Op-Ed: If We Fail To Hire, Support And Retain Teachers Of Color, We Have Failed As A Nation

It is imperative that we listen to what teachers of color need to succeed.

James Baldwin once said, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it...This is the only way societies change.”

Teachers of color are less than 20% of the teachers in our nation’s public schools, yet the majority of our students are students of color. Additionally, only 2% of the nation’s public school teachers are Black men. As James Baldwin’s call to action reminds us, we have a responsibility to change that. 

A recent Johns Hopkins study shows that having a Black teacher for just one year in elementary school is associated with a 29 percent reduction in the chances that Black students will drop out of school. And for Black boys from very low-income backgrounds, the results are even greater; their chance of dropping out fell by nearly 40 percent. 

As an educator, I know firsthand the presence of teachers of color can improve outcomes for all students – not just students of color. As the father of two incredible daughters who attend Maryland public schools, it is vital that they see diversity among their peers and educators in their schools. And as an advocate, I know that if we fail to educate students of color and if we fail to hire, support and retain teachers of color, then we have failed as a nation. 

Unfortunately, teachers of color are leaving the classrooms at higher rates than their peers — nearly 19 percent of teachers of color transfer between schools or leave teaching compared to 15 percent for white teachers. 

Last week, The Education Trust (Ed Trust) along with Teach Plus released a report, If You Listen, We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover, highlighting the lived experiences and voices of educators of color. The findings are a powerful reminder of what we must do to retain teachers of color in America’s classrooms. The report shows that teachers of color often leave because they feel undervalued, deprived of autonomy, bear high personal and financial costs, and experience an antagonistic school culture. 

Teachers told us that their identity often times comes with an  “invisible tax” – added responsibilities in addition to their role as a teacher (e.g. a Black teacher is asked to be the primary disciplinarian or a Latino teacher is expected to serve as a regular translator for families) that frequently are not compensated or recognized.  

Teachers also said they wanted the curricula in schools to provide both “windows” and “mirrors” – opportunities both to explore new worlds and to see themselves represented in the literature they read, their study of history, etc. The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and the accompanying curriculum, which reframes the founding of our nation and tells the true history of enslaved people and their contributions, is a prime example. 

Additionally, teachers want an environment where their own identity is validated to remain in the classroom. One positive development on this topic is the recent introduction of bills around the country to combat prejudice in workplace practices, like barring discrimination based on a person’s natural hair. 

So, what can we do?

Researchers from Ed Trust and Teach Plus identified five actions that schools and districts should employ to recruit teachers of color and help them stay:

Create culturally affirming school environments. 

  • Affirm teachers’ humanity and racial identity. 

  • Empower and invest in teachers (i.e. providing pathways to leadership, mentorship, and ability to tailor teaching to students). 

  • Build a school-wide “family” that truly supports relationships and mentors. 

  • Adopt a district priority related to retaining teachers of color. District leaders can emphasize methods of compensation for the extra work teachers do, and prioritize hiring and placement of teachers of color to build community and reduce isolation.

    Researchers also found that states and districts can disrupt the culture of turnover for teachers of color by taking these actions:

    Value teachers of color by providing loan forgiveness, service scholarships, loan repayment incentives, and relocation incentives for teachers coming into the field. 

  • Collect and make data transparent, and separate it out by race and ethnicity on teacher recruitment, hiring and retention. 

  • Invest in recruitment, preparation, and development of strong, diverse leaders committed to positive working conditions for a diverse workforce. 

  • Empower teachers of color by ensuring that curricula, learning and work environments are inclusive and respectful of all racial and ethnic groups.

    As a nation, we owe it to teachers of color to truly confront and then disrupt systems of injustice and inequity in our schools and communities.  The question on this issue should not be what should we have done? We should ask ourselves what will we do now? We listened to teachers of color. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to ignore the voices of teachers of color. #DisruptTurnover

    John B. King Jr. is the 10th U.S. Secretary of Education who served with President Barack Obama. King is the president and CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to identify and close opportunity gaps for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds from preschool through college.

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