Imagine – just for a moment – going through your entire K-12 experience without seeing a teacher that shares one of your most significant identities. This might be baffling to some, but it’s an everyday reality for many Black and Latinx learners making their way through public school systems. According to the National Center for Education Statistics 2017-18 report, 79% of teachers are white, even as the majority of students attending public schools are children of color. However, research shows schools are missing out on many potential benefits when teachers don’t reflect the ethnic or racial diversity of their students.
“There is a clear body of evidence with Black teachers and Latinx teachers that there is this added value for their capacity to improve learning, to improve social emotional learning, course taking, reducing suspension, taking more rigorous courses,” says Dr. Travis J. Bristol, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.
He notes that Black and Latinx teachers’ lived experience uniquely position them to relate to students of color. And it’s not only students of color that benefit from having Black and Latinx educators – research suggests that white students also benefit from teachers of color and those who offer different perspectives.
But Black and Latinx teachers are underrepresented in public schools in most large cities across America. In Boston and Los Angeles, there are 30 percent more students of Latinx descent than there are teachers, according to the Albert Shanker Institute’s major report on the state of teacher diversity. For Black students in Cleveland and New Orleans, that gap is 40 percent.
These numbers aren’t because of a lack of qualified candidates that enter the profession so much as it is about what happens after they enter schools. Black and Latinx teachers are the least likely to stay once they enter the workforce compared to their white colleagues, according to the 2016 State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce by the US Department of Education.
However, schools can develop solutions to better retain these teachers by confronting systemic issues related to why they leave. Bristol’s latest research unlocks effective strategies schools can apply to keep Black and Latinx teachers engaged in their practice and committed to K-12 teaching. The former New York City educator explains that retaining and supporting educators of color can disrupt notions of white supremacy and foster inclusivity. “Now, more than ever, we need people of color standing in front of our children in our classrooms,” he says, and what’s really at stake is creating a supportive environment for teachers and students alike.
A school staffed for success
Bristol says there are different levers to engage in order to retain Black and Latinx educators. One of those levers is teacher preparation programs. Teachers of color in predominantly white teacher certification programs often struggle with feeling like their identity is not reflected in their coursework with curriculums that overlook their experiences and privilege the preparation of white middle-class educators. These conditions often prevent teachers of color from showing up as their full selves, and make them more likely to grow weary or disengaged with K-12 teaching.
Another element of teacher prep programs relates to how they perceive students of color. Students are better supported when teacher prep programs prepare all teachers to engage with Black and Latinx learners by actively challenging deficit perspectives about students of color. Too often, educators are reluctant and even fearful when it comes to talking about race. However, developing school-wide racial and cultural literacy through professional development opportunities can equip them with some level of competency. Even among teacher-to-teacher relationships, a discomfort with race often leads to “typecasting” teachers of color as solely responsible for caring for, disciplining or supporting students of color and creating a disproportionate burden that also contributes to leaving the profession.
And the pandemic has only exacerbated the pressures teachers of color are experiencing because Black and Latinx people have been harmed by coronavirus at higher rates than other groups. “The burden is both the weight of experiencing this virus in ways that their white colleagues may not, then also having to worry about that for their own students,” Bristol says.
It has become increasingly important that when Black and Latinx teachers choose to teach in lower performing schools, which usually serve predominantly Black and Latinx children, school leaders need to make sure there are additional investments in services such as social workers, counselors and school nurses to support teachers and keep them from burning out. Additionally, there needs to be a feedback mechanism to keep administrators informed about any necessary changes they may need to make to positively shape school working conditions.
While many schools are rushing to reopen, Bristol advises that districts must make sure to attend to the mental and emotional supports that all teachers – especially teachers of color – need in order to teach. That includes taking time before school reopens to provide professional learning opportunities that prepare teachers to help students make sense of the pandemic. “Before we bring children back, we have to bring teachers back,” he says.
Thought partnership and affinity groups
Teaching has never been an easy or straightforward profession. With the added nuance of being a teacher of color who is already underrepresented in the profession, it’s no surprise that having a support network can provide serious relief. Even though each classroom poses dynamically different challenges, gathering with a workplace affinity group where members share a key identity offers community and comfort. Within the intimate confines of an affinity group, educators can address challenges, engage in honest dialogue and cultivate critical thought-partnership with colleagues and trained facilitators.
Bristol also says affinity groups should be part of professional development requirements and participants should be compensated for attending. “Too often, we place extra responsibilities on people of color, and this can’t be something extra.”
Although teachers can feel isolated at their schools, Bristol notes that most struggles that teachers deal with are not unique. Instead, there are patterns that are present in all types of schools, such as having to advocate for professional needs, communicating to colleagues about the ways in which their behaviors compound the added burden of being a teacher of color or creating necessary boundaries to sustain one’s teaching practice.