Recruit. Prepare. Retain.
Those are the three pillars that sustain the teacher education pipeline, and if you’re a white teacher in the classroom, for the most part they do their job. But there are some significant cracks in the foundation, especially when it comes to recruiting, preparing, and retaining teachers of color, says Iesha Jackson, assistant professor of teaching and learning at UNLV.
“If we don’t have preparation right, and if we don’t have strong supports in place once teachers get into the classroom to help with retention, then it becomes an ever self-fulfilling cycle of not having enough teachers of color in the field,” Jackson said.
As a teacher educator, Jackson’s core mission is to help fix that. Her most recent endeavor, which involves several collaborators across UNLV’s campus, is to establish a program that helps support and guide recent graduates of the university’s ARL (Alternative Route to Licensure) program. ARL is a fast-track program for college-prepared professionals from outside education to become certified teachers.
“We really wanted to find out if and where there was room for our ARL program to do a better job of welcoming and sustaining the culturally rooted and grounded practices that these teachers, as people of color, bring to the table,” Jackson said. “And based on that, and on their experiences as new teachers, we wanted to know how we can continue to support them.”
According to Jackson, data shows that if a teacher leaves the profession, it’s most likely to occur within the first three to five years of their career. And while that’s a statistic consistent for all teachers, regardless of background, teachers of color face unique challenges as a result of built-in systemic racism. Systemic racism can show up in the form of marginalization and isolation, Jackson said, and can be a daily lived experience for some teachers of color. But she’s hopeful that calls for social justice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 might finally “bring more people to consciousness.”
Here, Jackson explains why schools should do more to actively recruit teachers of color, outlines the challenges they face, and shares strategies on how to help combat structural forms of racism in schools and teacher education programs.
Are schools around the country doing enough to recruit and retain teachers of color? What can schools do to improve in this area, and how can colleges and universities be a partner in this effort?
Arguably, until there is parity in the percentage of students of color and teachers of color in schools, we — school leaders, policymakers, teacher educators, and schools of education — are not doing enough.
Ways to improve the recruitment of teachers of color include school-university-community partnerships — programs like UNLV's Abriendo Caminos, which works with high school students to help them see themselves as teachers, and the Teach Nevada Scholarship and legislation that provides support for ARL candidates from marginalized communities.
There’s a growing body of research that shows that programs like Abriendo Caminos in particular are promising in terms of recruiting teachers of color. It’s aligned with what are called “grow your own” programs. They can take lots of different shapes, and whether you start in high school, or you look to the community, it’s about recruiting diverse teachers and incentivizing their enrollment in teacher preparation programs.
It’s very promising because when you can relate to students that are in front you, when you can say, “I went to this school when I was in high school,” or when the kids already know you because you’re embedded in the community, building the relationships that allow for learning to happen more organically is easier.
Why is it important for schools and school districts to actively recruit teachers of color, especially now as classrooms continue to become more diverse?
Research is clear that all students, but particularly students of color, benefit from a racially and ethnically diverse teacher workforce. I often lean on the research of Drs. Travis Bristol, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Rita Kohli, and Ana María Villegas to name a few.
These scholars discuss the culturally specific teaching practices that teachers of color are likely to bring into the classroom along with their high expectations and lived experiences navigating schooling environments that can stifle students of color. They talk about cultural synchronization, and how students benefit from teachers who are able to relate to them culturally in their practice. So, if students are talking with their hands, or using Black American English instead of standard American English, and I - as a teacher of color - am doing that as well, then there’s a way that they feel more at home in the space, as opposed to a teacher who is looking for them to fit the mold of school, which oftentimes is reinforcing a dominant culture that these students might be outside of.
And so, when you have teachers of color who have navigated the system in a way that doesn’t require them to acculturate, where they can maintain those cultured ways of knowing and being as part of their teacher identity, then the students who come into those classrooms with similar backgrounds are more able to relate to those teachers.Teachers of color, in the research, are also more likely to have high expectations. When students of color are failing, teachers of color are less likely to say “well, it’s those kids, it’s that family, it’s that environment.” They are more likely to look at what’s happening in the classroom, what’s happening with that student. They have a, “what do I need to do” mentality?
