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Educators using 2019 diversity report to show districts how they can better support teachers of color

Bekah McNeel | February 11, 2020

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Kimberly Eckert, Louisiana’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, has leaned on the “If You Listen, We Will Stay,” report to improve the experience of teachers of color in her West Baton Rouge district. (Kimberly Eckert)

In West Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Kimberly Eckert felt as if she had been beating the same drum for years: Teaching is a challenging profession. Being a person of color in the United States is challenging, in a whole different way. Put them together and, for many, the obstacles are insurmountable.

Eckert had been tasked with strengthening teacher recruitment, including Educators Rising, a pre-service organization for high school students interested in teaching. She recruits high performers, ensuring that at least half are students of color. She’s up front with those students that it is not an easy profession and will likely be more difficult for those who are placed in high-need schools. She wants them “going in eyes wide open,” she said, because disillusionment doesn’t help anyone.

At the same time, she said, there are ways to improve the experience for teachers of color.

As Louisiana’s Teacher of the Year in 2018, Eckert used her platform to talk about the need for students of color, who make up 58 percent of West Baton Rouge Parish Schools, to have teachers who look like them, and for teachers of color to have school systems that support and value them.

However, she said, when speaking to rooms full of administrators, legislators and campus leaders, it’s helpful to have more than anecdotes. When a copy of “If You Listen, We Will Stay” landed in her hands last October, she said, it was exactly what she needed. The 2019 report from Teach Plus and The Education Trust outlines reasons teachers of color typically leave, and what it would take for them to stay on their campuses.

“I knew a lot of that to be true as a black woman,” Eckert said, but the concise, methodical report lent weight to her advocacy. “I’m kind of leaning on it to bust some stuff up in my district.”

For decades, research has shown that teachers of color are not supported as they should be, said Mark Teoh, senior national director of research and knowledge at education nonprofit Teach Plus. “Mastering the craft of teaching is difficult in the best of circumstances,” he explained, and when you overlay the realities of race in America, it becomes so much more difficult.

It becomes so difficult that many teachers of color feel they must leave their profession, according to the research. Since 1991, teachers of color have been leaving the profession at higher rates than white teachers (who themselves are not sticking around as long as they used to).

In the “If You Listen…” report, black and Latino teachers offered insight into their challenges, and, most importantly, Teoh said, what might be done to address them. The good news, he said, is that “there are clear solutions out there.”

Right now, around 80 percent of the teaching workforce is white, compared with 48 percent of public school students in the U.S. Research has shown the various ways this racial imbalance hurts children of color, as more reports are pointing to bias in discipline, referral for advanced courses and gifted programs, and lowered expectations. 

Same-race teachers positively affect outcomes for students of color, and students and educators offer anecdotal evidence that having a non-white teacher carries social and emotional benefits for white students as well.

More state, local and district leaders are feeling a sense of urgency around their teaching force, said Teach Plus President and CEO Roberto Rodríguez. While he says he is encouraged by this, he also pointed out that these leaders will need to think “overhaul” more than “add-on.”

“This is about re-engineering our policies and our practices,” Rodríguez said.

As practitioners like Eckert take this report with them into their home districts, they now have evidence backing their advocacy for several key changes.

The researchers found that teachers of color need a more diverse workforce to share their unique emotional workload. 

Teachers of color are more likely than their white peers to be placed in schools where students live in concentrated poverty, schools with fewer resources to support teachers professionally or personally. They choose these schools, Teoh said, often because the students there are also black and Latino. Some make the choice because they want to reach students growing up in neighborhoods similar to the ones they did.

“I got into this work because I want to pay forward the benefit that public schools gave me,” said Los Angeles Unified School District teacher Daniel Helena, who led focus groups for the study. As a former English language learner and immigrant to the U.S., “I have an understanding of what it’s like to be in their shoes.”

Once they are on campus, however, teachers of color say they are often expected to be more role model than professional. With so few black and brown adults in particular on campus, teachers in the report said they felt the pressure to bridge the entire cultural disconnect between staff and students.

One example Rodríguez discussed was an iconic fixture at many schools: the black male teacher expected to reach all of the young black men on campus, especially those who signal disinterest in academics or push back against authority. He’s the guy on the outdoor basketball court at lunchtime, and the one telling teens to “pull up your pants” in the hallway.

While he’s doing that work, Rodríguez said, he’s not being asked to pursue subject matter expertise or nominated for district advisory boards and blue ribbon panels. Like many of the teachers in the report, he becomes invisible to all but the students, and thus less able to change the structures around them.

Because their extra work is not seen as professional, but rather informal and relational, the report explained, they are less likely to be chosen for leadership positions, more likely to assume emotionally draining disciplinary roles and time-consuming student mentorship duties without additional compensation. They take these roles on because it is in the best interest of the kids, the report explained, but the additional cost in time and energy is real.

If they share the work with more teachers of color — a lot more — they will be less fatigued and have more time for professional advancement, the report states.

The report also found that teachers need personal, culturally affirming support as they deal with their own experience as a person of color in a predominantly white institution.

