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Recruitment & Retention Commentary

The Suburbs Need Diverse Teachers, Too

A superintendent for human resources discusses the ‘crisis of representation’
By Kurt Laakso — June 26, 2018 3 min read
Comm 37 Laakso 600

Among school personnel administrators, hiring candidates who reflect the diversity of student populations is often a top priority. While often a challenge in any district, this goal can be particularly difficult for human resource directors from suburban districts with few teachers of color already on staff. In essence, such districts lack the critical mass of minority staff to attract new candidates of color to consider working there. If, as is often argued, diversity attracts diversity, how does a district recruit a diverse slate of candidates when its current percentage of teachers of color is woefully low?

This phenomenon is more than a teacher-recruitment challenge; it is a crisis with social-emotional implications. The message we send students when our faculties do not represent our diverse populations is tantamount to institutional racism. Research shows when students of color look at the educators in their school and find only one or two faces that resemble theirs, they internalize the assumption that immutable characteristics of race are, in fact, a barrier to professional success. Once such an assumption takes hold, whatever encouragement students of color may hear from well-meaning educators begins to ring hollow.

Among HR directors, I have often heard my professional peers from suburban districts lament the difficulty of reaching candidates of color. The communities that suburban districts serve are rapidly growing more diverse, but their perception as “mostly white” hasn’t caught up with their shifting student demographics.

This crisis of representation has been a topic of ongoing conversation within the consortium of HR directors in the Chicago area to which I belong. The consortium includes 25 suburban school districts—but only two members are individuals of color. During one discussion on the glaring need to diversify the ranks of professional educators, we began to consider one overlooked avenue to diversify our teaching ranks: Have we been marketing the wrong message in advertising opportunities to teach in the suburbs?

To attract candidates, suburban recruiters often boast bigger salaries and better benefits packages, promising a collaborative culture in a positive working environment, but few have trumpeted the cause of education from a suburban perspective. In a profession driven by altruistic intentions, why have we not recognized the idealism of candidates by highlighting the social-justice implications of a career in suburban schools, rather than just focusing on salaries and benefits?

Empathy begins with an appreciation of others’ humanity and a genuine concern about others’ realities."

In suburban school districts, there is a shortage of individuals of color on staff to provide a counterbalance to a white-dominated outlook on current events. This is not to say that districts that are disproportionately white are necessarily discriminatory, but this lack of diversity severely undermines the common mission of public education.

The diversification of suburban school faculties is perhaps more crucial now than ever before. In our rancorous political climate, our students—along with many adult Americans—are reeling with questions about what life will look like in the United States over the next few years. Central to that question are issues of race relations, immigration, and ethnic identity. Cultural empathy, which has been increasingly absent from much of our national discourse over the past several years, is needed now on a national scale.

Diversifying a district’s professional ranks could elevate everyone’s understanding of the cultural, social, and economic experiences of people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Indeed, empathy begins with an appreciation of others’ humanity and a genuine concern about others’ realities.

Imagine a suburban school district with not only a diverse student body, but also a diverse faculty where no one person from any one ethnicity or race would have to stand alone. Consider the impact that such a robust coalition of professionals would have on students’ (and parents’) ability to imagine, aspire, and make a difference. Such a diversified teacher workforce would advance public education’s mission to strengthen democracy and make our nation even greater than it already is—with all perspectives represented along the way. If this purpose rings true with candidates of color, they should consider taking up the cause as an educator in a suburban school, where social-justice champions are desired as much as they are needed.

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