The benefits of a diverse teacher workforce are varied and well-documented, yet many U.S. schools struggle to recruit, hire, and retain educators of color. This is a problem that has become increasingly dire as the K-12 student population grows more diverse. Federal data show nonwhite students have outnumbered white students at public schools since 2015. At independent schools, 32 percent of students are now nonwhite, representing a 9 percent rise over the past decade, according to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).
In both sectors, however, only two out of every 10 teachers are people of color.
While addressing this disparity may seem daunting, creating a teacher workforce that more closely represents students’ sociocultural identities is imperative for their success. A recent analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that having at least two African American teachers in elementary school increases college enrollment rates for black students by 32 percent. Exposing all students to a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds and fulfilling institutional goals to be truly inclusive communities necessitates proactive recruitment of underrepresented faculty. Fortunately, the autonomous structure of independent schools grants them the ability to create innovative solutions for recruiting underrepresented teachers and providing them with supportive, inclusive work environments.
Research shows a majority of African American and Latino K-12 teachers prefer to work in underserved public and charter schools where student populations reflect their own race or ethnicity, according to a 2018 University of Pennsylvania study. Teacher turnover rates at these schools, however, are high, and attrition rates for faculty of color in public schools has increased more than 45 percent since the mid-1980s.
Working conditions, a lack of autonomy and independent discretion, and little influence on school-wide decisions are major factors for educators of color in deciding to leave a job, the study found.
The fact that independent schools provide solutions for these issues is what attracts teachers to work in them, according to research by the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, which found that these instructors cite autonomy and empowerment as some of their most important values. Yet these advantages are hardly common knowledge, and increasing public awareness is difficult at a time when fewer people are interested in becoming educators, says Jonathan K. Ball, managing associate of development and communications placement for the teacher placement firm Carney Sandoe & Associates (CS&A).
“A lot of our work is putting education as an option in the job marketplace,” Ball says. In recent years, there has been a noticeable decline in the number of college students interested in becoming teachers. CS&A has had to increase outreach efforts to make sure education majors and non-education majors know that there are “career channels and opportunities available” besides teaching in public and conventional private schools, he says.
“Without a doubt, the strategy around campus recruiting has continued to evolve and change with the shrinking demographic of students interested in this work,” Ball says. Recruitment has become more cost- and time-intensive, requiring multiple campus visits to do outreach, participate in career fairs, and speak on panels about the teaching profession in general and at independent schools specifically.
In addition to increasing college recruitment, the company started hosting FORUM/Diversity conferences to attract more potential candidates of color. Now in its fifth year, the conference offers candidates and schools the opportunity to network and features professional development opportunities to help hiring professionals better understand how to attract, support, and retain underrepresented teachers. Other conferences, such as the NAIS People of Color Conference, have provided these opportunities as well.
Smaller regional events are another way to raise awareness of what independent schools have to offer and why they can be ideal workplaces for underrepresented educators. Natalia Hernandez, EdD, head of Breck School in Golden Valley, Minn., and a former teacher, says she hopes to organize an independent school fair where area teachers and potential job candidates can learn about these institutions in the Minneapolis region along with their diversity-driven missions. This type of public outreach is key to dispelling a misconception that independent schools do not value diversity and equitable education, she says.
“If you go into teaching because you believe in public education as a cornerstone of our democracy and want to give access to students who need the kind of support that they don’t otherwise get in a school setting, and if you have that idealism as a teacher, you might think that … an independent school isn’t for you,” Hernandez says. “Yet diversity, equity, and social justice are priorities for many independent schools.” Breck, she adds, provides $6 million in financial aid annually to ensure accessibility for students regardless of socioeconomic status, and 30 percent of the students at the school self-identify as people of color. Hernandez says growing faculty diversity is a major goal of the school’s strategic plan.
Ensuring an inclusive campus climate is key to developing and retaining underrepresented teachers. New hires should align with diversity- and equity-driven values at institutions where racial and ethnic disparities still exist. Hernandez and research partner Matt Balossi, EdD — a former teacher and current dean of faculty and curriculum at Sage Hill School, an independent institution in Orange County, Calif. — conducted a study in 2015 which found that “fit with school culture” was one of four major characteristics independent schools desire in teacher candidates.
For institutions with a mission based on diversity and equity, establishing a good “fit” requires creating processes to ensure new hires are an asset for developing and maintaining an inclusive climate, Balossi says. They both agree a teacher workforce that aligns with a school’s unique mission is an advantage for independent schools seeking to increase or retain diverse faculty.
At Sage Hill School, where diversity and cross-cultural competency are major goals, Balossi has a standard set of interview questions that “serve as a litmus test” for evaluating candidates’ commitment to these values. Hernandez says when she speaks with teacher candidates, she is sure to explain that, as an episcopal institution, Breck School holds chapel every week and celebrates different faiths as one way to ensure that a candidate is aware of and comfortable with the school’s inclusive culture.
St. Paul’s School in Oakland, Calif., is an example of success, with 60 percent students of color and multiple constituents of color in the faculty, staff, administration, and board of trustees. Head of School Josh Stern attributes this success to the founding mission of the school. “Diversity, inclusion, and equity are built into St. Paul’s DNA, so it’s woven into everything we do,” Stern says.
Maintaining an inclusive campus climate and multicultural campus community is self-perpetuating, Stern says. Having diverse faculty members, administrators, and staff allows for creating diverse hiring committees, which demonstrates to candidates of color that the institution values people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Furthermore, when potential teachers tour St. Paul’s, they see that it lives up to its commitment through its students and employees, he says. This type of inclusive community, however, “doesn’t happen overnight. It builds upon itself and can happen over a very long period of time, so it’s always part of the conversation for us,” Stern says. The school discusses and evaluates possible bias on an ongoing basis in its recruitment and decision-making processes to ensure continued success.
St. Paul’s also prioritizes professional development opportunities that focus on diversity and inclusion, and teachers themselves often work with outside experts to lead these programs for the rest of the school. Professional development is one way that the school provides mentorship and leadership opportunities for its instructors, thus building a pipeline for diverse teachers to advance to administrative roles, Stern says.
This type of proactive support is key to ensuring teachers of color have the resources “that help them feel safe and comfortable at a school,” he says.
As Stern and others point out, however, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for independent schools to grow their diverse teacher workforce. The differences in each institution’s mission, culture, and resources — in addition to factors like location and school size — mean that independent schools are uniquely positioned to develop creative methods for cultivating inclusive, welcoming workplaces for underrepresented educators.
For more information on best practices for recruiting and retaining underrepresented teachers, visit the NAIS Diversity and Inclusion webpage at https://bit.ly/2ASDaDT.
Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of DiversityIS.