Recruiting and Retaining Diverse Teachers: Why It Matters, Ways to Do It

—Jesa Daphorn/Getty

Angel Castillo Pineda immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala five years ago. Navigating a new environment and language at East Boston High School, he thought little of future career ambitions—until he met Wensess Raphael, head of Boston Public Schools’ High School to Teacher Program (HSTT). Raphael encouraged the then-high school junior to apply to the program, which supports participants from high school through college in exploring and completing teaching degrees. Angel graduated this spring with plans to become a teacher and a full tuition scholarship from Regis College’s Diverse Educators Program.

“I totally see myself coming back to visit and tell high school students about my experience,” Angel said.

Angel’s experience represents one of an increasing number of efforts to recruit and retain a more racially diverse teacher workforce in K-12 schools. While initiatives like the HSTT identify students of color in high school and expose them to teaching careers, others seek out paraprofessionals already working in the public school system to become certified teachers. Still others work to retain existing teachers of color.

Education Week explored efforts school districts are using to increase racial diversity in the teaching workforce, which experts say benefit school communities as a whole.

The Racial Gap Between Teachers and Their Students

In the 2015-16 school year, over 80 percent of teachers were white and less than 7 percent were Black, according to federal data. Meanwhile, the white student population has steadily declined since 2000—from 61 percent to 44 percent in 2017—while the Hispanic student population rose by 50 percent since 1997 and the Asian student population by 46 percent. Black students comprise about 15 percent of all K-12 students—although they increasingly attend schools with at least 75 percent non-white enrollment, as do Hispanic and American Indian students: 58, 60, and 30 percent, respectively, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

All students benefit from having teachers of color, research shows. A report by the Learning Policy Institute revealed that when taught by teachers of color, students of color have better academic performance, improved graduation rates, and are more likely to attend college. Research from the Center for American Progress provides insight into these effects, noting Black teachers are less likely than non-black teachers to perceive Black students’ behavior as “disruptive,” and more likely than non-black teachers to have a higher opinion of Black students’ academic abilities. All students, regardless of race, report feeling cared for and academically challenged by teachers of color, according to the Learning Policy Institute report.

Yet many large urban districts are seeing a decrease in Black teachers and, nationwide, lower retention rates for teachers of color, according to the Center for American Progress. Initiatives seek to reverse these trends.

Starting the Teacher Pipeline Early

Some of these efforts begin well before individuals commit to the teaching profession. Attracting high school students to teaching involves clarifying their perceptions about the profession, explains Boston Public Schools’ HSTT coordinator Raphael.

“A lot of students don’t see education as a lucrative career. But if you ask them if they want to help people and make a difference, they will say yes,” he said.

Boston’s HSTT program involves practical aspects, like coordinating college visits and summer internships. But, says Raphael, it also provides students something many teachers of color say is missing from their own professional experience: “A sacred space to talk amongst themselves, and the opportunity to exchange dialogue with teachers who look like them.”

Finding Talent in Schools’ Current Employees

Future teachers of color are also being recruited among current K-12 school employees through Grow Your Own (GYO) Educator programs. Criteria for each varies. Some GYO programs, for instance, require participants to have bachelor’s degrees; others don’t. But they all seek to address teacher shortages, retention issues, and teacher diversity. Finding recruits among school employees makes sense, say experts.

“Often, the non-licensed staff are much more racially and linguistically diverse than the teaching staff. They tend to come from the community, and often reflect the communities they serve,” said Laura Mogelson, director of the Multiple Pathways to Teaching Office at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ College of Education and Human Development.

The University of Minnesota’s Grow Your Own Teachers program, or MNGOT, is a two-year, graduate-level teacher preparation program that enrolls non-licensed staff members with bachelor’s degrees from the college’s partner districts. Through MNGOT, students earn a Master’s degree in education and qualify for a state teaching license. Students enrolled in MNGOT pay a reduced tuition fee, continue to work in schools while they take coursework, and oftentimes complete their field requirements within the context of their existing job. For the 2020-21 academic year, the university screened over 50 applicants and admitted 34.

Retaining Teachers of Color

Increasing the diversity of the teacher workforce is one thing; retaining teachers of color is another. The isolation teachers of color feel when there aren’t any other teachers in a building who look like them is real, says Daman Harris, the principal at Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, where fewer than 5 percent of the 13,000-plus teachers are men of color.

Harris is also co-founder of The BOND Project (Building Our Network of Diversity), launched in 2013 within Montgomery County as a way to recruit, develop, empower, and retain male educators of color through professional enrichment, mentoring, scholarship, and fellowship activities. Desmond Mackall, assistant principal of the district’s Glen Haven Elementary School, recalls the first time he attended a BOND meeting.

“I had made up my mind that I’d be on my way to a different district,” said Mackall. “When I walked into a room of 25 to 30 men of color, I was blown away.” Mackall stayed, becoming an active participant in BOND.

Boston Public Schools has made a similar commitment. The BPS Male Educators of Color (MEOC) Executive Coaching Leadership program, a nine-month accredited program, strives to enhance engagement, retention, and leadership for male staff of color within the school system. Led by other male leaders of color from Boston Public Schools, it combines coaching, research-backed content, self-reflection, and peer interaction. Of the 67 men who’ve participated, 91 percent remain employed by the school system, says Ceronne Daly, managing director of Recruitment, Cultivation and Diversity Programs for the Boston district.

As other districts consider initiating retention efforts, Harris offers some suggestions. To create a sense of urgency around the issue, he advises bringing data to the forefront; for instance, demonstrating a disproportionately low number of teachers of color in a given district. He also urges planners to demand concrete steps, like dedicated funding in a district’s budget and transparent goals. It’s also important, notes Mackall, that districts allow such initiatives to be run by those they’re intended to support. “Let the minority voices drive it,” he said. Applying these tactics, Harris and Mackall believe, will get them closer to achieving their ultimate goal.

“What we hope is that every student in Montgomery County at every level will have an elementary, middle, and high school male educator of color,” Harris said.

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