent of the independent school population in the U.S.
Lack of diversity doesn’t just stem from problems of recruitment or disinterest in teaching; there are higher turnover numbers for BIPOC teachers than for white teachers (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). Though all teachers face challenges, like lack of administrator support and accountability pressures, BIPOC teachers also contend with experiences of discrimination and isolation, questions about fitness for the job, extra duties without fair pay, colleagues often lacking racial literacy and awareness, and lack of belonging (Coleman & Stevenson, 2013; Darling-Hammond & Carver-Thomas, 2017).
If predominantly white independent schools are serious about retaining BIPOC teachers, they need to focus on developing support systems and promoting belonging. The pandemic has exposed this imperative all the more, as it has deepened the problem of teacher retention. In California, several urban school districts (including Los Angeles USD) reported increased vacancies and shortages during the pandemic, often due to increased retirements and resignations (Carver-Thomas et al., 2022). States like California have reported that Black and Latino teachers are leaving in higher numbers over pandemic challenges than their white colleagues. While there isn’t much hard data at this point, the retention challenges faced by independent schools during the pandemic are likely similar.
As school leaders consider how to stem the potential loss of diverse talent, a key step to solving the problem is increasing school leaders’ understanding of the experiences of BIPOC educators in predominantly white schools. I surveyed 133 teachers (78 white teachers and 55 BIPOC teachers) from over 30 independent schools around Los Angeles and interviewed 21 BIPOC teachers from the survey sample to learn more about their experiences, specifically around belonging and support. Though the context might be different in other locations and sectors, I encourage all school leaders to consider how my findings may be applicable at their respective schools.

More Judgement and Pressure to Prove Expertise

Questions of “fit” and the minimization of one’s expertise are two issues that can contribute to teacher turnover for BIPOC teachers. In my study, BIPOC educators revealed experiencing more judgement and pressure to prove themselves than white teachers. Nearly 25 percent fewer BIPOC teachers (53.1 percent) strongly agreed with being “treated with respect by the adults at my school” than did their white colleagues (75.6 percent). The lack of respect may be linked to higher agreement by BIPOC teachers (43.8 percent versus 23.1 percent for white teachers) with the statement that they are “more closely monitored and questioned by parents than my colleagues.” Parents, it seems, question the class content and how it is taught and assessed, rather than trusting these educators’ expertise.
In addition, survey responses and comments from interviews with BIPOC teachers indicated parents might commonly ask the teacher or a school leader if a BIPOC teacher is qualified enough to teach their child. Several interviewees confirmed the importance of autonomy, respect, and trust in their expertise as essential to their professional well-being, yet they still felt burdened to prove themselves to parents. Seven of the 21 teachers interviewed reported a need to present or talk about their educational credentials with parents to “prove” their qualifications. A few teachers implied that a PhD could buy some good will or deflect judgment, but for most, the pressure to prove oneself persisted even after showing their qualifications.
At times, this pressure seemed to be due to both race and gender. One Black woman reflected that a white, male colleague in a parallel role “had a certain level of gravitas [and] respect” with parents that was “afforded [by] virtue of his gender and probably race as well.” The experience impacted her “ability...to stand up for herself.”
BIPOC teachers also reported being called names, insulted, threatened, or harassed because of their race or ethnicity more often than white educators. When asked the extent to which they agree with the following statement “I regularly experience microaggressions at my school,” nearly one-third of the teachers of color strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement.
These incidents may be compounded by gender and age. While three out of 10 BIPOC men reported that a school leader committed a racial microaggression against them, 19 out of 44 BIPOC women reported having that experience. When asked if they were comfortable approaching a school leader after experiencing a microaggression, nearly 23 percent of BIPOC women somewhat or strongly disagreed, whereas this was the case for only 10 percent of BIPOC men.

The process of navigating a predominately white school is a daily challenge for many BIPOC educators, who across the board reported facing additional barriers to belonging in the areas of discrimination, workplace adaptation, and extra labor.

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Additional Barriers to Belonging

The process of navigating a predominantly white school is a daily challenge for many BIPOC educators, who across the board reported facing additional barriers to belonging in the areas of discrimination, workplace adaptation, and extra labor.
 Around 84 percent of BIPOC teachers agreed they were often or sometimes “expected to adapt to the dominant cultural norms of the school”—significantly more than their white counterparts said (61 percent). For example, a Black and Latinx teacher recounted advice he heard from an administrator advising him to “keep [his] head down and do what you do. Just don't do it as loudly.”
Additionally, 70 percent of BIPOC teachers often or sometimes felt “pressure to perform at the highest level in order to negate stereotypes about my racial or ethnic group,” while this was the case for only 10 percent of white teachers. The pressure to fit in and navigate a predominantly white school and faculty could cause doubt about one’s belonging at the school. One Latinx woman confided, “I've always tried to blend in and in that process, I always thought that I was the one that did something wrong or didn't get it and I've got to, you know, work at it more.”
Some BIPOC educators noted wanting to support a school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion mission, but at the same time felt tokenized as a representative of a racial/ethnic group to show the diversity of the school. Almost two-thirds of BIPOC teachers were “often” or “sometimes” asked to be a spokesperson for their identified racial or ethnic group, while this was the case for 10 percent of white teachers. When BIPOC educators shared their stories of, for example, doing admissions or recruitment work, it was tinged with a sense of resignation to the forces at play in their schools. As one teacher candidly put it, “that piece of feeling like your presence is for show...is real.”
Nearly 60 percent of BIPOC teachers reported that they were frequently to sometimes asked to do extra work to attract and support BIPOC students and families, while one-third were frequently or sometimes asked to do the same work with BIPOC colleagues. Notably, 75 percent of teachers who were asked to do this extra work were not compensated, and nearly 90 percent said these duties were not included in their job description. BIPOC teachers relayed fulfillment from working with BIPOC communities at their schools, yet they were frustrated by the “micro-inequality” that might exist when extracurricular assignments were compensated on a flat scale.
For example, one Latino teacher was discouraged that his stipend for supporting a student affinity group that helped support several BIPOC students socially and academically was the same amount as a teacher proctoring a study hall who just showed up and took attendance. These extra responsibilities weigh on teachers and take away time from the main purpose of their role—teaching.
As one Black woman educator said, “You're thinking about many other things that determine your value, worth, [and] job security moving forward. You're thinking about masking yourself, maybe code switching. … [This] can distract from, remove energy from your ability to give yourself fully to your students.”
These findings highlight a few important implications for school leaders to help them support belonging for BIPOC teachers.

