We Need Diverse Teachers, and a Ladder to Climb

By Angelina Burrows and Shaneka Burnett

In recent months, U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr. raised the important issue of diversity in the teaching workforce and the importance of recruiting and retaining more teachers of color, particularly as student populations grow more diverse.

Although we work in separate states (Indiana and Louisiana), we are both teachers of color serving high-need student populations. As master teachers that focus on math, we address both student and teacher needs.

While it is essential that we work to recruit more teachers of color, these teachers will be most successful when they work in schools that make it a priority to support all teachers in strategically reaching every student. This includes a multicultural curriculum which provides students with rigorous learning opportunities to problem solve using situations that affect their day to day lives.

When we support all teachers in reaching students, we ease what Secretary King calls the “invisible tax” by sharing the responsibility of communicating and building relationships. For example, we may facilitate a professional development session focused on teacher practices that incorporate student interest and cultural heritage. When a teacher incorporates student interest in a lesson, it opens the door for relationships to be built.

In addition to coaching teachers to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of diverse students, our districts have supported the development of teacher leadership roles and a school structure providing the time, resources and authority to make these opportunities meaningful and impactful. Working with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, we have put in place a system that trains and supports teacher leaders in each building to provide job-embedded professional learning and coaching to colleagues based on their specific needs, and those of their students.

This leadership structure requires teachers to work collaboratively and allows for the opportunity to coach and support ALL teachers in building relationships, making connections and ensuring content is meaningful and relevant. When teachers respect and learn about cultural differences, it promotes classroom environments where students feel safe to share their experiences and learn from others. This system of ongoing support and teamwork has helped our districts to attract and retain more effective teachers, including teachers of color, to our highest-need schools. This support has allowed all teachers to be seen as experts on the concerns of cultural diversity on their campuses.

A system of teacher leadership also creates opportunities for teachers to grow professionally, increasing our responsibilities, leadership and compensation, and making it more rewarding to teach in a high-need school. Leadership roles and responsibilities help to retain effective educators who want to take on new challenges but remain connected to classrooms and students.

Thankfully, there is growing momentum to provide teachers with these opportunities. A national coalition called TeachStrong has united more than 60 education organizations dedicated to modernizing and elevating the teaching profession. The group’s first policy proposal — released in May — calls for more intentional recruitment of diverse candidates. They have another policy proposal forthcoming that focuses explicitly on the need for career ladders.

This commitment to building teacher leadership into school budgets, schedules and culture has been a successful model in our districts for supporting all teachers to make deeper connections with students of color, to support high expectations for their learning, to close achievement gaps, to ensure all students have an effective classroom teacher and are being prepared for success in college and career.

Angelina Burrows teaches in the School City of Hammond District, 20 miles south of Chicago.

Shaneka Burnett teaches in the Ascension Parish School District, 20 miles south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.