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What Teachers of Color Say They Need Most (Opinion)

This multipart series highlighting ways districts can attract and support teachers of color continues …

‘Leaders Must Be Public Advocates’

Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., joined The Leadership Academy in 2015 with more than 20 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, principal coach, and curriculum designer, and she currently serves as the executive director of curriculum development and equity. She is the author of Leading Within Systems of Inequity in Education: A Liberation Guide for Leaders of Color and can be found on Twitter @mriceboothe or by reading her newsletter:

Teachers of color face similar challenges as students and leaders of color face. As we enter systems that were not built for us, we may experience harm due to bias, discrimination, and racism.

In February, the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR) released a report with six recommendations to support the recruitment of more Black educators. Although these recommendations by NCTR are for Black educators, they are applicable to Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, and other leaders of color.

These recommendations are: 1. Make teacher preparation financially accessible. 2. Prioritize recruitment strategies that focus on Black educators. 3. Ensure that teacher- preparation programs are culturally and linguistically sustaining for Black educators. 4. Employ affinity groups as a standard component of the teacher education experience. 5. Invest in and support mentors who can cultivate prospective Black educators. 6. Include voices of Black educators in the development of teacher education policy.

It is important to emphasize that it is the work of school and school system leaders to bring these recommendations to a reality:

1. Leaders must be public advocates.

The “culture wars” have impacted schools in a variety of ways including a silencing of many of our leaders. However, as stated by Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho in a recent article from District Administrator, “If you’re playing it safe backstage as a leader rather than standing at the edge of the stage where everyone knows what you’re doing, your students will not receive the education they deserve.” This is the type of leadership that is necessary for students and their teachers to thrive.

2. Leaders must create space and opportunity.

Teachers coming into the field of education need to know their career advancement is a priority. This includes a transparent career lattice and an investment in programs that will prepare them for their next role. A recent report by the Wallace Foundation, Planning and Developing Principal Pipelines: Approaches, Opportunities, and Challenges provides a blueprint for districts to think thoughtfully about providing the opportunity for their staff of color to thrive. It is additionally valuable if there are affinity groups embedded into professional development. Organizations such as Surge Institute and The Leadership Academy have created spaces as teachers of color move into leadership roles to support and sustain them.

3. Leaders must be continual learners.

Leadership plays a large role in teacher retention. Studies tell us having a principal of a teacher’s similar race positively impacts satisfaction and retention. However, in 2020–21, 77 percent of all public school principals were white. This means white principals and administrators must have the skills and will to support their teachers of color. That includes recognizing the individualized experiences of their teachers of color and supporting them to learn and grow.

The sustainability of teachers of color in school systems will require a combination of systemic change and mindset shifts. Without these two working in tandem, we will continue to struggle to build our diverse teaching force.

‘There Isn’t Much to Say’

Latrice Martin is a 16-year veteran educator in Texas. She is currently a new elementary school librarian. Follow her on Twitter @TrapLibrarian

A student says the “n-word,” and teachers are hunting me down to talk to them about it. A girl has braids in her hair, and her teacher can’t help her fix it so she sends her to me. I sit in meetings and hear microaggressions. Teachers openly share about being afraid of Black boys just because they are tall. Not because they have done anything aggressive. Colleagues are afraid of the Black parents before they even call and speak to them.

This has been my experience after eight years in my school district.

The school district is not predominantly white anymore, but the staff and leadership is. Many teachers of color came to my district to enjoy teaching closer to home and working in what some might have considered a less stressful environment than where they began.

In 2014, when I switched to my district, I was one of three new black teachers hired in a predominately Black and Hispanic school. That made five total Black teachers where a grade level had an average of six teachers. The majority of us were placed in 4th and 5th grade with the “tougher” students. The administration did not reflect the student population. In fact, they were all white women with blonde hair.

An experienced Black principal was hired the next year, and more teachers transferred with her or were hired while she was there. There were more Hispanic teachers and Spanish-speaking teachers, more men, and more Black teachers. The school began to be acknowledged for academic growth. There was an emphasis on celebrating diversity now.

She recognized policies and rules that were created due to racial and socioeconomic biases and got rid of them. Teachers began telling other teachers to come to our school and our district. Our superintendent made a point to tell his principals to be sure to hire more teachers that looked like the students. I heard there was grumbling about that, but it was beginning to feel really good. I was still very often just a speck of color in staff development and during professional development week, but I thought that the district was moving in the right direction.

Then, in 2021, we had a tough election for our school board, and I was no longer able to see anyone that looked like me represent the needs of the students and staff that served our community. In 2022, a board member blamed the hiring of Black teachers as the reason for another district’s dropout rate. People in the community came to the meetings that followed and said they supported him. It was a huge slap in the face to Black teachers all over the district. We felt a collective sting and heartache.

Teachers that came when I started or within a few years left and decided to go back to spaces where they felt they were wanted. They went back to communities where they would not be a token member. I didn’t blame them one bit. In 2022, when I went to meet new teachers for my campus in August, there were zero new Black teachers hired with the 33 new hires for that year. Two Black people were hired, but they were for paraprofessional roles. As I sat on interview panels for an assistant principal, the applicants did not match the population of our schools.

Right now, many of my colleagues that are seeking leadership positions are finding it hard to get the same opportunities as white colleagues. Some have been seeking higher positions for over five years. I am seeing the same teachers that were moving up in spaces within the schools but not able to get to an administration position leave the district. Now, as teachers earn their graduate degrees in leadership, they are already discussing the possibility of leaving the district because they don’t feel as if they will have an opportunity to advance within.

