Clint Mitchell notices something striking every time he visits one of the school buildings he oversees as superintendent of the Colonial Beach school district in Virginia.
“I can’t tell you how much the African American boys gravitate to me, as a leader in that district, or they gravitate to my assistant director, who is another Black male, or my two other executive directors, who are two Black females,” said Mitchell.
These moments are always touching, but still, “that’s the thing we want to avoid,” said Mitchell, who is Black.
Why? Because, in Mitchell’s eyes, Black students flock to him since they don’t see people with their background leading their classrooms every day.
“If we have enough Black males that they see around them, they know that’s the norm and it’s OK,” Mitchell said. “If we don’t have schools like that, then we’re not really setting up our kids for the future as they go into a global society.”
This same conundrum has been plaguing district leaders and policymakers for decades. A growing body of research highlights the benefits all students experience when the teachers in their school building mirror the demographics of the student body: higher test scores, lower rates of absenteeism and dropouts, and even improved social-emotional skills. But districts often struggle to improve diversity among their staff—even when leaders earnestly strive for more inclusion.
In response to an EdWeek Research Center survey conducted between Sept. 27 and Oct. 13, more than three-fifths of district leaders and principals said finding racially and ethnically diverse teachers for the current school year was proving “very difficult” or “impossible.” Only 2 percent said the task was easy.
The challenges of finding educators of color mirror broader recent trends of problems with recruitment and retention in schools. More than half of district leaders and principals said a major challenge for more racially diverse hiring is a dearth of diverse candidates, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey. Forty-four percent said finding candidates, regardless of race, who want to apply for open positions often proves impossible.
The path to greater diversity in school staffing will be long, educators and experts say. But Travis Bristol, an associate professor of teacher education and education policy at the University of California, Berkeley school of education, offers one reassurance: The task of keeping educators of color on the job doesn’t have to be that different from keeping educators, regardless of race, on the job.
“It’s not the case that there’s something unique about [educators of color] that makes them want to leave,” Bristol said. “The conditions under which they want to stay and thrive are no different than white teachers.”
Look far and wide for future educators
Sharif El-Mekki didn’t think about becoming a teacher while he was in grade school. He didn’t think about it during college.
“No one talked to me about, ‘Hey, you’re a leader, I see your activism, you’re smart, you love your community, you love children, have you ever considered becoming a teacher?’” he said.
The idea only occurred to him when the mother of his best friend referred him to a nonprofit organization that was helping recruit Black men to teach in Philadelphia schools. That referral led him to what’s now become a three-decade career in teaching.
El-Mekki currently leads a nonprofit called the Center for Black Educator Development. (El-Mekki is a frequent contributor to Education Week Opinion.) He’s constantly looking for ways to encourage Black people to enter the teaching profession. But the first step, he said, is to help people believe they belong in the role.
That also means taking an expansive view of where to find future educators of color. Many recruiters look to historically black colleges and universities—but Mitchell tries to find job candidates for his Colonial Beach schools at other types of higher education institutions.
Mitchell also makes a point to scout job seekers at local churches and other community hubs. He keeps an eye out for graduates from his district who have gone to college and returned home to live with their parents, unsure of what to do for work.
Diversifying the educator workforce requires more than simply finding people to apply for open positions. It’s also important to design the interview process with diversity in mind, Mitchell said.
He tries to ensure that job candidates meet with a diverse group of interviewers. And if someone shows promise but struggles during their interview, he brings the person back in for a more informal conversation.
“I look at the recruitment and hiring process as a marriage,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to make sure this person you commit to is compatible [with] you and what you believe in, and they’ve got to be sure you’re compatible [with] them.”
Too much emphasis on recruitment, not enough on retention
It’s one thing to get teachers of color in the door. It’s another to keep them from walking back out.
The first step to executing a plan to improve retention, of course, is to have a plan in the first place. Some districts fail at that basic task, El-Mekki said.
“The first question we usually ask is, ‘What’s your retention plan?’ So often, we get gibberish, if not just blank stares,” El-Mekki said.
Administrators need to recognize that educators of color don’t have different priorities from white educators, experts say. Rather, their experiences in the classroom are different because they’re “under a set of structural conditions that are different than their white peers’,” Bristol said.
That extends to their own experiences in the classroom. Many classroom environments are challenging or even hostile for students of color. When those students grow up, those experiences color their impression of what it will be like to be at the head of the classroom, El-Mekki said.
On the other hand, those negative experiences can also motivate them. “You have Black students saying, ‘I’m going to become the teacher I wish I had and knew I needed,’” El-Mekki said. “‘I’m still interested in coming in and protecting students from the very policies that oppressed me in my 13 years of schooling.’”
A big part of retaining teachers is ensuring their working environment is supportive and collaborative. Bristol believes the first step districts should take is to examine and aim to reduce racial inequities in suspensions and other forms of discipline for students. Teachers of color may not feel welcome in districts where students of color tend to be punished more often than white students, he said.
“If the school district is disproportionately suspending students of color, how can they say that they want to attract teachers of color to come work at their district?” he said.
School board members also need more training on the importance of diverse hiring, Bristol said.
Some superintendents have faced pushback from school board members for prioritizing diversity and inclusion efforts. That includes the superintendent of the Hamilton Southeastern district in Indiana who resigned in September after board members criticized her push to hire more Black educators, among other initiatives.
The opposite should be happening instead, he said.
Policy reforms can help turn the tide
District leaders can do a lot on their own to improve hiring practices to prioritize diversity. However, experts say systemic change may not be possible without broader policy changes and structural reforms.
Teaching programs are prohibitively expensive for many prospective educators. Many educators say student debt is a major barrier to continuing in the profession. The federal government has offered some debt relief for public servants, but experts say those efforts haven’t gone far enough to develop strong incentives for student debt-burdened individuals—who are disproportionately people of color—to become educators.
Principals often lack the training and professional development to execute thoughtful strategies for diversifying the workforce, said Liz Steiner, a policy researcher for the RAND Corporation who has studied the effects of diverse teacher workforces.
“There’s really an opportunity to help principals become more focused and to use practices that would help recruit and retain teachers of color,” she said.
Those techniques, Steiner said, include setting concrete criteria for open positions before publicly posting them; hiring with a focus on “demonstrated expertise” rather than simply looking at qualifications; and cultivating healthy dialogue among teachers about ongoing challenges at work.
State-mandated Praxis exams for entry into the profession are often designed with white test-takers in mind, posing steeper barriers for educators of color to pass them, Mitchell said. Certifications from those exams often don’t travel from one state to the next, which makes it harder for educators to move from place to place and take jobs that match their skills and interests.
Mitchell also said he’s seen prospective educators hampered by misdemeanors or other minor offenses in their past that disqualify them from future teaching opportunities.
Even with all those barriers in place, Mitchell said he’s still made progress on diverse hiring in his rural district. He persuaded the school board to foot large portions of the bill for numerous educators of color to get advanced degrees, provided they stay with the school system for five years.
These efforts start, he said, with a mindset that the pool of potential educators should be larger, not smaller.
“We have to be able to look at every person for who they are, and what they represent, and try to find ways in order to get them to be certified to be educators,” Mitchell said.
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2023 edition of Education Week as How to Find—And Keep—a Diverse Team of Teachers