Q&A: You Won’t Retain Black Teachers Without Transforming Your School Culture


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New Jersey is in dire need of teachers of color, and the cost is borne by black and brown children. If a black child has even one black K-12 teacher, they are 13% more likely to enroll in college. If a black student has two black teachers, they are 32% more likely. Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP, notes that “students of color find themselves disadvantaged at almost every turn of our education system.”

How bad is that? According to an NJ Spotlight analysis, more than 75% of NJ districts have teaching and professional staff that are at least 85% white, and 50 school districts do not employ a single African American, Hispanic, Asian, or Asian staff member. of another minority – this in a state where 56% of students are non-white. When districts are challenged with the lack of teachers of color, they often say “we can’t find them.” Senator Shirley Turner said in response, “They are there. You just have to go get them.

Recently, I interviewed Shareefah Mason of Teach Plus and Sharif El-Mekki of the Center for Black Educator Development (CBED), who believe schools can’t recruit and retain black teachers — critical role models for students of all colors. – only if those responsible for education create an identity. – affirm school cultures. Yet few school districts, in New Jersey and elsewhere, accomplish this task. Mason and El-Mekki’s groups have just collaborated on a report titled “To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures.” This report examines what responsive school conditions look like and what school leaders can do to create these conditions, especially for black teachers to accept teaching positions and stay in these schools. The report includes actionable recommendations for teachers, school leaders and policy makers. It follows an earlier report by Teach Plus and Education Trust titled “If You’re Listening, We’ll Stay: Why Teachers of Color Are Leaving and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover.”

Here is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.

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Everyone talks about the importance of diversifying the pool of teachers, but we don’t seem to be making much progress. What should happen?

Mason: You’re right — we’re not making much progress at all. By 2030, the majority of the American working class will be people of color. America is getting less white, but black teachers make up only 7% of K-12 educators. And our turnover rate is much higher, even as more and more studies validate the importance for students of seeing teachers who look like them, both for their academic performance and for their future after graduating. secondary studies. This matters for white students too – their performance increases when they have more diverse teachers.

So what are Teach Plus, Education Trust and CBED doing about it?

El-Mekki: We go to districts and schools to work with them on creating the kind of culture that black teachers, Asian teachers, Native American teachers, Hispanic teachers say they need. It starts with unapologetic dialogues and honest leaders with themselves, with their constituents, both inside and outside of school. It starts with setting goals, allocating resources to those goals, and questioning – again and again – whether those goals remain aligned with ecosystems of cultural affirmation.

So we step in and provide professional development, resources and accountability so that school leaders and teachers are empowered to be bold, courageous and honest. Otherwise, it’s just a roller coaster.

Mason: Yes exactly. Representation matters! We all know that children need to have teachers in school who look like them. If a black child has even one black teacher, they are 13% more likely to enroll in college. If a black student has two black teachers, it is 32% more likely that there will be a critical break in the school-to-prison pipeline. But if schools are successful in recruiting and retaining black teachers, they need to undertake broad transformations so that their environment helps black teachers thrive, honors their vernacular, gives them everything they need – including groups of teachers. affinity where they can discuss the unique challenges they face, encourage each other and develop skills together. It’s not enough to have pretty words on pretty equity and inclusion websites.

The goal is to come in and ask the tough questions about what works and what doesn’t. We have the ideas, the resources, the recommendations, but we need to embed these fundamental concepts throughout the system to dispel the fear of school leaders and teachers and work with them to create a welcoming culture.

What are they afraid of?

El-Mekki: For some, they are afraid of reprisals from the rest of the community. What does it mean to stand up and say, “this policy is racist”? What happens if the human resources department does not respond to reports of racism? What do black educators do in these cases where they are abandoned? If I am a black teacher experiencing macroaggressions from colleagues, what should I do if it not only triggers my own experiences, but also those of my students? What if the recruiting team isn’t culturally appropriate and places all the weight of retention on a single teacher? What if the black teacher were to shrink into white supremacist spaces? There are plenty of reasons to be afraid.

It seems that this type of transformation into an environment of cultural affirmation does not happen overnight.

Mason: Oh no, it’s a one or two year process. It’s all about mindset, how people look at people of color and recognize their own biases. There is a current cultural incompetence which is accompanied by a tendency to undermine relationships, which affects the quality and skill levels of teachers. Remember that it all depends on the results of the students.

El-Mekki: Look, this goes back over a hundred years to Caroline LeCount, who was a teacher and principal in Philadelphia when schools were forced to desegregate with Brown v. Board of Education and that this country has lost 80,000 black teachers. She told Philadelphia district leaders that “colored children should be taught by themselves.” It was true then and it is true now, but our efforts lack intentionality. There are all those people who talk good about recruiting, but aren’t serious about retention. They recognize the importance of data but – let’s be honest – if black teachers are coming through the front door, why shouldn’t they leave through the back door as quickly as possible? This will continue to happen when we have the invisible tax of a racially insensitive and hostile work environment.

So, with this marriage of Teach Plus and CBED, how can you help schools, districts, and campuses create these environments of cultural affirmation and eliminate these hostile environments?

Mason: We know through all the focus groups and research – and just talking to black teachers – that until schools are ready to hear, respect, value and embrace black colleagues, all efforts will fail. We all need to engage in difficult conversations about race. If these conversations are only happening during Black History Month, then you’re not trying hard enough and your efforts are superficial.

We’re here to provide resources so school leaders know their audience and Black teachers know they deserve authentic affirmation spaces in their classrooms. We have the tools to do this to foster a true pipeline so that students – and ultimately it is students – can thrive in an environment that celebrates their authentic selves.

This interview originally appeared in NJ Education Report; a slightly different version previously appeared at Education post.

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Carol C. Reed