I can’t say that there is anything that is specifically geared toward teachers of color in my district. I have never been asked about my experience as a teacher of color while working here or how they could improve the recruitment process to hire more. Recruitment was word of mouth, and now, there isn’t much to say.

‘Emotional Stress’

Eliza G. Braden, Ph.D., is an associate professor of elementary education at the University of South Carolina. Her research interests include critical literacy and language practices of Black and Latinx children and their families, culturally relevant teaching, and critical multicultural children’s literature. She is a co-author of Revolutionary Love: Creating a Culturally Inclusive Literacy Classroom (Scholastic).

Each and every week, thousands of people tune into the breakout comedy “Abbott Elementary.” The comedy has struck a chord with American households because of its authentic portrayal of what life is like for teachers in public schools. Quinta Brunson has shown America what teachers, especially teachers of color, do every day: “Make a way out of no way.” In the face of teacher shortages, underfunded schools, and personal trials, teachers still find ways to be creative, agentive, and resilient.

When I embarked on my teaching career in 2007, I found myself as the sole Black female educator in a predominately Latinx school with white female colleagues. Initially, I held certain assumptions about working with Latinx families and children, based on my limited understanding at the time.

While the district prioritized professional development in literacy and math, crucial aspects of student success, there were few opportunities for teachers to engage in learning experiences centered on incorporating students’ cultural heritage and knowledge into the curriculum using an asset-based approach.

During my first year, I made several mistakes and inadvertently committed microaggressions, which served as valuable lessons. It became clear to me that in order to effectively serve as an educator, I needed to establish genuine connections with the families and communities I was working with.

As a young child, who spent countless hours in the Black church and amongst elders within my community, I knew the value of how these spaces shaped a young child’s trajectory, my own trajectory. I committed to immersing myself within the community, actively participating in family functions, engaging in conversations with extended family members, making an effort to learn my students’ language, and using the student’s and family’s expert knowledge within the curriculum.

This process of engagement and immersion allowed me to develop a profound admiration for my students. I recognized and appreciated the richness of their cultural background and the immense value they brought to the classroom. Through this journey of building authentic relationships and embracing the diversity of my students’ backgrounds, I saw myself as an educator and an advocate.

When a wave of xenophobic and anti-immigration bills hit our state in 2011, I used my voice to write legislators and support a few families with immigration issues. I designed a unit that called for my students to speak back to the immigration policies that impacted their families.

The key to making this truly possible was having an administrator who not only trusted me to make decisions that would benefit my students but also provided unwavering support in attending professional conferences. This administrator understood the significance of incorporating culturally relevant practices, as theorized by education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings. Nevertheless, the support system had to extend beyond my principal. It was imperative to have a network of colleagues within my school and district who were also committed to embracing emancipatory pedagogies and culturally relevant practices.

Almost 12 years after that turbulent era for my students and their families, teachers of color continue to face many of the same issues in the classroom. In 2023, teachers are challenged by the underfunding of classrooms, lack of raises, and attacks on culturally responsive books and curricula-—not to mention the need to support the mental health of their students as well as their own. Now, as an associate professor of elementary education, I continue to work closely with school teachers. When I asked a host of teachers about the challenges they face in the classroom, here are a few of their most pressing concerns:

1. Preparing Teachers Who Are Capable of Serving a Diverse Population of Students

As of 2021, only 20 percent of the teachers in elementary and secondary schools were teachers of color. The teachers have reported that they establish strong bonds with their students of color and feel more connected to them when they are able to embed their culture and history into the curriculum. These teachers believe that all teachers, of every background, need to deeply understand their biases and work to make deeper and stronger connections to students’ histories, particularly those histories most marginalized and tokenized in the curriculum.

2. Preparing Teachers to Keep Children in Classrooms

As role models, parental figures, and advocates, many teachers of color build relationships with students in ways that help students and families feel connected to the school community. For this reason, they find that when behavior issues arise, white teachers often seek them out to discipline or take their students into their own classrooms. In this way, teachers of color are not being recognized for their subject-area content knowledge or expertise but for their ability to handle concerns specific to children of color.

This unfortunately leads to students losing crucial learning time in their own classroom and leads to burnout for teachers of color. This also reveals a lack of preparation for white teachers to understand teaching beyond their own racial, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds including addressing their own biases.

3. Opportunities to Advance in the Career

Teachers of color have expressed that because of their ability to connect with students and hold high expectations of children when they aspire to move into new roles, they are often met with pushback from administrators.

4. Emotional Stress

The cumulative effect of these challenges often leads to an increase in stress and burnout. Many teachers feel that schools and districts are not adequately responding to their students’ and teachers’ mental health needs. Therefore, teachers recommend on-site mental health professionals for students, children, and families.

Little support is found in teacher education programs and in school districts for teachers of color facing these issues. In fact, these issues are often not even recognized or they are dismissed as “not that bad” by administrators and white colleagues. Current legislation across the country threatens any support of this kind as curricula are narrowed, books are banned, and Black school board members, teachers, and administrators are silenced or removed from their positions. My colleagues and I ask readers of our book Revolutionary Love to recognize systems that do not serve Black and Brown children and fail to lift them up. When policies, laws, and practices, such as the ones mentioned above, place children and teachers of color at a disadvantage, we must work to disrupt and replace them. We say that this kind of honest assessment and action is “revolutionary love.” Revolutionary love isn’t just a theory—it is action.

Thanks to Mary, Latrice, and Eliza for contributing their thoughts.

The new question of the week is:

What challenges do teachers of color face in your district, and what does your district/your school do to recruit teachers of color and support them?

In Part One, Keisha Rembert, Laleh Ghotbi, Janice Wyatt-Ross, and Rachel Edoho-Eket contributed their responses.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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