Smile Politely

Teach Plus Illinois is prioritizing diverse teacher retention

The path to increasing teacher diversity is a long one; pipeline concerns aside, the act of recruiting, and subsequently retaining, teachers of color is not as straightforward as simply hiring them. In fact, I would argue that hiring a diverse teacher is the easy part — creating an inclusive environment for them to prosper and feel compelled to stay at the school is where the real challenge lies. As I wrote in my previous article, both Urbana SD 116 and Champaign Unit 4 recognize the importance of a diverse workforce, but neither has explicitly laid out any plans on how they intend to achieve their goals.

Of the “major” school districts I looked at — Champaign, Urbana, Bloomington, Normal, Peoria, Decatur, Rockford, Springfield, and Chicago — only Chicago Public Schools had a genuine plan for its diversity and equity efforts. But even this document, titled “the Equity Framework,” doesn’t dive into how CPS intends on recruiting diversity, mentioning only that they have “targets for hiring and retaining Black, Brown and Indigenous staff”; on a separate page of the CPS site, they specify that their targets include “hiring 3,000 new African American and Latinx teachers by 2024”, but nothing specifying how they will achieve these numbers.

The lack of readily available information is frustrating; as an ethnic minority in education, I’m interested in reading about what a district is doing to support diverse teachers before deciding whether to apply for a job there. “We are committed to diversity” and “We want our staff to look like our students” are not plans. They are generic sentiments, and while I can’t speak for every diverse teacher, these types of statements do little to persuade me I will be anything other than the token nonwhite guy with a “foreign” name.

In searching for ways that schools and districts can better support their teachers of color, I spoke to Joshua Kaufmann, the senior executive director at Teach Plus Illinois. Teach Plus is a national organization that focuses on empowering diverse teachers and making sure they have a say in influencing educational policy. One of Kaufmann’s priorities is strengthening the pipeline for teachers of color in Illinois, something we discussed at length, among other topics. 

There are two major, distinct challenges schools face in retaining teachers of color, says Kaufmann. One concerns high-needs schools with higher turnover, where diverse teachers are more likely to work. These schools, often lacking resources and proper administrative support, can lead to burnout and attrition due to the working conditions. 

The other challenge concerns teachers of color who work in more suburban/affluent districts. “They’re often the only one who looks like them in their school or district,” says Kaufmann, “and they feel they don’t get the same support or opportunities that other teachers get.” It can be very easy, intentionally or not, to create environments that aren’t welcoming for people of different backgrounds.

Bias can manifest in the hiring process too, even if unintentionally. “A current teacher leader talked about the feeling she had walking into an interview panel where everyone on the panel was white. Many people who are white have never had that experience, and that can often be uncomfortable.”

Potential solutions, explains Kaufmann, are within a district’s capacity, since they would cost little-to-no money. Things such as having “a diverse hiring panel and being clear about having equitable policies.” Districts would also do well to create opportunities for affinity groups; this way teachers of color can have a place they can support one another and work on instructional practice. 

Individual schools could do a lot more to make themselves more inclusive beyond the performative. Kaufmann gives a hypothetical example of a Muslim teacher at a school. “[It’s fine to acknowledge their beliefs] and wish them a happy Eid, but it doesn’t capture what it really means to be welcoming to people of different backgrounds to your school.” This extends to what is being taught in the classroom as well, with Kaufmann explaining that teachers need to do more than recognize Black History Month and teach the basics.

“There should be room in the middle for us to explore what is good and what has been problematic in our history and work to address it,” says Kaufmann. “But that’s a nuance that’s hard in our current political environment,” especially depending on where teachers are located. He gives an example of a teacher who engaged her students with the Derek Chauvin trial and other instances of police violence against black and brown men. “But she can talk about that in Chicago,” explains Kaufmann. “In smaller communities, especially ones with troubled pasts, they have to be very careful about how to raise issues of diversity, if they do at all, because, in a community that leans more rightward, often there’s a reaction against this.”

Kaufmann says that there is “a real role for white teachers to develop the muscles” to raise issues of diversity and create inclusive, welcoming schools, especially in communities that are monoethnic. “[We shouldn’t be] waiting for a teacher of color to raise these issues, particularly in a community that may not be that diverse,” he explains, going on to note that these topics may be difficult or uncomfortable for said teachers to bring up. 

As for attracting more people of color to education, Kaufmann acknowledges that finances play a big part in people of color choosing other career paths (or leaving teaching after a few years). The wealth disparities between Black and white families, for example, has only grown recently. One potential solution, says Kaufmann, could be to have paid student teaching for students of color, especially those willing to go teach in higher-needs schools. Another idea, found in Teach Plus’s report “If You Listen, We Will Stay,” proposes providing loan forgiveness and additional compensation for extra duties and responsibilities, such as mentorship and translation). 

When I ask what we could do for those aforementioned less diverse communities, Kaufmann wonders if a program similar to the Peace Corps could be possible: teachers of color would go work in a non-diverse setting for a couple of years, and then would be free to go teach wherever they want, though he admits, that he isn’t sure would have a lot of takers. 

What if we set something up similar to the Rooney Rule, I ask, suggesting there might be some sort of “diversity quota” for schools and districts. Kaufmann says that while it’s an interesting idea, he is “hesitant” to pursue policies that would push a district into hiring a teacher of color if they’re not ready to support that person and if it’s going to be an unforgiving environment. Which only adds another question to the stack: How does a district decide it’s ready, and who gets to make that call? The answer isn’t immediate as Kaufmann and I wrap our conversation, but it is one more thing to consider. 

And one more question floats my mind long after we’ve finished speaking: For those schools and districts that are “ready,” why the struggle to implement some of Kaufmann’s ideas, given their simplicity and cost-effectiveness? In some cases, we may see schools making honest efforts but still troubleshooting; in others, we may need to start asking whether we have the right people leading our districts.

Wassim Elhouar is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois and a writer and educator in the Champaign-Urbana area. He will be starting his doctoral studies this fall in industrial/organizational psychology at Montclair State University.

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