Say you’re a principal, and you’ve been putting a high priority on hiring teachers of color. You recognize the importance of a diverse staff, and you’re feeling pretty good because you’re making progress. But now you face a whole new set of challenges: How do you keep the teachers of color you’ve hired?
In a study released Wednesday, teachers offer answers. They describe workplaces where their hairstyles or wardrobe choices are unwelcome, or where they’re not allowed to customize their instruction so it’s culturally relevant for their students. They discuss meetings where their ideas are rejected, only to be embraced when they come from a white colleague.
These comments from one teacher, in a focus group conducted by researchers from The Education Trust and Teach Plus, are one example of the viewpoints in the report, “If You Listen, We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover.”
“I feel like the curriculum and the way we continue to educate our students is not changing, and as a result, teachers of color feel trapped in a system. As an individual of color, I often feel as if I am not always able to make the changes I want as I am forced to operate within a system that seems unwilling to change. Furthermore, I also feel policed as an individual of color. I have to appease the dominant culture in regards to the way I communicate with my students, the way I dress, the assignments I choose to implement in the classroom.”
The challenge of retaining teachers of color is rising on administrators’ radar as schools get better at diversifying their staff rosters. They still have a long way to go to fully reflect the diversity of the student populations they’re serving: People of color make up only 20 percent of the teaching force, while 51 percent of U.S. public school students come from nonwhite racial or ethnic groups, according to federal data cited in the report. But teachers of color are being hired at a faster clip than are white teachers, the report said, citing a 2015 study.
Progress in hiring doesn’t necessarily mean progress in retaining teachers, though. Teacher turnover is still a huge problem. To examine the role race might play in those dynamics, researchers for the new study convened focus groups with 88 black or Latino teachers in five states. They also tracked down a half-dozen administrators with reputations for focusing hard on the issue of retaining teachers of color, and did mini case-studies of their strategies.
One of the themes that emerged from teachers reflects what some have called an “invisible tax” on teachers of color. When a black teacher goes the extra mile for a student, because she’s in a position to understand a particular struggle a black student is having, for instance, that time—and that skill—should be recognized through compensation, teachers said. Here’s how one teacher described that added responsibility:
“Many teachers of color come into the profession with the fact in mind that most of the students they are serving identify with them, whether it be through shared experiences or because they too are members of a community of people of color. This puts teachers in a position to become more than just educators ... leading to a burnout at a much faster rate.”
Teachers of color reported feeling that their financial struggles often go unrecognized by their supervisors. Black and Latino educators are more likely to contend with financial struggles than their white peers, since they’re less likely to have family assets for support, the study said. Here’s another teacher from the study’s focus groups:
“The difference in my opinion is generational wealth. [As a new teacher] I barely made $35,000 before taxes. This as a first-generation college student was not enough to live on especially while also helping my family, which many people of color have to do. Whereas a lot of my friends who are White pocketed salaried money because they were able to get help from their parents.”
Some findings in the study apply to all teachers, not just teachers of color. For instance, researchers found that teachers place a high value on being in a school that’s devoted to the support and growth of the whole child, not just his or her test scores. But valuing all children, and seeing their potential, is particularly resonant, and important, for black and Latino teachers, said Ashley Griffin, who co-authored the report.
“Educators regardless of race care about students,” she said. “What’s unique for teachers of color is that narratives in schools are often about black and brown children being low-performing. We fail in our conversations to promote black genius, the idea that here is a child who’s just waiting to be cultivated. It’s created a culture where the assumption is that the little brown child who comes to class is an underachiever. Hearing that day in and day out is particularly powerful for teachers of color.
“Children see themselves in their teachers, but teachers also see themselves in their students. ... If the narrative is anti-black genius, anti-success for children, we take on that negative stereotype in a unique way.”
From teachers’ stories, and the accounts of principals and district leaders, the researchers concluded that key pieces make up the work of building schools where teachers of color want to work. They broke them down this way:
- Create culturally affirming school environments
- Affirm teachers’ humanity and racial identity
- Empower and invest in teachers
- Build a schoolwide family
- Make retaining teachers of color a district-level priority
Here’s what Education Trust and Teach Plus recommend as key steps for school and district leaders, and state policymakers, to keep teachers of color in their schools and in the teaching profession:
- Value teachers of color, by providing loan forgiveness, service scholarships, loan repayment incentives, and relocation incentives.
- Collect and disaggregate, by race or ethnicity, data on your recruitment, hiring and retention of teachers of color.
- Invest in preparing, recruiting, and developing a diverse array of strong leaders who are committed to positive working conditions for a diverse workforce.
- Empower teachers of color by ensuring that curriculum, learning environments, and work environments are inclusive and respectful of all racial and ethnic groups..
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.