America is getting increasingly diverse. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the makeup of public-school teachers, who are overwhelmingly white.
Over the past two years, the nonprofit Digital Promise has been leading research into why schools have found it difficult to recruit and retain teachers of color—and to try to work with teachers of color in districts around the country to find new approaches that work better.
“Our position is that there’s no better expert to understand how to recruit and retain a teacher of color than a teacher of color,” says Kimberly Smith, who co-leads Digital Promise’s Center for Inclusive Innovation.
To learn more about the research, and about the new approaches they surfaced, we sat down with Smith for this week’s EdSurge Podcast.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Your organization has been researching the challenge of hiring and retaining teachers of color. What are some of your findings?
Kimberly Smith: So when we think about the barriers that are impeding the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, there are certain factors that rise to the surface.
One clear pipeline for teachers of color is students of color. And the understanding of the students of color and their experience in school, and whether or not that’s been an experience of belonging, of trust, of identity, where students can be their authentic self. One of the challenges is that the culture of school can be challenging for students of color, and therefore a demotivating factor for students to want to go into teaching.
We have to start all the way back in high school to understand the pipeline challenge. Getting beyond high school into college, we know that college is expensive. We know that college can be a non-starter for low income and even middle income families. Also, think about the students graduating college and then going into certification programs, and the barriers around certification that have to do with the cost but also assessment bias. The reality is that there are barriers at every point in the pipeline.
One of the issues we’ve been covering impacting recruitment efforts is the low pay of teachers, which may make the field less attractive. How much did you find salary as a barrier?
It’s huge. A lot of students of color live in predominantly urban areas. The cost of living in urban areas is just going through the roof. If I’m a teacher [of color] and I live in Washington, D.C., and I’m coming out of college with a starting salary of $35,000, and I need to live in the vicinity of Washington D.C., it’s difficult to do. Students do really understand that from an earning potential perspective. They’re also thinking about their own livelihood and a livable wage. Teaching, at least at the beginning, doesn’t offer that right now, particularly if you’re living in urban areas.
What are some of the solutions you found that schools are trying to address the challenge of diversifying the teacher workforce?
We had a lot of ideas that emerged. And I think some of the areas that I would like to highlight first have to do with the culture of the district and ensuring that it is really inclusive, supportive, encouraging and welcoming of teachers and students of color. There were a number of ideas around how to build that culture. I think the ideas start with the sense that we need to have teachers of color at the table in the co-design role.
In the focus group that I was listening to last night, a teacher of color said, “It’s important for me to be at the table, for my voice to be heard. I want to be a co-designer of the culture.”
Bringing teachers of color into that space, working with administrators, bringing in students of color to co-design the culture was one of the pieces that they raised.
[We also need to address] diversity around hiring committees and hiring approaches. A lot of school districts will think that they can reach out to an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and open up the pipeline there. But there are a lot of non-traditional networks that are centered around supporting people of color, whether it’s sororities or fraternities. And the piece of this that they underscored is that you have to establish authentic relationships with these networks in order to support an ongoing diverse pipeline.
As an example, there is a charter network … that is co-locating HBCU Education School offices in their facility. So the partnership goes way beyond the job board. It goes into literally sitting side by side, to plan to plan the pipeline.
And the last thing I’ll mention is Grow Your Own programs. It’s the idea that local communities have pathways for students to learn and build skills and become educators. And students want to stay in their communities.
So you build teacher mentorship programs within the community. You build pathways even from middle school, where students start to learn about what it means to teach. And you do that within the community space. There are so many teachers in the community, grandmothers, aunties, moms and dads within these communities. And so you already have teaching happening in the informal space. So create some pathways that allow that informal, to encourage students to go into formal teaching.
Can you give an example of a school doing particularly innovative things?
Yes, absolutely. One of the districts that I love to highlight, because their program is running and it’s very robust, is the Premiere 100 Program in Richland, two school districts in South Carolina, where superintendent Baron Davis has a goal to recruit a hundred black male teachers over three years. In his first year, he recruited 50. And he does it through this brotherhood. The Premiere 100 is a brotherhood. So when you join as an African American male teacher, you have a network, a very deep support network. So that even if you’re dealing with some of the issues of inequity and racism in the district, you have a place to go, a safe space.
The pandemic has brought added challenges for retaining teachers of all demographics. How has the pandemic impacted this issue of teacher diversity?
When I think over the past couple of years and the level of teacher burnout—the emotional toll that teachers are taking on, both personally, just their personal families, and also feeling like they need to be stewards of students’ wellbeing—it just weighs heavy. It’s not just the emotional toll, but the factors just within the job itself. The politics of masking, vaccines, the literal flip that teachers had to make within 72 hours to be a hundred percent virtual, coming back into school to find out that 20 to 30 percent of the staff is no longer there. And there’s also this sense that there’s a general under-appreciation of teachers.
What I marvel at, honestly, is that there are teachers that are still teaching—that there are teachers that have that passion, that commitment to the students, and that they’re still in this, despite all of the factors. I think that at the core of teaching is relationships.
But I’m concerned, honestly, that there’s not really any kind of rallying around teacher health and wellbeing. I’m not seeing that emerge in a way that I think will create a sustainable kind of teaching population going forward.