“I am proud to be black. I am proud to be me. I am proud of my African ancestry. I know where my greatness begins. It all started in the motherland. From great kings and queens I came. I realize the greatness in me. I can be whatever I want to be. I am positive. I am strong. I am loving, caring, and giving. Because of the greatness in me, I will read to feed my mind. I will be productive and invest my time into making a better society for you, my children, and me.”
This was daily affirmation recited by me and the other 300 African-American students that stood beside me during our school morning assembly. Scanning the room, I saw teachers who looked like me and teachers who didn’t. I had teachers who could relate to me and help me understand what it means to be a young African-American girl. There were teachers who made me feel valued. I also had teachers who used their unique teaching methods to expose me to diverse cultures and experiences; teachers who made sure I understood both the complex literary works of Ralph Ellison and Lorraine Hansberry, as well as the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens. My teachers found unique ways to tap into levels of greatness I never knew I had.
I saw teachers who, regardless of their race, stood together everyday, unified in the belief that instilling pride in one’s identity should not be seen as a threat, but rather a necessity. A necessity that would foster academic achievement, social responsibility, and prepare students for the society that lies ahead of them. This was my K-12 public school experience. Lessons learned in this education setting led me to attain a college degree and start my career as a teacher.
My experience was unique. I attended an African-centered public school where culturally responsive teaching was core to the school’s philosophy. But that raises the question of why schools that foster strong cultural identities and reflect the racial and ethnic backgrounds of their students are the exception and not the rule.
A growing body of research shows that students of color perform better in schools when they have at least one teacher of the same race. These teachers tend to not only have a better cultural understanding of their students, but research shows that they have higher expectations. In 2014, for the first time, the majority of students in the U.S. public school system were of minority groups. Yet, more than 80 percent of the K-12 teaching workforce is still white. According to the Center for American Progress’s “Teacher Diversity Index” , which uses data from the U.S. Department of Education, every state has a higher percentage of students of color than teachers of color. California has the largest gap: 73 percent of California students are non-white, yet only 29 percent of the state’s teachers are non-white.
Source: Center for American Progress
The lack of diversity in the teaching workforce has serious implications. African-American students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. There are persistent disparities in gifted or advanced course offerings for black or Latino students, as compared to white students. Fewer African-American and Latino students are graduating from high school. There is a disproportionate representation of racial ethnic groups in special education. Noticing these trends, one has to question, where are all the teachers of color?
Building and retaining a more diverse teacher workforce is complicated. Over the years, education leaders at all levels have analyzed the teacher workforce pipeline and have increased efforts to recruit teachers from diverse backgrounds. A recent study from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) examined minority teacher recruitment, employment, and retention from 1987 to 2013. The study found that the proportion of elementary and secondary teachers of color to students of color has steadily increased from 12 percent to over 17 percent since 2012. Teachers of color are overwhelmingly employed in public schools serving high poverty, high-minority, and urban communities. Data suggest that recruitment efforts have helped.
Boston Public Schools, for example, is seeing an increase in the diversity of its teacher workforce as a result of effective strategic programming. One specific program that has shown to be promising is the Boston Public Schools High School to Teacher Program (HSTT). This program identifies a group of high school students in the city that has the talent and potential to be great teachers. Eighty-seven percent of the participants are African-American or Latino. The students are strategically paired with mentors, provided college prep courses, financial assistance with college tuition, and upon college completion, participants are offered teaching jobs.
Additionally, more states are developing and encouraging alternative pathways to the teaching workforce. Programs like Teach for America, NYC Teaching Fellows, and district-wide “Grow-Your-Own” programs continue to lead the charge in recruitment efforts, specifically for teachers of color.
However, while more teachers of color are entering the field, they are also transitioning out at higher rates than white teachers. Why?
The same schools that overwhelmingly employ teachers of color are also more likely to have less desirable working conditions. Contrary to some theories, the researchers found that salary levels and the availability of classroom resources had very little to do with the rate of minority teacher turnover. The LPI study found that “the strongest factors by far for minority teachers [leaving a school] were the level of collective faculty decision-making influence in the school and the degree of individual instructional autonomy held by teachers in their classrooms.”
According to the LPI study, of the more than 56,000 minority teachers who left teaching in the 2004 to 2005 school year, 30,000 left to pursue another job or career or because of job dissatisfaction. The study recommends that teacher recruitment and retention initiatives be developed together, calling on policymakers and school leaders to address school conditions such as leadership and teacher autonomy. The researchers explain that doing so “could prevent the loss of investment to recruit them in the first place and also lessen the need for more recruitment initiatives.”
Currently, there are some initiatives focused on both recruitment and retention. Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) in South Carolina, and California’s Teach Tomorrow in Oakland (TTO) intentionally aim to recruit and retain teachers in the classrooms that reflect the diversity of the local student population. Following recruitment, both programs provide intensive ongoing support such as financial assistance, professional development and mentorship. Both programs have consistently high retention rates and could serve as a model for other states.
As education leaders at all levels continue efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color, it is my hope that every student can look around their school environment and attest to teachers who can relate to them, affirm and value them, and expose them to diverse cultures and experiences. This could go a long way toward developing a generation of students who know where their greatness begins, and will invest their time into making a better society for future generations.