You Say You Want To Recruit Black Teachers, But We Know You Aren’t Serious!

We need new Black teachers. Just as important, we need to keep the ones we already have. 

Teachers of all backgrounds are leaving schools at increasingly high rates. In cities like Philadelphia, more than 15% of them quit each year, costing a district around $20,000 per lost educator in added recruitment and new training costs, not to mention disruptions to student learning, according  to the Learning Policy Institute.

The overall teacher retention crisis is particularly acute when it comes to Black teachers, whose severe shortage has meant that most Black students go through 13 years of public education without having a single Black teacher—to support and mirror a future of greater possibilities, and continue the legacy of historic triumphs against seemingly insurmountable odds. 

Yet, when we of the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium sought to provide school and district leaders strategies to retain Black teachers, we found a scarcity of resources. The reasons why educators of color leave their school, if not the profession altogether, are well researched and documented, but what’s confounding is that strategies for their retention are largely based on white teacher retention. 

White teacher retention, for example, focuses on identifying, building and leveraging opportunities for belonging: experiences that make educators internalize their role in the school community as a part of their professional, if not also their personal identity. Research supporting strategies like this suggests a higher sense of belonging is directly linked to increased rates in not just retention but also job performance. 

But does this type of retention strategy focused on belonging support educators of color in schools where the administration, faculty and culture are predominantly white? Such strategies would work, presumably as designed, but only once a school culture is truly welcoming to all, built on diversity, equity and inclusion, where the teachers’ racial identities, histories, aspirations, and cultural backgrounds reflect that of the student body and surrounding community.  

Until then, would Black teachers’ sense of “belonging” to the school’s culture make them want to stay more? Could they feel less themselves if they stayed in an antithetical culture? Would they have to compromise who they are to fit in? Perhaps even deny, or worse, sell out their racial identities, their culture and worldviews just to belong

Would they be able to show up as themselves—their authentic, genuine, unapologetic selves—with no need to curtail or shrink who they are, something that Black teachers cannot take for granted unlike their white peers.

Based on my review of retention strategies, there was clearly a need for a set of new ones with Black teachers in mind. Which is why we developed THE ANTI-RACIST GUIDE TO TEACHER RETENTION.

This toolkit provides school and district leaders with assessments, exercises and practical information to help make the changes that will make more teachers of color want to stay in the profession. School leadership can use the strategies to focus on opportunities for respect, rather than belonging, since most schools have not achieved a welcoming culture for their Black teachers to want to belong. 

It is a truism in education that when a school has high staff turnover, that is an indictment of its leadership. Teachers don’t quit their schools, the saying goes, they quit their principals.

So how does school leadership avoid this? How do they create such a welcoming culture, and thereby create the conditions that would allow them to recruit and retain their Black teachers? How can school (and district) leaders develop policies and ongoing professional learning opportunities and practices that ensure Black teachers are respected, professionally effective, and fulfilled.

It’s not easy, and requires a commitment to change and reexamining all aspects of our schools’ cultures, recruitment and retention processes. 

I recommend schools begin with cultural audits and insight surveys to gauge the current state of their climate. Leadership must model self-reflection in developing an anti-racist culture, directly asking Black teachers: “How are you experiencing my leadership? What should I change to show my respect for your experiences, expertise and aspirations?”

There must be ongoing professional development for all educators to examine the basic human condition that often enables biases (not only racial) to get in the way of leading classrooms, schools, and districts well. Schools and districts should ensure feedback loops  that actually consider how to implement retention strategies that so many affinity groups recommend. Far too many school and district leaders give space for affinity groups, but block the participants from actually addressing cultures that undermine healthy, anti-racist working and learning spaces.

But these are only the first steps in what must be a broad-based approach. We hope school leaders across the country use the toolkit to jumpstart this hard, but meaningful and critical work.  And we hope everyone will help us refine this unique, much needed resource. 

We know how critical it is to rebuild the Black teacher pipeline, the mission of our Center for Black Educator Development. That is because Black teachers save Black children’s lives, changing their future trajectories. 

Research shows when a Black student has one Black teacher by third grade, they’re 13% more likely to enroll in college. With two Black teachers, that jumps to 32%. For Black boys from low-income households, their on-time high school graduation rates soar by almost 40%. 

In fact, students of all racial identities and ethnicities benefit from increased educator diversity, while energizing the professional development of non-Black educators. An educator workforce that better reflects society brings more opportunities for school experiences that counter racism and negative stereotypes and promote cross-cultural understanding, preparing all our children for life in an increasingly diverse and complex world.  

This blog was originally published by Word in Black.

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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