Barriers to Attracting and Retaining Latinx Teachers: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Velasco

Blog Post
Aug. 27, 2019

New America is exploring recruitment, preparation, and retention strategies that educator preparation programs, districts, and states can use to strengthen Latinx teacher pathways. To inform our work on this issue, we interviewed dozens of researchers, advocates, policy experts, and practitioners and have selected a subset of these conversations for this blog series.

In our third post, Dr. Daniel Velasco, chief growth and impact officer at Latinos for Education, discusses key barriers to attracting and retaining Latinx teachers as well as strategies to overcome those challenges. Dr. Velasco has extensive experience in education as a teacher, nonprofit leader, and supervisor of turnaround at 14 schools in the Northeast. He is program faculty of Harvard’s School Turnaround Leaders program and was honored in 2016 by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for national service. He earned a master’s degree in education policy and management from Harvard and a doctoral degree in educational leadership and entrepreneurship from Johns Hopkins.

For more context on this issue, see our Promoting Teacher Diversity by Strengthening Latinx Teacher Pathways blog series page and our previous post, The Demographic Mismatch Between Students and Teachers Continues to Grow, Despite Rise in Teacher Diversity

Tell me about your work at Latinos for Education and how you came to it.

Latinos for Education focuses on developing the Latino voice within the education sector through leadership development, advocacy initiatives, and innovation. We believe we must bridge cultures, and while we don't need to be the only voice at the decision-making table, we do need to be represented equitably across schools and programs disproportionately serving our own children.

I went to high school in Central Florida, and I didn't have a single Latino teacher. I went to a school nestled between the projects. Thankfully, I had other role models in my life like my parents, but when I think about the messaging that I received in school, it was that Latino immigrant boys belong in prison or as dropouts. That was the pathway we were on. Approximately 52 percent of us graduated high school. If you were a boy and Latino and immigrant (English learner), your chances were just so much worse. I luckily wasn't entirely conscious of that as a teenager because that could have been really defeating. I did have a white teacher tell me to “go back where I came from,” but aside from that, most messaging was implicit.

So, there is a balance. While you need to see different experiences, you also need to see your own experience reflected to you, but not in an echo chamber. I came to this work as a result of my experience as a student, an immigrant, and a teacher within America’s public schools.

What are some of the key barriers that you see in attracting and retaining Latinx teachers?

We have seen an uptick in the number of Latinx teachers that have entered the teaching workforce in the last 20 years. Latinx teachers went from being 5.6 percent of the workforce in 1999–2000 to 8.8 percent in 2015–16. However, that increase is not keeping pace with the number of Latinx teachers that are leaving the profession.

High-need schools in crisis are churning through teachers really quickly. Attached to that are the complexities of inadequate resources and working conditions for teachers. Latinx teachers are disproportionately serving in schools with high needs because those are the communities where we come from historically—that’s home. This means we are likely provided with significantly fewer resources to do that hard work. And when a school has, for example, two-thirds of the student population needing a one-to-one academic, behavioral, or attendance intervention, the school has a really hard time working to support teachers and giving them time to practice their craft.

I spent a decade prior to coming to Latinos for Education working on comprehensive school reform—part of that time helping run one of the largest randomized controlled trials of secondary school reform. We worked with schools across the country to determine which methods were best suited to complementing the assets found within each building in their school improvement journey. We found things like non-evaluative coaching; using early warning indicators around attendance, behavior, and course performance to be critical in helping school teams shepherd students successfully through secondary schools. Another thing we found is that if you don't remove non-pedagogical lifts from teachers, they will burn out.

I was a teacher, and I, like many of my peers, would take on the cognitive lift of helping my students and their families navigate the maze that is poverty in America. In my case, some of my students may not have had a meal outside of school or may have had their power cut off at home. Despite families working hard, often several jobs, the rising cost of living and the fear of living as undocumented families was a burden I shared, even if in small ways—looking for ways to help them navigate the system. Many teachers do this inadvertently. You care about your students and their families, so you start to triage all of those things as a teacher. And I think most teachers would do the same thing I did. They're constantly handling layers of poverty so that children can focus on learning. When you're having to play so many roles, you end up burning out.

I left the classroom; I'm a good example. And I was in a school that was relatively supported. I was a founding teacher at a charter school in California; it was me and three other teachers and the principal. It was a ton of work. I've never worked that hard; I've never worked that hard for so little pay. And there was no pathway to prosperity for me and my family if I had stayed in the classroom. I was going to be making $40,000 a year for the following five years, and that just wasn't feasible.

What are some strategies that you think can be used to address those challenges?

We are a generation that is crushed by student debt. And it’s insane to expect people who are already trying to struggle out of poverty to be lured into a profession that is not going to provide them a pathway out of poverty. It's just baffling.

Governors and mayors need to put more dedicated funding to bring more Latinx teachers into the profession and guarantee them a way out of poverty. Most of our teachers are coming through the pipeline of community colleges. You don't go to community college if you are a wealthy white person in America or if you're a wealthy person, period. You do it because you have to work while you're in college or you can’t move out of your home or your parents’ house. Residency programs like the North Carolina Teaching Fellows that provide tuition reimbursement or tuition remission if you teach for some number of years are really promising because they are not layering more debt onto Latinx teachers.

We also need to better support teachers once they are in the classroom. Some of the things we see actually keeping teachers in the classroom are high-quality pre-service training that prepares teachers to enter the classroom and mentoring programs [once they begin teaching]...But being mentored through only your first couple of years as a teacher is not adequate.

*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

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Teachers and Leaders