by Melia LaCour
As educators grapple with inequitable systems responsible for undercutting the success of black and brown students, the State of Washington Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB) is taking bold leadership to tackle one of the state’s biggest culprits: systemic failure to retain teachers of color. Currently, only 11 percent of the teaching workforce are teachers of color despite a rapidly growing diverse student population.
PESB organizes, engages, and sponsors multiple initiatives geared toward addressing this escalating crisis. Created in 2000, their mission is to “advance educator workforce development” and to be “responsive to educator shortage, continuing education and increasing the diversity of the workforce.”
On March 6, PESB held a full-day conference, “Diversifying the Educator Workforce Conference: Retaining and Sustaining,” to provide opportunities for “stakeholders to hear and share strategies to increase underrepresented candidates in the educator workforce, with the focus on pathway efforts to retain a diverse workforce and to maintain and sustain grow your own programs.” Co-sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the conference hosted nearly 150 participants from community colleges, teacher preparatory programs, philanthropy, and school districts to galvanize leaders into critical action.
“Retention is the larger goal. We do all these things — recruitment, placement, support to get retention of educators of color so that we are looking at a system that is more inclusive and represents students that are in our system,” said PESB’s Executive Director, Alexandra Manuel.
Research shows that educators of color in the classroom lead to stronger academic achievement, improved attendance and a reduction of suspension rates for students of color. In a 2017 study, “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers” researchers “found black male students who had at least one black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grade were significantly less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to attend a four-year college.” https://www.pesb.wa.gov/resources-and-reports/reports/shortage-report/.
However, the road to ensuring student access to teachers of color is fraught with barriers. According to conference experts and PESB’s recent report, “Data and the Story: Educator Shortage in Washington State,” this crisis is the result of deeply flawed and even non-existent career pathways for teacher recruitment, preparation and retention. The report also found that teachers of color are more likely to turnover at higher rates than their white colleagues.
“There are a unique set of factors that may influence the rate of teachers of color turnover,” shared keynote speaker, Amaya Garcia, Deputy Director of English Learner Education in the Education Policy Program at New America. “First, teachers of color tend to work in schools with high concentrations of poverty and students of color. These schools have higher rates of turnover on average. The context of where they work is really challenging and a lot of teachers of color choose to leave those schools.”
Garcia added that policies influenced by No Child Left Behind have led to school closures typically serving high numbers of students in poverty and students of color. Consequently, teachers of color working in those schools have been pushed out of the classroom.
In addition to systemic influences, teachers of color also routinely experience dehumanizing treatment that can lead to turnover. Conference panelists spoke candidly about pervasive feelings of isolation and being overly scrutinized by leadership, burdened with unpaid labor, and tokenized.
“In the building, was me and one other African American teacher and it was very isolating,” said one local teacher. “Anything we tried to do felt attacked or questioned and so we just had each other. We had allies in the building, but they would do the same things we did but not get questioned.”
“It’s a really hard thing to be the only one,” added panel moderator and education and systems consultant, Erin Jones. “When I taught in Spokane, anytime a black or brown student got in trouble, they were sent to my class. So somehow, I was meant to be the disciplinarian for every child who looks somewhat like me. And that’s an incredible burden.”
With challenges at every level, PESB and local conference stakeholders are working hard to implement powerful programs and pathways leading towards an inclusive educator workforce.
“What’s happening in Washington state is really ahead of the curve,” said Garcia. During her presentation, she highlighted local “Grow Your Own” (GYO) programs, such as the flourishing partnership between Western Washington University and Highline School District Bilingual Fellows Program. They have created a strong partnership to recruit and support bilingual paraprofessionals to become certificated teachers at the elementary school level.
As the shortage report states, GYO programs show much promise because they are “highly collaborative, community-rooted,” and “provide intensive supports including recruiting, developing, placing, and retaining diverse educators. GYO programs also work towards dismantling institutional racism, work towards educational equity, and improve academic outcomes for all students.”
There are many additional statewide retention efforts. “We have 10 teacher prep programs that are all working and exploring diversifying the workforce and advancing equity and focus on culturally responsive learning,” Manuel shared. She added that their work will be used as guidance for making changes at the state level.
Another promising retention strategy is to create avenues of support for novice teachers of color. Both the Seattle Teacher Residency Program at Alliance for Education and the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) at OSPI, provide highly effective mentorship.
At Puget Sound Educational Service District, mentorship and support is provided through the Educators of Color Leadership Community. Facilitated by Equity in Education Manager, Eileen Yoshina, educators of color from King and Pierce County schools meet quarterly “to support and retain educators of color through community building, culturally responsive mentoring and coaching, and professional learning that builds on strengths as educators of color.”
Trish Millines Dziko, guest conference panel moderator and co-founder and Executive Director of Technology Access Foundation, shared a hard-hitting recommendation for future retention strategy focus.
“Principals are the ones that get to control what happens in their buildings in terms of how educators and students of color are treated. I think at some point we will need to gather school principals and find out what the hell is going on. Why are you allowing this to go on?”
Manuel closed the conference asking leaders “not to rest in the contentment of having had a conversation” but to act.
“We have to look at who is the most vulnerable and how all our intervention and change efforts are felt at that level. And that’s really at the student level.”
For more information about PESB’s work, please visit www.pesb.wa.gov/
Melia LaCour is an education columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director and Co-founder of Becoming Justice. She is a native Seattleite with a passion for writing, social justice and karaoke.
Images courtesy Melia LaCour.