Implication #1: Focus on Relationship Building

BIPOC teachers repeatedly mentioned their desire during interviews to be known and understood by their respective leaders. They want school leaders to understand that not only does race matter, but individualized attention and investment also count. With the foundation of a relationship, trust develops, which can lead to more autonomy in the classroom—another key factor in teacher retention.
When I asked one teacher what advice she would give her leadership regarding retention for BIPOC teachers, she posed this question: “Am I being invested in or harvested?” She went on to explain that BIPOC educators are more than statistics to “harvest” for a school’s superficial diversity efforts. She and others wanted their school leaders to not only better understand their experiences, but to also invest the time and effort to get to know them as individuals with unique skills, interests, and expertise.

Implication #2: Empower Educators of Color

In the interviews, several teachers advocated not only for hiring more BIPOC teachers, but also for more empowerment and a pipeline to leadership roles. Having more BIPOC educators in leadership roles creates a community of support within predominantly white schools, and enables BIPOC educators to influence and enhance school cultures, curricula, and pedagogical practices.
One Latinx teacher asserted that having a BIPOC educator whose voice and insights are centered, such as an administrator, “just creates a different perspective and sees things in a different way” and that only hiring BIPOC teachers without “thinking about administrators of color...creates an institutionalized system that perpetuates the same [existing] hierarchy.”
Since an expectation may exist for BIPOC teachers to do extra “diversity work” on campus, schools need to equitably compensate them for translating documents, assisting BIPOC families in navigating predominantly white spaces, or counseling BIPOC students; these requests take time and emotional, sometimes taxing, investment.

Implication #3: Create Supportive Spaces

Schools need to create affinity spaces as a source of support for BIPOC teachers, students, and families in order to promote a sense of belonging and validate multiple perspectives. Several teachers highlighted the value of attending the annual National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference and said schools should consider sending (and funding) a delegation of teachers and staff each year to such conferences with affinity groups. A few teachers said having a BIPOC mentor who helped them navigate the school was vitally important to their well-being.
BIPOC teachers also implicitly called for school leaders to better understand the burden of questioning and scrutiny from parents disproportionately borne by BIPOC teachers. School leaders should clearly and firmly articulate norms for parental interactions with all teachers and staff. Leadership support needs to be made public—at meetings or community gatherings, and in school publications and handbooks—to cut off potential interference from parents. Parents may minimize their questioning and doubt when they see school leaders firmly supporting BIPOC teachers.

Steps for Change

For many of the interviewed teachers, belonging seemed like a luxury, as they were more concerned with personal safety and fit, feelings of comfort and a sense of purpose, and making connections. To turn retention into a reality, school leaders should cease taking a color-blind approach toward relationship building. Instead, listen to the counter-stories like these of BIPOC teachers on your campuses and take the next step toward honorable and equitable inclusion.
References

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

Carver-Thomas, D., Burns, D., Leung, M., & Ondrasek, N. (2022). Teacher shortages during the pandemic: How California districts are responding. Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.54300/899.809

Carver-Thomas, D. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher turnover: Why it matters and what we can do about it. Learning Policy Institute.

Coleman, S. & Stevenson, H. C. (2013). The racial stress of membership: Development of the faculty inventory of racialized experiences in schools. Psychology in the Schools, 50(6), 548-566.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). Written statement of Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond president and CEO, Learning Policy Institute before the committee on education and labor United States House of Representatives full committee hearing: Brown v. Board of Education at 65: A promise unfulfilled, April 30, 2019. Retrieved from https://edlabor.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Darling-HammondTestimony043019.pdf

French, B. (2018). Race at predominantly white independent schools: The space between  diversity and equity. Lexington Books.

Gurin, P. (1999). Selections from The compelling need for diversity in higher education, expert reports in defense of the University of Michigan, Equity & Excellence, 32(2), 36-62. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1066568990320207

Jason Kim-Seda has more than two decades of teaching experience in independent schools, primarily serving as a humanities educator in middle school classrooms. As an educational leader, he has held a variety of positions, including dean of students, middle school director, mentor teacher, and academic dean.

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