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

By Laura Waters | November 30, 2021

hareefah Mason of Teach Plus and Sharif El-Mekki of the Center for Black Educator Development

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New Jersey badly lacks teachers of color and the cost is borne by Black and Brown children. If a Black child has even one Black teacher K-12 they’re 13% more likely to enroll in college. If a Black student has two Black teachers they’re 32% more likely. Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP, notes, “students of color find themselves shortchanged at almost every turn in our education system.”

How bad is it? According to a NJ Spotlight analysis, more than 75% of NJ districts have teaching and professional staffs that are at least 85 percent white and 50 school districts don’t employ a single African-American, Hispanic, Asian or other minority staff member — this in a state where 56% of students aren’t white. When districts are challenged on the lack of teachers of color, they often say “we can’t find them.” Senator Shirley Turner says in response, “they are there. You just have to go look for them.”

Recently I interviewed Shareefah Mason of Teach Plus and Sharif El-Mekki of the Center for Black Educator Development (CBED), who believe that schools can only recruit and retain Black teachers — essential role models for students of all colors — if educational leaders create identity-affirming school cultures. Yet few school districts, in New Jersey and elsewhere, accomplish this task. Mason and El-Mekki’s groups just collaborated on a report  called, “To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures.” This report looks at what responsive school conditions look like and what school leaders can do to create those conditions, especially for Black teachers so they accept teaching positions and remain in those schools. The report includes concrete recommendations for teachers, school leaders and state policymakers. It follows an earlier report from Teach Plus and Education Trust called, “If You Listen, We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover

Here is a lightly edited transcription of our discussion.

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Everyone talks about the importance of diversifying the teacher pipeline, but we don’t seem to be making much progress. What needs to happen?

Mason: You’re right — we’re not making much progress at all. By 2030, the majority of working-class America will be people of color. America is becoming less white, yet 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 of students seeing teachers who look like them, both for their academic outcomes as well as their futures after they graduate from high school. It matters for white students too — their performance increases when they have teachers who are more diverse.

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

El-Mekki: We are going into districts and schools to work with them on creating the sort of culture that Black teachers, Asian teachers, Native American teachers, Hispanic teachers say they need. It starts with having unapologetic dialogues and with the leadership being honest with themselves, with their constituents, both inside and outside of school. It starts with goal-setting, putting resources behind those goals, and asking the question — over and over again — if those goals remain aligned with culturally affirming ecosystems.

So we go in and provide professional development and 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 the school who look like them. If a Black child has even one Black teacher they’re 13% more likely to enroll in college. If a Black student has two Black teachers they’re 32% more likely, for a crucial break in the school-to-prison pipeline. But if schools are going to be successful recruiting and retaining Black teachers, they must embrace extensive transformations so their environment helps Black teachers thrive, honors their vernacular, gives them everything they need — including affinity groups where they can discuss the unique challenges they face, encourage one another, and build skills together. It’s just not enough to have pretty words on pretty websites about equity and inclusion.

The whole point is to go in and ask the hard questions about what is working and what isn’t working. We have the ideas, the resources, the recommendations, but we need to get these foundational concepts embedded throughout the system to take away the fear from school leaders and school teachers and work with them to create a welcoming culture.

What are they afraid of?

El-Mekki: For some, they’re afraid of reprisals from the rest of the community. What does it mean to stand up and say, “this policy is racist”? What if the human resources department isn’t responsive to reports about racism? What do Black educators do in these cases where they’re abandoned? If I’m a Black teacher who is experiencing macroaggressions from colleagues, what do I do if this is triggering not only my own experiences but those of my students too? What if the recruitment team isn’t culturally responsive and puts all the weight of retention on one teacher? What if the Black teacher has to shrink in white supremacist spaces? There are plenty of reasons to be afraid.

It sounds like this kind of transformation to a culturally affirming environment isn’t something that happens overnight.

Mason: Oh no, it’s a year-long 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 that comes with a tendency to undermine relationships and this affects teacher quality and skill levels. Remember, this is all about student outcomes.

El-Mekki: Look, this goes back over a hundred years ago to Caroline LeCount, who was a teacher and principal in Philadelphia when schools were forced to desegregate with Brown v. Board of Education and this country lost 80,000 Black teachers. She told Philly district leaders, “colored children should be taught by their own.” That was true then and it’s true now, yet our efforts lack intentionality. There are all these folks talking the good talk about recruitment, but not serious about retention. They recognize the importance of the data but — let’s be honest — if Black teachers walk through the front door, why wouldn’t they leave through the back door as quickly as possible? This will continue to happen when we have the invisible tax of a hostile and racially insensitive work environment.

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

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

We are here to provide resources so that school leaders know their audience and Black teachers know that they deserve authentic affirming spaces in their classrooms. We have the tools to make this happen to foster a true pipeline so students—and, really, in the end, this is about the students—are able to thrive in an environment that celebrates their authentic selves.

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

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