Most agree that teacher diversity is desirable. Numerous studies have shown that Black teachers are effective at teaching African-American students.
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But teachers of color represent just 18 percent of the workforce—about 7 percent of them are African-American. That’s a problem because this lack of teacher diversity exists at a time when minorities represent a majority of students in the nation’s public education system. A large part of the problem is retaining teachers of color.
NewsOne spoke with The Education Trust, a nonprofit education research and advocacy group, about its new study, released on Nov. 3.
Titled Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections From Black Teachers, the study gives voice to African-American educators on the front-lines about the challenges that contribute to the retention crisis.
Ashley Griffin, the lead researcher who co-authored the study with Hilary Tackie, said the research team sat down with a representative group of 150 Black teachers from seven states. Those teachers were selected based on data from the 2012 Schools and Staffing Survey, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Griffin, who serves as the director of K-12 research at Education Trust, said many studies have quantified the retention problem and examined the impact of teachers of color in classrooms. This study, however, gives voice to Black teachers, and contributes qualitative findings.
“We’ve read many clips about the low number of African-American teachers and low recruitment figure,” she told NewsOne. “But no one is really talking about retention. So we set out to listen to African-American teachers, and have conversations about what’s happening across the nation.”
The research found amazing similarities and continuity. It paints a picture that explains why the teachers entered the profession, the value they bring to schools, and the obstacles they face.
Many of the teachers said they felt “called” to teaching. They came to the profession with high expectations of their Black students and a desire to enable them to succeed. This calling, Griffin explained, often stemmed from a role model—a teacher or a relative.
One participant, an elementary school teacher from Oakland, said she wanted to impact her Black students in the same way that her fifth-grade teacher influenced her.
She said, “I make sure I get to know each and every one of my kids, and let them know that they can do it.”
The teachers said they feel a special connection with their Black students. “We bring familiarity to our students,” one participant said. “You know, they do like to look up and say, ‘Oh, OK, there is my auntie,’ or ‘There is my grandma,’ or ‘There is my cousin.’”
This connection, stemming mainly from common experiences, enables the teachers to empathize with the challenges their Black students encounter away from school.
However, there are negative consequences for this affinity with the students. These consequences diminish their chances of getting promoted and recognized for their skills.
School administrators often assign African-American educators to teach only Black students. As a result, White colleagues tend to view them as disciplinarians, but not skilled educators.
Many of the teachers said they spend nearly all their time playing the role of enforcer instead of developing their teaching skills and doing lesson planning.
Stereotyped as less educated, the Black teachers said they seldom get the opportunity to teach high-performing students and advanced courses, which would give them recognition as subject matter experts.
A focus group participant described getting pigeonholed as a disciplinarian of Black students this way:
“‘You do it so well, let’s just keep you here.’ If I’m doing the ABCs every day, I never really get to do anything of a higher caliber. I think a lot of times, as African-American teachers, we get stuck in a certain group, because you do it well.”
Griffin said the Black teachers told her team that they have unique stressors. Much of it stems from a sense of obligation to underserved Black students, which goes beyond academics.
They often find themselves “acting as a parent, a hairdresser, a chauffeur, an advocate, a counselor, or a cheerleader,” the study said. Serving the whole student often means spending their own money to ensure the students have basic necessities.
The takeaway from what the teachers said is that “recruiting Black teachers is not enough,” said Griffin. School district leaders and principals must “recognize and be mindful of the racial climate and how it affects teachers of color.”
Griffin said the next step is for school districts and their African-American teachers to have “a delicate conversation” about those issues and explore what support systems are needed to keep them in the profession.
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