Do We Have the Courage to Diversify?

“What messages do students receive about the authority of knowledge and power when every teacher they have ever had is a white woman?”  -Margarita Bianco, 2013

And, understanding power and imbalance, racism and inequity, will states and districts really do what it takes to diversify the teachers of their constituents’ children?

As districts and states work to manage the existing teacher shortages in parts of the country, members of the extended education network must work together to leverage their collective capacity to both recruit and retain qualified candidates.

While alternative certification programs and internal pipelines have been established to remedy the shortages in areas like math, science, and special education, there still remains a high need in these specific subjects, as well as in schools with high poverty rates and high populations of students of color.

Collectively, we are not only failing to increase the total number of available teachers, but we are also struggling to recruit and retain teachers of color and male teachers.  A shift requires innovative and transformative measures on national, state, and local levels.

Nationally, the teacher profession has to combat the negative imagery of teaching as the sole proprietor of America’s failure and success. In the wake of No Child Left Behind, racist funding formulas, etc., teachers and school leaders have had to operate under a continuous wave of new mandates and pressure-bearing expectations.

The Expressway to equity must include diversity in the profession

I am not suggesting that an ecosystem of highly effective teachers and principals doesn’t represent the biggest levers for student achievement, because they do. However, too many other stakeholders want to minimize their negative impact on the overall well being of our youth. Helping to diversify the teaching profession is just one lane on the expressway to equity that we must travel.

While the shifts represent a focus on improvement for our students, the disparity of pay across states and between rural and suburban districts has not broadly attracted the best and brightest into this “noble” profession. A rebranding of the profession could be facilitated by a national commitment to elevate the profession through media.

Recently, Mastery Shoemaker, a charter school in Philadelphia, rented a billboard to highlight teachers. It sent waves through the community and received a great deal of positive feedback amongst teachers. Imagine if the excellent teachers were highlighted on billboards, in newspapers, or in morning news segments across the country (instead of the cute puppy of the month).

Aside from making teaching a desired profession in the media, national and state level partners can work together to reinvest financially into those who commit themselves in the classroom.

Current loan forgiveness opportunities can be expanded and increased to cover in full the costs incurred to meet education and certification requirements in high need areas.

Programs such as Call Me Mister and Relay have proven to be successful in recruiting and developing underrepresented populations of teachers in high-need areas.  Support from foundations and grant makers will help these efforts expand and remain sustainable.

States using racist funding formulas undermine efforts to diversify

As districts respond to budget cuts and an inefficient and, often, racist method of funding schools through property taxes, creative measures must be implemented to combat the financial limitations and lack of professional supports that push teachers to seek other professions.

Partnerships that offer discount rates on travel, entertainment, or maintenance specifically for teachers and their families helps reduce expenditures without increasing cost to schools. These perks are often enjoyed by major businesses but rarely offered in quality or great quantity to educators.

Additionally, traditional data-driven professional development, while necessary and beneficial, must be balanced by quality supports that leverage the interests and assets of teachers. Affinity groups and professional learning communities may be centered around “hot topics” or “special interests,” thereby giving teachers a space and group to explore their passions in the field of education. Cohort supports groups and leadership pathways also provide teachers an opportunity to build a sense of community and belonging within schools.

On a local level, districts must begin to rethink the traditional and nontraditional pools of candidates for teaching positions. More specifically, schools and districts may benefit from leveraging the existing capacity of adults currently occupying non-teaching positions within schools and education support programs.

Some districts target efforts to provide support teachers a pathway to obtain their certifications.  In theory, such a model could be extended to offer such training and development to exceptional after-school program workers, paraprofessionals, and non-profit leaders.  These professionals come with an existing knowledge of the school community and relationships with students.

In addition to increasing the existing talent pool, districts may be well-served to identify and attract candidates early-even as early as middle or high school. Employing strategies such as Pathways2Teaching and Educators Rising can go a long way to attract and thus recruit a more diverse teaching force.

The recruitment of high quality candidates’ provision of small scholarships can begin at local colleges for undergraduates interested in teaching.  Providing such candidates with “internship” opportunities either during the regular school year or summer will assist with early professional development and onboarding prior to graduation.

Overall Working conditions and relationships with supervisors play a key role in retention

Other areas to consider in addressing higher teacher retention are teachers’ relationships with their principals, their feeling of self-efficacy and opportunity for leadership, and overall working conditions.

The U.S. Department of Education has championed these through highlighting the specific professional development needs of principals. By supporting the development of principals, these school leaders can, in turn, support teachers more effectively. An overwhelmed principal may not be able to provide the meaningful and sustained support that teachers need.

The Department of Education has also collaborated with many organizations to launch Teach to Lead. This initiative empowers teachers to find their voice and their solutions to issues that they want to address. Teacher leaders can play a vital role in retention of their colleagues.

These shifts will require hard work and discomforts, but to combat teaching shortages and advance the teaching profession through equity and diversity, some significant and bold steps must be taken.

A version of this was previously published in EdWeek

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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