A new report from the Albert Shanker Institute shows that teachers of color (including black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, American Indian, and multiracial) — and especially male teachers of color — are underrepresented in the workforce, with large gaps in representation between teachers and students of color. What’s particularly astounding, though, is the share of black teachers in the workforce that declined in nine major cities across the U.S. over the last 10 years. New Orleans and Washington, D.C., saw the most significant declines at 24 percent and 28 percent, respectively, while trends for Hispanic teachers were more positive and stable across time. So, what is happening with our nation’s black teachers? Why are the numbers so low and continuing to decline?

The problem is both recruitment and retention. Of the two, recruitment seems more tangible and actionable, with retention of black teachers having less obvious solutions or strategies for improvement. Research shows teachers of color, specifically black teachers, can be more motivated to work with students of color and in hard-to-staff schools. Teachers of color are also disproportionately concentrated in high-need schools (urban, low-income with high proportions of students of color). But, teaching in poor schools and teaching black and brown kids is not why they leave the profession.

They leave because of working conditions. Research from the Shanker report indicates that teachers of color feel they don’t have a voice in education decisions and have limited professional autonomy in the classroom. The bottom line is that across the nation teachers of color are placed in schools that are more likely to have less desirable working conditions. And this impacts their desire and willingness to stay.

This study begins an important conversation by documenting the problem. But this quantitative exploration of data needs qualitative support to provide a deeper understanding of teachers’ perceptions regarding their practice, challenges, and general experiences in education. This will help administrators know better how to retain teachers of color in a profession that desperately needs them. It is also why we are currently engaged in a research study to better understand these very issues.

We have conducted more than 28 focus groups across five states, in an attempt to understand the experiences, issues of practice, and perceptions of current education issues — as well as educational themes most critical to — black and Hispanic teachers. Much like in the quantitative data provided by the Shanker report, our preliminary findings reveal the need for school organizations to take into account the distinctive needs of teachers of color and the unique workplace challenges they face. For example, black teachers often feel their decision to teach in hard-to-staff schools has a negative consequence on how they are perceived — they feel labeled as “bad teachers.” And, both black male and female teachers express that they are often hired to be rule-enforcers, not educators. According to the teachers we spoke with, stereotypes and additional roles are not only placed on teachers of color by fellow teacher colleagues, but also often by school administration.

While we continue to collect data, research like the Shanker study ignites questions about what supports need to be in place to ensure teachers of color are, in fact, acknowledged for their unique contributions and provided targeted professional development to address the unique challenges they face. I hope that our work and the work of others continues this dialogue and helps to find solutions to the needed improvements in recruitment and retention of teachers of color.

Photo credit: Molly Roberts