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Teacher diversity: Bold steps toward solutions that work

Addressing the urgent need to recruit and retain teachers of color

5 min read


teacher diversity

Allison Shelley/Deeper Learning

“Raise your hand if throughout your entire K-12 education, you never were taught by a teacher of color.” The speaker who asked that at an education conference I attended two years ago already knew the answer to this teacher diversity question. 

Kimberly Smith

More than 90% of the people raised their hands. The room was silent as people realized the significance of their unbelievable shared experience highlighting the long-time lack of teachers of color. 

The only reason I did not raise my hand is because I had one teacher of color: Ailene McCall, my 10th-grade criminology teacher. Even though I wasn’t interested in criminology, I signed up for her class because I wanted to experience a teacher who reminded me of my mother and aunts. Mrs. McCall was one of my most impactful teachers, in addition to my English teachers, Bonnie Kelly and Pat Wasserstein, who were white.

Why teacher diversity is important

Students benefit from a diverse teaching workforce. If you open the door to the majority of American public school classrooms today, eight out of 10 times, the educator is white. Only about 20% of teachers identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American.

By contrast, more than half the students in K-12 classrooms are of color, which reflects the demographic shifts in the US over the past several decades. In 2020, the majority of the country’s 74 million children were of color. If the current trends continue, by 2060, approximately two out of three children will be of color. 

The tenuous state of diversity in America’s teaching workforce has implications for the country’s education overall. But they are especially acute for the growing number of students of color, who excel when they are taught by teachers of color. Students in schools with diverse teachers have better academic results, reduced anxiety levels, improved social and emotional learning, and more social trust among all groups. The reasons range from the similarity of their life experiences and cultural backgrounds to the higher expectations they hold for students of color. 

Having a teacher who looks like them affirms students’ own racial identities and fosters stronger connections for academic support. Plus, when teachers of color work in environments where they feel comfortable and can be their authentic selves, both they and their students benefit. 

Underlying challenges in diversity

Many teachers of color begin their careers at schools where a majority of students have been historically and systematically excluded. These schools tend to have the highest staff turnover, which adversely affects student achievement and the overall experience of the teacher-of-color workforce. 

Schools are seeing high numbers of teachers across the board leave due to many factors. But teachers of color are leaving the teaching profession at higher rates. They more often face challenging working conditions where the environment, culture and power structures within schools negatively impact their on-the-job experiences

The pandemic exacerbated and added to these pressures, piling COVID-19 stress on top of the racial stress fatigue. Because teachers of color often work in communities that are suffering the most, they tend to feel cultural and familial obligations.

What works for improving teacher diversity

District and school leaders recognize the wide-ranging benefits of a diverse workforce for their students and, ultimately, their districts.

In 2020, school districts in the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools engaged teachers of color across the country in Design Studios. They used an iterative process to identify innovative solutions to address recruitment and retention. Unlike traditional approaches, which are often not led by the people who are most affected, the program was led by teachers of color. 

They identified promising practices that provide hope and impetus for change. Their actionable ideas include: 

  • Changes in school climate and culture.
  • Engaging young people in the field of education.
  • More diverse hiring committees and intentional hiring practices.
  • Grow-your-own teacher preparation programs.

Ways to attract more teachers of color

This program resulted in 22 concepts developed by teachers of color, including creating diverse career pathway opportunities, offering a safe space to address concerns and building teacher-of-color regional networks. 

Teachers also underscored the opportunity to highlight and replicate successful programs like Pathways2Teaching. This concurrent enrollment program lets high-school juniors and seniors explore teaching as a career choice while examining educational justice issues. The students earn college credit and build professional skills while gaining field experience as they build literacy skills among elementary students. 

Although the program’s participants examine educational inequities, they also come away with a sense that teaching is an act of love and a way to engage in social justice. 

The Center for Black Educator Development also created a model for rebuilding the Black teacher pipeline by recruiting, training and providing coaching and oversight to would-be educators in high school and college. It launched in 2019 with the goal of dramatically increasing the number of Black educators. This will allow more students to experience learn from teachers who have expertise in culturally responsive practices and anti-discriminatory mindsets and habits. 

Keep moving toward diversity

Through these and other innovative projects, districts and schools continue taking bold steps toward collaboration on effective changes and accountability for making the solutions stick. With the shifting composition of our nation’s classrooms, the stakes are too high. We need to build successful models that will move us forward in recruiting and retaining teachers of color. 

Kimberly Smith is the chief inclusive innovation officer at the Center for Inclusive Innovation at Digital Promise, an equity-centered R&D network that has produced the “Pipeline and Retention of Teachers of Color” report. Follow Smith on Twitter.


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