Sharif El Mekki – How Can Schools Retain Black and Brown Teachers?

Sharif El-Mekki
CEO & Founder, The Center for Black Educator Development

In the past year, we’ve seen a rush by everyone from corporate America to community non-profits to demonstrate a visible commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.  This national reckoning with systemic racism has occurred at a moment when many schools, educators and parts of the broader education establishment are also aspiring to  be more just, equitable and anti-racist.  The recruitment of more Black and Brown teachers has become a central plank of many Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) plans. There’s no shortage of work to do on that front.

Nationally, more than 50% of our public school children are students of color, but less than 20% of their teachers are. In my home state of Pennsylvania, just 6% of teachers are people of color. In 2019, 50% of public schools and 37% of all school districts in the Keystone state employed only white teachers. For the last seven years, more than 1,000 public schools and 138 districts have employed only white teachers. In a dozen of these schools, 80% or more are students of color.  That’s as galling as it is glaring.

To address this unacceptable and harmful deficit of Black and Brown educators, many leaders are making plans to ratchet up recruitment. An oft overlooked prerequisite to recruiting Black and Brown teachers is a strong retention plan.  That is because of both the obvious value of keeping those Black and Brown teachers already in the building and because the cultural shifts required for an effective retention plan for those teachers create a more attractive work environment for new Black and Brown teachers.

But what does a school with that kind of culture look like?

A school that successfully retains Black and Brown teachers first and foremost is no longer hostile towards and toxic for educators of color. Black and Brown teachers stay in allegiance and solidarity not only with their students and parents, but also with the administration who is likewise committed to achieving an anti-racist school culture.  That requires leaders who excavate their own biases frequently (it is NOT a one time reflection point) and push to mold the school culture to one based on genuine respect, where authentic identities are expressed and valued.

That’s difficult in most school contexts because the dominant, white paradigm of teacher retention is one that seeks to create a culture of “belongingness”.  Such a school ethos can actually be even more exclusionary of Black and Brown teachers as it is, in practical application, a conformist culture rather than one that holds space for, values and raises up diverse and divergent perspectives.  A leader, working to make their culture feel supportive and collegial, can actually do the exact opposite for existing and prospective Black and Brown teachers.

The benefits of retaining and recruiting more Black and Brown teachers are clear for teachers and students, but the work also makes financial sense.  Estimates of the cost of teacher attrition put the price as high as $20,000 per teacher. In Pennsylvania schools, teachers of color left a school or the profession altogether at higher rates than did white teachers, between school years 2017-18 and 2018-19. The cost of losing a quality educator of color for students, especially students of color, is immeasurably high with possible lifelong impacts. That means that the dominant paradigm of teacher retention is actually coming directly at the expense of all of the work leaders are now rushing to fund to recruit more teachers of color.

Building an anti-racist school culture is a major challenge, but one that can be met. My organization is working closely with a number of schools and districts on this issue.  We’ve worked with our colleagues and partners in the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium (PEDC) to develop four toolkits focused on Culturally Relevant-Sustaining Education (CRSE), Mentoring, Recruitment, and Retention.

The Retention toolkit, is, so far as we can tell, one of the first of its kind.   We reviewed teacher retention resources, only to find most were focused on retaining white teachers in white school cultures, or materials assumed a misleading race-neutral approach. We did not find widely shared materials that were anti-racist, intentionally designed to eradicate educational inequities and social oppression.  So we relied and built on what educators of color, education-activists, thought leaders and researchers from our community have shared about teacher retention in creating easy-to-pilot ideas and initiatives.

In the end, leaders committed to creating a culture that attracts and retains Black and Brown teachers will need to do more than simply build a plan and execute.  They’ll need to consistently gauge the anti-racist climate and culture of their schools and constantly assess, evaluate and adjust course in an iterative and ongoing process.  It’s work that is as worth it as it is urgently needed.

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