Why Teachers of Color Leave and What You Can Do About It - ASCD
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June 25, 2020

Why Teachers of Color Leave and What You Can Do About It

Equity
Leadership

"I can't be the Rosa Parks in here."

I still hear her words so clearly in my ears, shared with me by an African American teacher who was struggling with the lack of support from her administrator. Despite my role in diversity and human resources, I felt helpless and could not offer many words of support even though I knew her battles firsthand. I could only smile and issue a general statement developed to sustain any educator of color: "We are here for the kids. They deserve to see us and know that we are real!"

The following school year, that teacher left her classroom in a newly built school building in a suburban area and moved to an older school building in an urban school district. Though her salary was comparable, the perks of a new school building with state-of-the-art equipment were not. That didn't matter. This teacher was happy to be in an environment where she was an invaluable teacher of color whose expertise was recognized, celebrated, and irreplaceable.

Diversifying the Teaching Profession: How to Recruit and Retain Teachers of Color , a 2018 report by Learning Policy Institute's Desiree Carver, states, "Teachers of color boost the academic performance of students of color, including improved reading and math test scores, improved graduation rates, and increases in aspirations to attend college." Simply put, teachers of color help close the achievement gap. But that's not all. 'Carver's report also finds that, "Students of color and White students report having positive perceptions of their teachers of color, including feeling cared for and academically challenged." Teachers of color not only benefit students affected by achievement gaps, but they also add value to the education of all students. With these incentives in mind, why is it so difficult for schools to recruit and retain teachers of color? Unfortunately, the answer can be quite complex.

Teachers of color have a higher turnover rate than White teachers, and the number of Black teachers, in particular, is dramatically declining. Thinking back on the "Rosa Parks" scenario, part of the problem is a school or district's failure to create a welcoming environment where teachers of color are valued. Word quickly spreads within teaching communities about which schools invest in sustaining a diverse teaching force and which are apathetic. In addition to this type of bad press, lack of support for teachers of color, lack of commitment to staff diversity, leadership shifts, and focus shifts can combine to create an environment that is hostile to educators of color.

For example:

  • Lack of support: Many teachers of color are thrown into school situations that may lack cultural competence and appreciation. The teacher of color may be assigned a mentor to help them with academic and school matters, but not someone who can help them adjust, socialize, and feel welcome in the school culture.

  • Lack of commitment: Some schools or districts have '"checkbox diversity plans." These are plans designed to appease a vocal group who raise concerns about diversity. Oftentimes, these plans only result in "checking the box" for diversity and not a genuine interest and commitment to changing the district's culture and climate.

  • Leadership shifts: New leaders bring new ideas. Although this isn't always a bad thing, it can shift diversity plans and the focus on recruiting and retaining teachers of color. One leader may value it and make it a top priority, and the next leader may bury it at the bottom of a list of priorities.

  • Focus Shifts. Similar to leadership shifts, district priorities can shift as a result of new state mandates, testing requirements, or other trends. Shifts in focus can minimize the importance of recruiting and retaining teachers of color.

Despite these common challenges, Carver's report highlights some promising interventions. Here's just a brief sampling of what she suggests:

  • Offer high-retention, supportive pathways into teaching, for example paid teacher residencies or programs that underwrite the cost of teacher prep.

  • Implement "grow your own" programs that recruit teachers from nontraditional populations.

  • Strengthen hiring and induction strategies by starting the hiring process early and providing proactive, ongoing induction support.

  • Improve school teaching conditions through improved school leadership and ongoing professional learning opportunities.

It is clear that teachers of color have a powerful influence on all students. What is unclear is whether schools and districts have the will to implement and sustain the promising practices that are crucial to preventing teachers of color from feeling like the "Rosa Parks"—forced to stand in the face of ongoing adversity—at their school.

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