EL-MEKKI: Recruiting Black Teachers Into A Burning Schoolhouse Won’t Help To Retain Them

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Sharif El-Mekki is the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. He is a former principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus and from 2013-2015 one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

“I Fear I May Have Integrated My People Into a Burning House.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

It is no secret that there is a widening diversity gap between our public school students and our public school educators.  Public schools enrollment is now majority minority, but teachers of color account for just 21 percent of the educator workforce, with Black educators making up just 7 percent of that total. Black and Brown teachers have a profoundly positive impact on not only Black and Brown students, but all students. A great body of evidence shows that Black, Brown and White students alike see positive academic benefits when they are taught by diverse teachers.

In light of these dynamics, thoughtful school, district and state leaders across the country are eager to diversify their teacher corps, but frequently lack the tools and knowledge to successfully grow and retain diverse teachers.  The new joint report from Teach Plus and the Center for Black Educator DevelopmentTo Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures, seeks to provide the tools and knowledge to support those education leaders in building a school and district culture that affirms the Black and Brown educator, as well as their students.

Based on focus group conversations with more than 100 Black teachers from across the country with varying years of service, the research team sought to answer two questions. First, what school conditions are needed to affirm Black teachers’ humanity and racial identity so they can be their authentic selves? And, second, what can educational leaders and policymakers do to support school cultures that affirm Black teachers? The findings are as provocative as they are illuminating.

The research team found that there are five conditions that Black teachers said were critical towards creating school cultures that authentically affirm their identities.  They are:

  1. They are part of a diverse school faculty
  2. They have school leaders who take the lead in fostering an inclusive school culture.
  3. Their school has a culturally responsive curriculum and, when it is not, they are supported in making it more inclusive.
  4. They have access to mentoring and affinity groups to support their personal growth, and their school intentionally invests in the development of all teachers and staff through equity-focused professional learning.
  5. Their schools’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are authentically implemented.

These findings demonstrate that a surface-level commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is not nearly enough to create the kinds of environment that attracts and develops Black educators.

Kyle Epps, a teacher in Pennsylvania, explained well the need to take a systemic, holistic approach to effectively recruiting and retaining Black teachers.

To that end, the report includes recommendations for teachers, school leaders, as well as district leaders and state policy makers in institutionalizing and making permanent the cultural changes required for Black teachers to succeed over the long term.

For teachers, the report recommends authentic reflection on practices and perspectives and considering how their beliefs are communicated, either explicitly or implicitly, to their students and peers.

Second, teachers should foster authentic relationships with students by building bridges between communities and classrooms.  This means engaging with students, parents and community members outside of the classroom and at the same time welcoming their perspectives, voices and experiences into the classroom and curricula.

Thirdly, the researchers urge teachers to support and teach a culturally responsive curriculum and embrace pedagogical practices that help prioritize students’ social and emotional wellbeing.

Finally, the researchers urge teachers to prepare for and address issues of race when they arise in school, and in so doing, cultivate a school and classroom environment that is empowered by diversity.

For school leaders, the report recommends they first support curriculum and pedagogy that ensures educators are culturally responsive, anti-racist and intentional about fostering equity.  Far from being divisive or anti-White, this approach seeks to highlight the degree to which people of color have been marginalized throughout history and the steps educators can take to ensure educational equity.

The research team advises school leaders to engage in self-reflective practices and support other educators in doing the same. This self-reflection can become a powerful form of modeling to others in the school community.  Because what we learn is so often a function of what we measure, school leaders should also continually gather quantitative and qualitative data from both students and teachers and use those data to drive curriculum, school policies and everyday practices.

Finally, the research team advises school leaders to support community building through mentoring and affinity groups with adequate and equitable resources for both. Because even the most deeply embedded school and classroom practices can be undone by a district or state policy environment that is antagonistic to it, the report sets out four specific recommendations for leaders at those levels.

First, district and state leaders must prioritize teacher diversity, clearly and visibly prioritizing the recruitment, support and retaining of Black and Brown teachers.

Leaders should prioritize supporting culturally affirming curriculum.  In tandem with the work being done at the classroom and school level, state and district investments in culturally responsive teaching and professional development can accelerate positive cultural transformation in powerful ways.

Also, because systemic transformation is an iterative process, leaders should collect, organize and report data to inform changes in policy and practice. Finally, state and district leaders should support and organize coalitions of committed stakeholders that can support school leaders in their efforts to diversify the teaching workforce. Such “collective impact” can bring new strategies and solutions to bear on the development of diverse educator pipelines and in supporting greater community and family engagement.

There is broad agreement on the power and promise that Black teachers hold for not just students of color, but all students. At the same time, efforts to address low recruitment and high attrition rates of Black teachers too often lack the depth and understanding required to build a culture that truly welcomes and supports these educators.

The challenges to building a culturally sustaining teaching and learning environment are deeply embedded and calcified in our public schools.  Undoing them will require intentional and comprehensive effort by teachers, principals, district and state leaders.  To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures gives all of us in education the tools and insights to begin this vital work in earnest. From here, we can work to ensure the building is not on fire.

(This was first published at Philly’s 7th Ward.)

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