By Sharif El-Mekki
In 2020, many of our education leaders were shaken to the reality that our public education system continues to resign our Black and Brown children to something well short of the full promise of America.
Many education leaders are, rightly, seeing the growing (and historic) evidence of the essential and powerful role that Black and Brown educators can play in improving academic and social outcomes for all students, but especially Black and Brown students. But with Black men comprising just 2 percent and Black teachers overall accounting for just 7 percent of the teaching force, we have a long way to go on this front.
I firmly believe that we can build a more diverse teaching profession, but we must interrogate the structural barriers as well as the latent biases in ourselves and our systems to do so. Here’s what we at the Center for Black Educator Development are learning about what that looks like:
- Our Youth Must be Part of the Solution. We must support the interest of young Black and Brown students in teaching. I have spoken to white female colleagues who can recall being encouraged to teach as early as the 3rd grade. Meanwhile, we have Black college students and graduates who were either not invited to consider the profession or actively pushed away from and counseled against it. So many of our young people are driven by a desire to pursue racial justice and equity and serve their communities. We must make clear the connection between that work and the work of effective teaching. As I like to build on James Baldwin’s remarks about the revolutionary act of teaching, to teach Black children well, superbly, is the revolutionary act.
- Our systems matter. How we architect and invest in our teacher recruitment and development system is critical. Too many district and school leaders say they want to recruit diverse teacher candidates, but they fail to do the work to build connections with that essential pool of talent. I wasn’t recruited to become a teacher until after I graduated college, as was the case for so many Black male teachers I know. We must build meaningful recruiting structures for Black high school and college students.
- Who teaches the teachers matters. We need to look hard at our teacher preparation programs’ cultural competencies for the aspiring teachers. Through a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant, we have had the opportunity and pleasure to partner with organizations and teacher colleges to improve how they prepare teachers. Without addressing the shortcomings of teacher preparation programs in this area, we cannot expect to make much progress in diversifying our teaching profession or improving the leader readiness of future educators.
- Data matters. Some states do not provide easy access to data on teacher recruitment, effectiveness, retention and attrition. That undermines efforts to improve the diversity of our educators. Data allows schools and districts to set goals, establish benchmarks, and develop plans. It provides much needed transparency and enables principal supervisors to support principals and leadership teams in retaining teachers of color. We have found that the best recruitment strategy is a strong retention plan – a plan people are accountable for using and improving upon based on what is being learned in schools and districts.
- Creating a professional work environment for a diverse teaching corps requires interrogating its racial bias. Schools and districts must be more intentional in interrogating the racial biases that exist inside of their schools and districts. If attention isn’t paid to the atmosphere, the ecosystem, that diverse candidates are being invited into, they won’t stay for long. We must also look beyond the classroom. There are many supportive positions that also lack diversity – instructional coaches, HR and recruitment, leadership teams, and school boards – and that must also be addressed.
- Don’t half-step or advance simplistic solutions to complex and long-standing issues. If we are resolving to solve the lack of educator diversity in our country, we need a comprehensive plan – one that includes financial incentives and supports, a longer runway, teacher apprenticeships for high school and college students, coaching, mentoring, and programming. We can’t just add water to a leaky bucket. We must reimagine a secure, nurturing, sustainable, and successful Black Teacher Pipeline.
It is said that teachers often quit their principals, not their schools and students, but for candidates of color, it goes even deeper. The invisible tax and racial biases experienced across their lives and careers can be crushing – often mirroring the experiences they had as students. We can do better, but we must do the work. We must learn and act upon the learning.
Sharif El-Mekki served as a teacher and principal for twenty-six years. He was a Principal Ambassador Fellow to the U.S. Department of Education, and founded organizations like The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice and the Center for Black Educator Development to support educator diversity and educational justice. El-Mekki blogs on Phillys7thward.org, is a featured writer and speaker on Education Post and UnPublic’s #FreedomFridays and is one fourth of the 8 Black Hands podcast.