Working to diversify the education workforce

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Public schools are supposed to serve all students equally, regardless of race, creed or culture, so when research shows that children of color could benefit academically if they have teachers who look like them, we need to make sure they get the teachers they need.

But it’s not so easy: In the midst of a widespread teacher shortage, teachers of color are even scarcer. When they do make it into the classroom, they leave the profession at higher rates than white teachers do. The result is that children of color have mostly white teachers; for example, in 2011, 48 percent of public school students were children of color but a disproportionate 82 percent of their teachers were white (National Center for Education Statistics).

In a new report, “Union Role in Diversifying the Educator Workforce,” the American Federation of Teachers describes the urgent need to recruit and retain more black and brown people to teach our children. Then it outlines several AFT-led programs that use a “grow your own” approach to preparing a more diverse workforce by assisting paraprofessionals and other members of the school community to become teachers. 

Teacher diversity is important for everyone

Research shows that teacher diversity is crucial to student success. The 2015 report The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education, from the Albert Shanker Institute  (reviewed in American Educator), outlines the reasons:

  • Teachers of color can be more motivated to work with disadvantaged students of color in high-poverty, racially and ethnically segregated schools.
  • Teachers of color tend to have higher academic expectations for students of color, which can result in increased academic and social growth.
  • Students of color benefit from having teachers from their own racial and ethnic group, who can serve as academic role models and who have greater knowledge of their heritage and culture.
  • Positive exposure to individuals from a variety of races and ethnic groups can help reduce stereotypes and implicit bias and promote cross-cultural social bonding.
  • All students benefit from being educated by teachers from a variety of races and ethnic groups, as it better prepares them to succeed in an increasingly diverse society.

One solution: Grow your own

The new AFT report lists four successful diversity programs that use a grow-your-own approach to expand the teacher workforce. The closer teachers are to the students’ own communities, the more successfully they will connect and engage with them, the report reasons. Frequently, paraprofessionals—usually teacher aides—are already members of the community, and they have a demonstrated interest in education. Since their pay rates can be low, funding assistance as well as tutoring or mentoring can be just the push they need to enroll in a teacher education program.

Grow Your Own

Parents have also been successful candidates in grow-your-own teacher preparation programs. They may, for example, go from frequent classroom volunteers to classroom assistants, and then, with support from a grow-your-own organization, enroll in education classes.

Across the country, the following programs are already diversifying the educator workforce in public schools:

  • A teaching magnet program supported by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers engages high school students interested in education and includes field experience for seniors, many of whom continue their teacher education and return to teach in Pittsburgh public schools.
  • A program in Oklahoma City helps paraprofessionals become teachers and will soon recruit and mentor high school students as well; it is the result of a partnership between the AFT affiliate, the Oklahoma City Federation of Classified Employees , and Langston University.
  • A paraprofessional-to-teacher pipeline in New Mexico uses state funding to help paras pay for their teacher education. It was spearheaded by the Albuquerque Educational Assistants Association.
  • The United Federation of Teachers’ Success Via Apprenticeship program connects the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York to prepare graduates of career and technical education high schools to become CTE teachers.

Grow Your Own Illinois

Grow Your Own Illinois, the nonprofit organization featured at the AFT’s TEACH conference this summer, has made great strides as well, and has worked closely with the Chicago Teachers Union to advance diversity. The CTU’s contract requires that Chicago Public Schools make intentional efforts to diversify its teacher workforce, and Grow Your Own was able to step in with tools to make that happen. GYO provides tuition assistance, funds for books, counseling, tutoring, mentoring, and stipends for transportation and child care, among other services.

“The best thing about GYO is the way we support each other,” said Andrea Lewis, a parent who volunteered at her children’s school and eventually held three jobs there before turning to GYO for help to become a teacher. In her GYO “class” of 12, nine graduated with honors, she said. (She is shown above, eighth from left, with her fellow grads and supporters.)

GYO staff and participants “will tutor you, come and meet you for coffee, help you with tests,” said Tennille Evans, a CTU member who participated in the “boot camp” workshop about GYO at TEACH. “We want that pipeline for our PSRPs.”

The workshop was full of members hoping to create similar programs, or at least use some elements of GYO’s success, in their home districts. But they face daunting obstacles. In District of Columbia Public Schools, for example, teachers of color are recruited but not given enough support to be successful. “They are evaluated out,” said Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, the Teacher Leader Program coordinator at the Washington Teachers’ Union. She says new teachers need effective induction programs, mentors, strong professional development opportunities and supportive administrators in a culturally responsive work environment.

In Boston, elementary school teacher Lea-Antoinette Serena was the only teacher of color in her school, and she said administrators have refused to hire teachers from among the paraprofessional staff, which is a more diverse group of people. She is leaving that school to return to the school she attended as a child. She wants to give back to her own community, where she was inspired by her first-, second- and third-grade teachers—all black women.

[Virginia Myers/photo by Paul Goyette]