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Teachers of Color Are Key to Creating Anti-Racist Culture in Our Schools

By Rachel Brick, Victor Idowu, Charity Freeman, and Keisha Rembert

In moments of national reckoning around our history of racial injustice, such as the one we’re experiencing now, it is especially useful to rely on facts. Fact: There is a clear correlation between dropping out of high school and experiencing incarceration. Fact: Black and Brown children are significantly more likely to experience academic success when they have at least one teacher of color. One clear conclusion we can draw is that increasing the number of Black or Indigenous People of Color teachers is a key facet of creating anti-racist culture, both in and out of education.

These facts are not new, as National Board Certified Chicago area teacher Arnetta Thompson writes, but their irrevocable truth is now more important than ever as students, their teachers, and their parents grapple, sometimes for the first time, with addressing racial injustice in our country. Distinguished educator and Teach Plus Fellow Shareefah Nadir-Mason puts the facts in the context of our current national climate, explaining that, “George Floyd is Proof that America Needs More Black Teachers.”

How, then, do we accomplish this? First, we need to understand why teachers of color are more likely to leave the classroom. Then, we must ask ourselves why more young people of color aren’t entering the profession to begin with. Finally, we look at what each of us can do to remedy the glaring underrepresentation of BIPOC in our education system.

Why do teachers of color leave the classroom at a disproportionate rate? As award-winning educator Keisha Rembert explains, schools often over-work and under-recognize teachers of color. A 2019 report by Teach Plus and The Education Trust points to feeling undervalued, a lack of agency and autonomy, and the invisible tax ― being asked to do work that White teachers aren’t, such as student outreach, diversity trainings, or translations ― as three of the main causes of the higher professional attrition that BIPOC teachers experience. Teacher leaders Idalmi Acosta and Daniel Helena and former U.S. Secretary of Education John King expand on this, detailing specific experiences that represent large-scale national trends.

Why is it such a challenge to encourage students of color to re-enter the classroom as teachers? The overall devaluing of the profession certainly doesn’t help, but it’s more complex than that. BIPOC students are less likely to benefit from multigenerational wealth than their White peers, leaving them with more student loans and less of a financial safety net. Any current teacher will tell you that we’re not in it for the money, but it is irresponsible to ignore the wage discrepancy: On average, teachers make 21% less than their peers in other professions which require a college degree. Finally, as detailed above, we are asking BIPOC students to enter a profession that will ask them to do more work, both emotional and otherwise, without compensating them for those extra tasks.

We are at a pivotal moment of change, and to ignore the role teachers play in racial equity would not be a wasted opportunity, it would be a travesty. To recruit BIPOC teachers, we need to make teaching a more desirable and financially accessible profession to create a diverse and qualified candidate pool. We must address the financial strain by supporting increased and ongoing funding for existing scholarships for Illinois’ students of color. In Illinois, prior to COVID, our lawmakers proposed legislation that would require colleges to provide childcare for their students (making college more accessible for career changers, among others), or would ensure that students with a household income of less than 185% of the federal poverty guidelines are awarded a full tuition waiver, or provide scholarships for dual-language educators, or would award grants that cover not only tuition but cost of living expenses. Past advocacy created the Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship, which could reach even more future teachers if the application process was more navigable and, most importantly, continues to be funded.

Many of our elected representatives have pledged themselves to anti-racist work. Now we must hold them accountable to those promises with calls, emails, or tweets demanding that they support legislation that will make college and teacher preparation programs more financially accessible.

As we build a more robust pipeline of future BIPOC teachers, we must also be active in creating schools that are welcoming and sustainable. As parents, teachers, or citizens in our communities, we must share this responsibility. To ensure equitable hiring practices, we need to talk to our school and district leadership about hiring practices for both classroom and leadership positions. We must ask our leaders how they recruit and who is on our hiring committees and push to reduce implicit bias by ensuring that the recruitment and hiring teams themselves include diverse backgrounds and perspectives. In communities or districts where those bodies are not yet diverse, community members must ask school leaders how they plan to ensure an equitable hiring process for all and hold them to it.

It is also imperative that we continue to listen to and elevate the myriad of voices of BIPOC teachers and researchers when they are clearly stating what schools need to do to change. At the bare minimum, we must advocate for our teachers and school leaders to stand behind the proven science of culturally responsive teaching, something that the Illinois State Board of Education will soon consider requiring.

Whether we are teachers, students, parents, or community members, supporting BIPOC teachers so they enter and stay in classrooms or go on to leadership positions is actively anti-racist work. Join in.

Rachel Brick, Victor Idowu, Charity Freeman and Keisha Rembert are Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellows.

We empower teachers to make an impact in the classroom and beyond.

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