Philly, Let’s Get Serious About Diversifying Our Teachers (and Principals)

Districts and schools search incessantly for meaningful, sustainable, and effective school-based interventions — and those efforts often fail. Tons of money has been spent on countless concepts. Professional development on myriad topics: “whole language.” “Small schools.” “Schools within schools.” “Small classrooms.” The list goes on.

But what if one of the best interventions is sitting in our schools right now?

Research and experience yields that one of the best, most impactful interventions has been largely lost over the years. The Association of American Educators Foundation, the Center for Black Educator Development, and 73 other education organizations signed a letter dated May 22 calling for more awareness, funding, and policy to increase teacher diversity.

Imagine if we could decrease Black dropout rates by 40% through a tried and true, researched-based intervention. What would your response be? Would you slowly walk to that intervention or would you run? Would you wait for the arc of educational justice to bend or would you try to hammer the arc of justice?

Many Black children have never had a teacher that looks like them. Conversely, many white kids have never been led by a teacher who wasn’t white. Eight hours a day. 180 days per year. Twelve years. Not one Black teacher. Representation matters. A lot. A thorough research study from John Hopkins University demonstrated that Black students, particularly those from low income backgrounds, will be 39% less likely to drop out if they have a single Black teacher – imagine if 40% of Philadelphia’s teachers are Black as it used to be at one point (currently 24% of Philly’s teachers are Black).

There are more reasons to assertively and proactively increase the numbers of Black teachers besides decreasing the dropout rates. Research also proves that Black teachers have higher expectations for Black students; Black teachers can look at the same exact Black child and see a high school graduate, while their white peers will more often see and predict the same Black child as a dropout. Black teachers are more likely to recommend talented Black children to gifted programs and less likely to refer the child for suspension and identify them as special needs.

We know that hiring more black teachers would improve outcomes for students. The real question is, how do we go about doing this. Do we need more Black teachers before more students choose to follow their lead into the profession? Or, do engage students now, directly and urgently, to become teachers?

But, so many Black students have horrific experiences in school. Their hair is being cut like the Buena High School wrestler Andrew Johnson, who is black, was told by a white referee that he would have to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit during Wednesday’s meet with Oakcrest High School.. They are suspended, searched, and criminalized.

As Columbia professor and Black educator Chris Emdin remarked, for many Black students, returning to school after they leave is like returning to the scene of a crime that hurt them. For the victim, that can be triggering — and we already don’t have enough school counselors. What does resonate with those who hadn’t previously considered teaching is the opportunity to become the teacher you wish you had and knew you needed.

One of the biggest determinants of whether a Black boy will decide to become a teacher is his classroom experience with his current teacher. So we can’t be passive about ensuring the intellectual, cultural, and emotional safety of Black youth, taught by mostly white women who may not be familiar with all their students’ needs. Professional development that mandates culturally responsive teaching, with evidence of practice, is necessary.

And beyond expanding recruitment efforts, we cannot neglect efforts to retain Black and Brown teachers who join the profession.

Here are a few things we can do:

  • Everyone must acknowledge and act as if the diversification of our teachers and principals is something worthy of deep city and philanthropic investment. We can’t run quality schools on the cheap, nor can we diversify them with just well wishes and no financial investments. Investments should include pipelines such as Freedom Schools, where high school and college students gain authentic experience leading classrooms full of younger children and help stem the summer slide. Over the years, I have hired several educators who got their start in Freedom Schools. It makes a huge difference. Our Mayor pledged to invest in teacher diversity. We need the full backing of legacy organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League as well as philanthropic organizations to rally around this issue as if it was one of the most important factors to improve our educational landscape – because it is. As Mayor Kenney announced, he will use his budget to diversify the teaching workforce. Our Mayor and our Superintendent, Dr. Hite, cannot do this alone. They will need everyone’s support in making this happen!

Increase the diversity of our teaching workforce, so our teachers look like the City they serve.

  • Provide support systems. Every new teacher should receive a mentor and a coach. If possible, this should continue for the first three years of a teacher’s career. The School District of Philadelphia, for example, currently purchases memberships to The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice for all new Black male hires.
  • Ensure white teachers and school leaders take ownership of the ways race, class, and privilege play out in their schools and classrooms. Too often, Black educators are expected to professionally develop their entire school community about issues involving race. That is exhausting.

To this end, The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice is launching the Center for Black Educator Development (CBED), which will double down on the four P’s: delivering professional learning, mentoring, and development; supporting the teacher pipeline, advancing policies that diversify the teacher and educator workforce, and developing partnerships that align with our goals.

We must recruit and retain, support and train both our new and veteran Black and Brown teachers. It is one of the most effective interventions that a school, district, and state can implement on behalf of their students.

The original version of this blog can be found on Philly.com.

What do you think?

About the author

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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