In Illinois, students of color comprise more than half of the school population, but their teachers are overwhelmingly white. And even when schools recruit and hire teachers of color, those educators tend to leave the profession much faster than their white colleagues. A recent report took a look at what schools can do to encourage Black and Latinx teachers to stay.
The report comes from an organization called TeachPlus — a nonprofit that trains classroom teachers to become leaders in education policy.
I had a long phone interview with one of the report's authors, Corey Winchester — an award-winning history and sociology teacher at Evanston Township High School.
Here's an excerpt of our chat:
Winchester: Efforts that go into recruitment, I think, are actually pretty vast. And if you don't have a plan in place to actually retain who you're recruiting, there's no point of recruiting at all.
Rhodes: And it's not enough to just say, "Well, hey, we're giving you a paycheck."
Winchester: That's... that is not the end-all be-all for most folks. I think — at least when I went into education — I surely did not do it for the paycheck. It was because I realized that opportunities presented to people like me in educational spaces, you know, were rarities and few and far between. Folks of color aren't supposed to be successful in schools; that's by design. So I think a lot of educators of color who decide to go into the classroom do so because they're looking to shake up the system — to not just survive, but to thrive.
But compensation is a major factor. That TeachPlus report drew on suggestions from focus groups, and Winchester says financial protections were a top recommendation.
Winchester: You know, folks of color enter educational spaces with that vacuum that has been created by, you know, years and years of systemic, institutional racism. So when we go to school, school's expensive, and then we get, you know, these jobs that sometimes aren't sustainable, given the amount of work that we do as educators of color. So if there were some loan forgiveness programs, or, you know, special scholarships, or different repayment incentives to keep us in the classroom, I think that would be important.
One of the other things that becomes a part of this, you know, we call it “invisible tax,” is some of the systemic pressures that are placed on us, when our white colleagues fail to realize the ways that they contribute to unsafe working environments for us, when district leaders don't recognize that. So we want to make sure that there are professional development experiences, for district leaders to improve their cultural competency in working with staff of color. You know, the microaggressions I think we sometimes face can be easily reduced if some of our white colleagues were more conscious of how they exist in spaces in relation to us.
Part of that "invisible tax" is the casual handoff of crisis aversion duties. Here's how that works: Statewide, fewer than 15% of our teachers are people of color, but their ability to connect with students of color is so recognizable, they frequently get asked to intervene with students who may not even be in their classrooms.
Winchester: Folks have spoken anecdotally about, you know, being that one person of color, that one Black person, that one Latinx person. And when there's an issue with a student who shares that identity, who did they come to? And say, "Oh, you know, I think you might be able to connect with this student."
That shouldn't fall on our on our shoulders. You should be able to figure out your own stuff, given your identity, about why you're not connecting with our students, and then make sure that that happens. Don't use my existence solely because you haven't done the work to figure out yours.
We're not going to say no, because those are our kids. But also, you have to do your due diligence to make sure that you've checked yourself, that you've exhausted all the resources, and that when you do come to us, you say, "Here are all the things that I've done, here are the ways that I've tried to support, and ... I've talked to X person and Y person and Z person, you know. I've talk to parents, and I'm really trying to figure out what I can do. I'm at my wit's end. And I'm actually coming to you because I don't know what to do." That's a whole different story.
These interventions usually don't translate into systemic changes. That frustrates teachers of color, sometimes to the point that they leave the school, the district, or even the profession. In the TeachPlus report, they say they're more likely to stay in a school where their own advocacy and initiatives on behalf of students are welcomed and encouraged.
In fact, they spell it out, right in the title of the report: "If You Listen, We Will Stay."
Winchester: What we're looking for is to make sure that we don't feel invisible in the space, which is something that happens often. You know, we don't want to feel undervalued, because we realize that there are additional aspects of our work that fall on our shoulders. We want to make sure that we feel agency and autonomy to do work.
Winchester says this effort cannot be just a box that district board checks off. Retaining teachers of color requires full focus.
Winchester: Your systems have to change fundamentally. Like that has to be, you know, at the center of what you do. If it's not at the center, you're only going to continue to replicate the status quo. So if you want your spaces to be great for teachers of color to flourish, then everything has to work towards that.