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Finding — and Keeping — Teachers of Color

Back to Skills

The nation’s public schools are serving increasingly diverse populations of students, yet the teachers in those schools are mostly white.

“It is absolutely right — we do not have parity,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, during the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.

He and other experts gathered for the EWA panel last month talked about a problem many school districts struggle with: How to recruit and retain teachers of color.

Those two concepts, recruitment and retention, go hand in hand when it comes to diversifying America’s teacher workforce.

Conventional thinking would suggest the reason teachers of color are still harder to come by is recruitment, Ingersoll said. In fact, in recent years there has been an “unheralded victory” in recruitment efforts, he said.

Getting those teachers to stay, however, has been problematic.

Turnover rates for black and Latino teachers are significantly higher than for their white peers. The reason teachers of color give for leaving, he said, is disproportionately job dissatisfaction.

To understand why this is, Ingersoll pointed to where teachers of color typically work. There has been a strategic push to get minority teachers into high-poverty, urban schools that have been traditionally been hard to staff. That’s worked.

But those schools have high turnover rates for all teachers. Since more black and Latino teachers work in such settings, educators of color have high turnover rates, he said.

“If significant numbers of (teachers of color) quit, then we haven’t solved the problem and we lose the investment,” Ingersoll said, pointing to a need to improve working conditions. “We need to have recruitment and retention if we are ever going to achieve parity.”

Travis Bristol, an assistant professor at Boston University, described overt and covert racism that black educators often encounter. Speaking on the EWA panel, he cited as one example a black educator who reported a colleague criticizing black children as behaving like “monkeys.”

Bristol noted his research showed black educators in lower and higher performing schools both face racial hostility, but educators who stay tend to be in better performing schools. Black male teachers in high-poverty schools also find themselves playing cop or disciplinarian, thus leading to more impetus to leave.

“Those men who were working in the higher performing schools, they all stayed,” Bristol said. “(They) talked about experiencing racial hostility, they talk about being disconnected from the core mission of the school — but they stayed because these were much better schools.”

Why does all of this matter?

Margarita Bianco, an associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver, offered this thought: “You can’t be who you can’t see.”

Teachers set examples for their students, and all students benefit from having role models of color, she said.

“Teacher diversity has to be viewed as accepted as central to any discussion on the quality of education for all students — students of color and their white peers as well,” Bianco said.

Bianco is also the executive director of Pathways2Teaching, a pre-collegiate program designed to encourage high school students of color to enter the teacher workforce.

Young people need to see who they can become, she said, and students of color aren’t going to consider the teaching profession if they never see teachers who look like them.

Large numbers of black and Latino teachers are leaving schools and leaving the profession altogether, Bianco said. Conversations about why that is shouldn’t shy away from the fact that the bad working conditions that drive those teachers away include institutional racism, she argued.

“We are talking about conditions that oppress students and they also oppress teachers,” Bianco said.

How can education reporters explore teacher recruitment and retention in schools?

Moderator Sarah Carr, the editor of The Teacher Projected at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, stressed that reporters should request the demographics of the staff in the schools in as detailed a breakdown as possible.

“It could be the source of a lot of great story ideas,” Carr said.