Special Report
Recruitment & Retention

The Role Mentors and School Leaders Play in Retaining Teachers of Color

By Ileana Najarro — December 04, 2023 6 min read
Educators chat with each other during the Edifying, Elevating, and Uplifting Teachers of Color conference in Minneapolis, Minn., on Oct. 20, 2023.
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Research suggests that when teachers share an ethno-racial background with the growing population of Black, Latino, and Asian American students, these students are more likely to succeed academically, accumulate fewer suspensions, and be more motivated to pursue higher education.

Travis Bristol, associate professor of teacher education and education policy at the University of California, Berkeley and chair of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, says that white students have also expressed a preference for teachers of color in past research surveys.

Recognizing those benefits, many schools are looking to grow their ranks of teachers of color.

But even as states, districts, and individual schools invest time and money into hiring such educators, retaining them within the profession—or even at a single school—requires paying attention to the quality of induction support they get, ongoing mentorship, and how well prepared school administrators are at retaining their employees, experts said.

In a nationally representative survey of 1,000 full-time teachers, conducted in 2022 by Educators for Excellence, a national group that advocates for educators, 82 percent of Black, Indigenous, and other teachers of color said professional support and leadership opportunities would most likely keep teachers in the profession. Seventy-eight percent of white teachers agreed.

When it comes to keeping teachers of color at a specific school, Bristol points to an old adage: “Teachers leave their principals, not their students, because principals create working conditions in their schools to get teachers to stay or leave.”

What professional support teachers need to stay in the profession

To ensure that newer teachers of color stay in the profession, schools, and nonprofits leading recruitment efforts must ensure those teachers get induction support, Bristol said.

Often these beginner teachers are placed in some of the most challenging schools, so they need access to tools and resources to best support their students.

But all teachers of color could also stand to benefit from quality mentorship that attends to their career trajectories and social-emotional experiences. For instance, mentoring could help Black teachers learn how to navigate anti-Blackness in schools, or help LGBTQ+ teachers navigate heteronormative school contexts while also providing regular feedback and tools for them to improve their practice, Bristol said.

In an EdWeek Research Center survey of educators in October, a little more than half the district and school leaders who participated said that they offer mentorship programs and high-quality professional development as incentives or benefits to teachers. Twenty-two percent of these respondents said they introduced or improved mentorship programs in response to staffing challenges in the past two years.

The need for personalized professional mentorship among teachers of color to keep them in the profession is what sparked the creation of Edifying Teachers in 2021. A national network of teachers and researchers, Edifying Teachers partners with school districts to offer mentorship that can support and retain teachers of color, said founder Rudy Ruiz.

Through collaboration with Digital Promise, a nonprofit launched in 2011 by then President Barack Obama, Ruiz and his team—of six leadership members and a dozen other extended team members—formed partnerships with school districts that enable teachers to virtually access their own mentors for a variety of professional concerns.

Since its launch in 2021, the network has worked directly with districts in Maryland and Texas with plans to soon solidify partnerships with districts in Minnesota, Kansas, and Nebraska next year, Ruiz said.

The personalized mentorship goes beyond instructional coaching, said Katie Caster, director of mentoring for the group. It’s about helping teachers navigate career trajectories and relationships with other adults—whether that is fellow teachers, administrators, or even students’ parents.

Edifying Teachers has also begun pairing mentors with pre-service teachers and has co-hosted various events, including a conference in October where middle, high school, and college students seeking to become teachers, current teachers, and some state and district leaders all learned more about how mentorships can support teachers and how national affinity groups offer another pathway for this, Ruiz said.

The hope is that by offering mentorship to teachers across all experience levels, and getting the buy-in from administrators for this, the pipeline for recruiting and retaining teachers of color can be fixed.

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets, and so, what we’re trying to do is redesign the system in a more productive way to get the outcomes that we’re shooting for,” Ruiz said.

Caster added that policymakers play a role in supporting district-level recruitment and retention of teachers of color by updating the narrative of what it means to be a teacher both in terms of the impact teachers have on students and the related salaries that impact teachers’ quality of life.

“It’s the narrative of making sure that we support teachers, that they feel like this is a path to the middle class and above,” Caster said.

What school administrators can do to keep teachers of color

When it comes to retaining teachers of color at specific schools, principals can make or break efforts.

“We place the most novice teachers in the most challenging schools. We also place the most novice principals in the most challenging schools,” Bristol said.

“So teachers are leaving their principals because their principals don’t have the tools, the resources, the skills, the expertise, to create working conditions to retain the very teachers that we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit,” he added.

This is why Edifying Teachers makes sure to fully include school leadership in their mentorship programs. Mentors work with school leadership teams to help them to both convey a strong sense of support to their teachers and build capacity to actually provide that support when needed.

For instance, mentors say that they often hear teachers of color talk about challenges around school climate and culture that school principals can control. For instance, some mentees have expressed a need for support in basic skills including lesson planning, as well as with drawing on best practices to better support increased numbers of English learners.

“One practical strategy we recently introduced to foster collaborative learning and collective efficacy ... is a system for ensuring regular peer observations, visiting fellow teachers’ classrooms to spur meaningful discussion, professional learning, and common language and expectations,” Ruiz said.

“We know that no matter how good of a job we might do as mentors and as mentorship support, unless we have those interactions with the school leadership team, teachers say some support from their building may not actually change,” he added.

An effective principal has enough knowledge to know how to best support a teacher with their instruction, or can point them in the direction of where they can find support around instruction, Bristol said.

They’re also aware of social and emotional challenges that may be unique to a given teacher of color based on some of the demographic characteristics at play in a given school and the principal must attempt to run interference.

For example, a principal can intervene when white teachers send Black students to a Black teacher to address misbehavior as they have typecast that teacher as a disciplinarian, Bristol said. The principal can help white teachers practice strategies to address misbehaviors themselves and can make sure not to further perpetuate the stereotype of the disciplinarian Black teacher by assigning them to guard the cafeteria or be a hallway monitor.

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 The Role Mentors and School Leaders Play in Retaining Teachers of Color


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