As a principal of three neighborhood schools serving majority Black students, I was always in talent acquisition mode. More on point, I was always in talent acquisition and cultivation mode, since the best recruitment strategy is a great retention strategy.
You can’t fire your way to building a great institution of learning. You have to hire and coach extremely well. But that does not mean you hold on to anyone whose values do not align with that of your school and the community you serve. And these values must be clear, pervasive, and protected.
How Should School Leaders Choose Teachers to Hire?
I’ve been asked a lot recently: how would you hire for this upcoming school year—given the impact of the pandemic and the summer of uprisings against the more systemic, more ingrained, more destructive culture of racism plaguing our nation?
Other than seeking additional expertise in online education and distance learning, I want to be clear: were I still a school principal, my hiring goals, approach, and practices would not change.
Those we need leading our classrooms, teaching all our students—especially our Black and Brown students—and helping all our families manage increased responsibilities for home learning are the same educators we’ve always needed.
Those who understand the extra stress and burden that the pandemic has wrought on marginalized communities—communities where parents and grandparents don’t have the luxury of working from home. Where families are struggling more than ever simply to keep their children fed, housed, safe, and healthy. Where people are outraged that systemic inequities and healthcare disparities make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Those who know schools have historically not offered refuge from racist ideologies, violations, and violence that sanctioned the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others.
They recognize that instead of offering refuge, schools have too often served as incubators of these cruel forces. But they’re also determined to change the unjust narratives by stepping up and into classrooms—their chosen venue for righting what’s wrong—because schools must be the safest place to practice healthy defiance.
So, I offer this checklist to search out those who can join us in our mission of liberating education.
The Anti-Racist Guide to New School Hires:
- Is the candidate compassionate, hellbent on supporting students, their academic success, and their full potential? If you think they would ever utter something like “we’re not a social service agency” then don’t hire them. The ones you want are the educators who see students as having higher-order needs that can only be met by someone who knows to ask students “what happened to you?” and not “what’s wrong with you?”
- Do they hold themselves accountable for what their students learn (and don’t learn)? The best educators I’ve hired don’t shirk this sacred responsibility and know just the right formula for providing student support while setting high expectations. Only superior to their subject expertise is their ability to help their students care and be curious about their own learning.
- Do they know, not just Black history, but Black pedagogy? In other words, do they connect the fight for educational justice with racial justice? Do they aim to correct the teaching of our community’s past from the prism of victimization and oppression to one of resilience, resistance, and revolution?
- Do they see themselves as educators or as educator-activists? Do they believe teaching can be a form of activism, that every lesson plan is a political document, and every classroom interaction a political statement? Do they understand their role as freedom fighters fueled by their love for each and every one of their students?
- Do they reflect the students they will serve, not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but socio-economics and personal experience? Do they offer not just windows to the world and their future, but powerful, empowering mirrors?
- Do they know the difference between schooling and education? How to break the institutional racism that has dictated lower expectations and harsher discipline for students of color in our schools, keeping them from quality education, academic success, and the best shot at life? Are they activists who can simultaneously teach and inspire, rather than assume roles of a missionary or warden?
- Do they know how to operate as problem solvers and leaders who earn the trust of those under their charge? Someone who earnestly asks students and their parents about their aspirations, and the rules and regulations they live by, rather than insist on their own?
- Is the candidate someone who strikes you as having both courage and humility? Will they hold not only themselves accountable, but also their colleagues and school leaders? Will they help us all address the challenges teachers of color face to persist through the student-activism pipeline to become teachers, remain teachers, and become the best teachers they can be? Will they interrogate their own mindsets about Black and Brown children and communities? Are they willing to dive deep into assumptions of race, class, and privilege? Or are they cowardly and interested only in their self-preservation and the status quo?
Fulfilling My Promise As An Educator
As a principal and civic leader, I made bold promises to families that I could not honor without hiring the right people.
People who knew, contrary to what some insist, we do not live in a post-racial society. People who wouldn’t wait for an incident to occur to check in with their students. People who knew to open a dialogue and ask Black and Brown students about their experiences with microaggressions, discriminations, prejudices, and racist violations—including experiences within the educational ecosystem.
By putting out a call for educators for your school, make sure you underscore what we need right now coming out of the summer of uprisings—an American Spring and Summer—the urgency for those who bring to life what Frederick Douglass said:
“It is not the light we need, but fire.
It is not the gentle shower, but thunder.
We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
To liberate education, we need teachers and school staff who see their own activism as central to the struggle in fighting the educational injustices that have wronged so many of our Black and Brown children.
“Systems need teachers who regard teaching as a political activity and embrace social change as a mandatory part of the job.” -Cochran-Smith
Let’s find these educators because they are there. But as a school leader, know you may have to change to recognize them, effectively recruit them, and create school cultures that welcome and support them. It is the least our children deserve in this pandemic and the racist endemics our communities have resisted for generations.
This blog was originally posted on XQ Schools’ website.
Are you inspired by this Anti-Racist guide? Check out these other Anti-Racist resources on the XQ Blog and the Rethink Together Forum:
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.