At the same time, in my research, I highlight the importance of professional development and make clear that "Color Does Not Equal Consciousness" which is a quote from a participant and title of an article that discusses the importance of creating spaces for teachers of color to critically examine their pedagogy and develop more effective ways to engage students of color.
Why are retention efforts — especially in the first three to five years — so crucial? What challenges do teachers of color face in particular?
If you can keep teachers in the classroom past their fifth year, they’re more likely to be long-term teachers.
Some of the key factors relating to attrition are professional development, and a sense of self efficacy. Teaching is very difficult and as new teachers get in, and the realities of teaching hit,there are always gaps in preparation. Leadership matters a lot, and the culture of the school matters a lot, too. I don’t think the average preparation program helps pre-service teachers understand how to interview a school; how to find the right fit.
So, if you get a teacher who is in a school where the culture or the leadership of the school doesn’t align well with their developing teacher identity, that’s another thing that can be a push-out factor.
But for teachers of color specifically, marginalization and isolation is a push-out factor in those first few years. If you’re coming in with culturally rooted and grounded practices, but you’re the only one with no one to help you navigate what’s happening, you’re more likely to get those “troubled students of color” that nobody else can teach. At the same time, you’re not necessarily better prepared to teach them.
Research from Dr. Travis Bristol shows that Black male teachers face particular forms of isolation, including how they’re oftentimes looked at to be father figures, or disciplinarians — roles that these men didn’t get into teaching to play.
What are the structural forms of race, racism, and power that manifest through curriculum, structure, and pedagogy that cause alienation and exclusion for teachers of color?
This is a multifaceted question that has implications outside of education. Structural racism impacts housing, economics, health care, food options — really every segment of society, that then impacts schooling opportunities and outcomes.
Specifically for schooling, there is a "leaky pipeline" created when a disproportionate number of students of color do not graduate from high school "college and career ready" and/or do not receive the support they need in college to earn degrees at the rate of their white counterparts. For teacher education, there is what Christine Sleeter (2016) calls the "problematics of whiteness in teacher education," which includes the fact that teacher candidates are predominantly white and are educated by predominantly white teacher educators.
The lack of presence, voice, representation, and reflection (as in having faculty of color who reflect their racial/ethic backgrounds) in teacher education programs, curricula, and pedagogy not only reify marginalization but can also reinforce the leaky pipeline, creating a cycle that we in education have struggled to break.
What are some ways to combat these structural forms of racism?
Again, structural racism is systemic and meaningfully addressing it requires systemic reform. At the same time, I think it's important for people to feel agentic. Therefore, two incremental steps are recruiting and retaining more faculty of color in teacher preparation programs and institutionally equipping them to support pre- and in-service teachers of color.
Did the events surrounding social justice in 2020 inspire teachers to recognize the importance of diversifying their curriculums, and how they teach and interact with students? Do you think it will cause more educators, schools, policymakers, educational leaders to gain a sense of agency for making changes?
It’s a complicated question, and I would say that part of the need for teachers of color is that many of us already have that consciousness. George Floyd was not new for us. It wasn’t as shocking; it was just another example of what we’ve been saying for generations. And when you have that kind of consciousness in the classroom, you have students who are educated and socialized in a way where that agency is just part of how they go through schools. We don’t really have that, because we don’t have teachers of color en masse.
So I think for some people who are coming to consciousness, there might be an increase in agency. I think many of us in particular kinds of activist roles and in spaces have had that consciousness, and it’s more of a question of how do we take this momentum and use that to strengthen our work?
I can also share a short story of being contacted by two of my former students who are now in-service teachers. This summer, following the death of George Floyd and protests across the country, two white teachers emailed me to discuss how they should begin the school year — what do they say to their Black students and students of color to show solidarity? How do they discuss the current social and political events that are exposing racial divides for some while increasing the desire to unite for others? What, if anything, do they communicate with parents and families regarding these issues? How can a math teacher engage in these conversations without being "political" and deviating from the content?
Through a series of exchanges, we strategized approaches that felt aligned with their pedagogy and personal commitments. So, in saying that, another incremental step that ultimately supports teachers of color is creating and sustaining spaces for white colleagues who desire to be allies to enhance their critical consciousness and ability to effect change alongside educators of color.