Teacher preparation courses rarely address race and culture adequately, said Shareefah Nadir-Mason, a Dallas teacher who also led focus groups for the report, but certification programs compound that problem if they don’t adequately prepare them for other parts of the teaching profession. Teachers of color are more likely to come to teaching through loosely regulated alternative certification courses, she explained, and thus more likely to have inadequate preparation for what lies ahead.

For her, Nadir-Mason, who had been working in communications, a mentor made all the difference. After being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, she got an emergency certification to teach in Texas. She was not prepared for what she would face in the Dallas schools where she was placed, but a powerful, racially matched mentor in her first year more than made up for it, she said.

Teachers in the study said they need mentors who can not only help them develop their craft but also help them keep their bearings in an overwhelmingly white system. They need older, more experienced teachers of color, thoughtfully paired with race in mind, not just academic subject or specialty, they said. There aren’t enough of those to go around.

The study found that having more people of color as leaders and colleagues allowed teachers of color to embrace their own culture — to promote social justice, to adopt hairstyles and clothing that don’t conform to the culture of white institutions and workplaces. This made it more likely they would stay and thrive. If they are isolated, the report found, they had to suppress their own culture or risk making their white colleagues uncomfortable, which further reduces access to mentorship and collaboration with colleagues.

Racial injustice in American society in general creates other barriers between teachers of color and professional advancement, the report noted. On average, they come into teaching with more debt than their white colleagues, and they have more financial responsibility for family members because their own relatives have been affected by the same systems they are trying to improve for their students. This limits their participation in unpaid advisory boards and leadership development programs, the report points out, because they need that time for side hustles and family care.

School leadership doesn’t always realize the cost of the opportunities, Nadir-Mason said: “People are sacrificing a lot just to have our voices heard.”

She wants to solve some of these problems with a program she’s developing called Rapidly Achieving Campus Excellence (RACE). It specifically targets the lack of opportunities for teachers of color by beefing up quality and cultural competencies in alternative certification programs, providing racially relevant mentorship and creating supported opportunities for teachers of color to build relationships with Texas legislators.

The last component, the legislative advocacy, alludes to one of the most pernicious push factors described by teachers in the study, and one with the most radical fix.

Teachers of color need the autonomy to act in the best interest of their students when the system does not.

Many teachers of color identify with the students they serve, meaning they have experienced the same school system they are now working in, and say they know where the system isn’t working, where the curriculum isn’t engaging and where certain behavior policies are hurting.

For example, Helena said, as an English teacher, his curriculum by default is white and Western.

Unless leadership sees the need, teachers of color say, there’s very little they can do to change even their own class curriculum, let alone the culture of the school or district.

“Oftentimes, it feels that the efforts that I make are going to be undone,” Helena said. “That is devastating because we’re not talking about things we produce — we’re talking about human lives.”

It’s important that the teachers be invited to discuss these observations with leadership, Teoh said, as has begun to happen in Pennsylvania and California. Raising a hand or voicing dissent in faculty meetings is not a risk everyone can be expected to take, he said. The social and professional burden of “speaking up” will only place more stress on teachers of color.

Instead, they need to be invited to good-faith discussions in places and at times that are realistic for them, Teoh said. And they should also be allowed to decline a particular invitation, knowing that it isn’t the only opportunity they will ever have to address the issues, and that there are others who can step up.

When the report was released in the summer of 2019, The Education Trust hosted an event called Hidden Heroes for teachers of color from 13 states to discuss the findings and develop action plans. For most, Education Trust senior director of national and state partnerships Lynn Jennings said, they are in the coalition-building phase, gathering like-minded advocates from teaching and racial equity organizations.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has tackled the issue of teacher diversity head on, Jennings explained, and several members of the Hidden Heroes cohort were invited to serve on that commission as well. They made recommendations based on the “If You Listen…” report at a December commission meeting. “That’s one place we have our eye on,” Jennings said.

In Massachusetts and Maryland, she reported, small coalitions have made headway as the states open up school funding formula discussions. Because hiring diversity is ultimately a question of budget priorities, she said, “This ends up being the right context.”

Teacher diversity is not likely to change if it’s relegated to a silo that only a motivated few feel compelled to address, Jennings explained. Such an approach misses the fundamental shift that an inclusive teaching workforce will require, if those teachers are to stay in the profession.

When it comes to curriculum and policy, teachers of color need to be part of the “natural workings of the district,” Teoh said. Districts create commissions, committees and advisory boards when new textbooks or courses are adopted, when dress codes and disciplinary policies are updated and when campus improvement plans are developed. Teachers of color should be invited to serve on them. In addition to their content area insights, these teachers will also be able to identify blind spots when it comes to race, Teoh explained, blind spots that could prove counterproductive to the goals the district wants to achieve.

To unlock those insights, however, he added, leaders, including white leaders, must become comfortable putting race up for discussion. This gets at the biggest challenge, he said, and the step still remaining to be taken for most: open agreement that the education system we have in the U.S. was designed with white students and teachers in mind, and that it still works to their advantage.

Such an admission makes clear that teachers of color, especially those teaching students of color, have a lot working against them in the status quo.

“Acknowledgement is key,” Rodríguez said.

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