Retaining Teachers of Color in the Classroom Starts with Listening
By Idalmi Acosta
Every year, I begin with a PowerPoint introducing myself to my students. I tell them that I was born in the Dominican Republic and that my first language is Spanish. I ask if they’ve ever had a Latinx teacher before and usually over 80% of them say no. I feel a weight settling on my shoulders as I realize that to them, I’m not just any teacher but a representation of themselves. There aren’t many teachers of color in my school. When you’re a teacher of color, you have added pressures from everyone.
These pressures can mean many things. Sometimes they add up to extra work. I have been asked often to translate conversations and documents, with no extra compensation for these tasks. I have not refused to do them because I wanted to help my students and families. The need for Latinx teachers in our community is great and I often end up being put in situations that require me to do more than other teachers. The pressures can also add up to insensitivity and stereotyping. From touching my curly hair to assuming that I am an undocumented immigrant because I’m Latinx, my colleagues throughout the years have at best made me feel uncomfortable and at worst, questioned my worth as a true member of the team.
My family came to the United States in search of the American dream. My dad has always wanted us to be more successful and have a better life then he did. He was so proud when I got accepted to college and he wanted me to become a lawyer. Law has never interested me; instead, I have a job that I love, teaching. Yet teaching doesn’t allow me to help support my family in a way that I would like. This is a point of tension every time I speak to my dad and I can feel his silent disapproval. I know that I’m not the only one who has had to grapple with these kinds of pressures; many teachers of color do as well.
A recently-released report from Teach Plus and The Education Trust lays out the reasons why teachers of color leave the classroom. I can relate to many of these and I support all the recommendations to help retain teachers of color in the profession. If we want to keep teachers of color in the classroom, we need to implement systemic changes. We need to have explicit conversations with teachers of color about the extra responsibilities on their schedule and we need to provide financial incentives for their work. If I am taking on more than one role in my school, such as translating for our Spanish-speaking community, I should be compensated for that work. In addition, school administrators should work to hire parent coordinators, secretaries who are bilingual, or translators if the school has a Latinx population.
Diversity and equity training is crucial to ensuring that our work environment is safe and comfortable for everyone in the building. Every school should have mandatory racial equity training and readings, followed by in depth discussions about identity, microaggressions, and implicit bias so that we can begin the process of looking inward and confronting our biases to become better people and better educators. This type of training also benefits our students and ensures they get the best quality education.
Most importantly, if we want to keep teachers of color in the classroom, school, district, and state leaders need to start listening to us and understanding our stories and experiences. That is the first step towards implementing the changes we need to make to retain the teachers of color we already have and to recruit new ones into the profession.
Idalmi Acosta teaches 10th grade ELA at Riverside High School in Indianapolis. She is a Teach Plus Indianapolis Policy Fellowship alumna.