Here's One Thing We Can Do to Retain Teachers of Color

Dec 21, 2016 12:00:00 AM


As a third-year teacher in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), I’ve already thought about leaving the profession. Since middle school, I always wanted to be a teacher. I entered the profession imagining myself as a change-agent in my classroom. I wanted to take the critical knowledge regarding systems of oppression I had learned in college back into communities like the one in Detroit where I had grown up. I wanted to empower my students, so I aligned myself with a generation of Black educators who fought to secure civil rights for the nation’s children. I intentionally chose to teach Black kids and was fueled by a vigorous fire within. And I am not alone. As a recent study by The Education Trust on the perspectives and reflections of Black teachers revealed, many educators of color feel called to the profession, as I was, wanting to empower students and push them towards success.

A Shortage of Black Teachers

By now, it is widely known that our nation is facing a shortage of Black teachers. Even though children of color now comprise the  majority of students in this country, roughly 84 percent of teachers are still White. My district in Chicago is no different. Reflecting national trends, the CPS teaching force is also disproportionately White, meaning that a student population that is less than 10 percent White is taught by a teaching force that is more than 50 percent White. This is not an insidious fact in and of itself, but emerging research suggests that when students have the opportunity to be taught by people who reflect their diversity, they have greater academic gains, while also being less likely subject to overly harsh disciplinary actions. The fact is that the same structural impediments impact both Black students and Black teachers in our city and in many cities across the country. In Chicago, a recent investigation by local NPR affiliate, WBEZ, discovered that a CPS hiring practice  used for years discriminated against teachers of color. While the practice was recently suspended, this demonstrates just one of the ways teachers of color have to contend with systemic forces that undermine their ability to thrive.

Why Black Teachers Are Leaving

Since the 1980s, the number of teachers of color has grown at twice the rate of White teachers. However, at the same time teachers of color are more likely to leave the profession within three years compared to their White counterparts. Ultimately, the issue of [pullquote position="right"]teacher diversity is not just a matter of recruitment—but also retention.[/pullquote] Eighty-one percent of teachers have reported dissatisfaction with their administration and the working conditions. Specifically, they noted dissatisfaction with the “...level of collective faculty decision-making influence in the school and the degree of individual instructional autonomy held by teachers in their classrooms.” These findings, echoed by the findings in The Education Trust’s recent report, reveal that the primary reasons some of our best teachers may be leaving schools are well within the control of school and district leadership. This proves that school districts, like mine, have an opportunity to reverse these trends by engaging with school leadership on this issue. Districts must develop school administrators and provide them with the tools to attract and retain talented and passionate teachers of color who, like me, see teaching as a form of social justice and an opportunity to shape our nation’s future.

What School Administrators Can Do

I believe Chicago can be a model, but we must realize that it requires a school administration that is willing to develop and grow its teachers of color. Administrators must provide racially affirming work environments that encourage teachers of color to stay. Difficult as it may be, principals and other school administrators have to ensure teachers of color are meaningfully involved in decision-making and share control in strategic and culturally affirming ways. Our education system has the power to equip administrators with these skills and mindsets, but must choose to do so. Here in my hometown, I believe that CPS has the capacity to hold these conversations and take some crucial steps towards supporting greater equity and diversity in our schools. Concurrently, teachers and members of our school communities nationwide must continue to work alongside districts and state education agencies, holding them accountable for progress toward these important goals. Our students—and our teachers—deserve nothing less.
Photo courtesy of RePublic Schools.

Aaron Talley

Aaron Talley is a writer, activist and educator who currently teaches middle school language arts on the South Side of Chicago. He is also an active member of Educators for Excellence-Chicago. His work lies at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and education. Prior to teaching, he served as membership co-chair of the Black Youth Project 100, a youth-led direct action organization, as well as working with various community partners in urban youth leadership development. His writing has been featured in Colorlines, Mused Magazine Online, the Feminist Wire,, the Advocate, and the Black Youth Project. He is passionate about using the critical lens of identity to inform how we not only support students, but teachers as well. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago where he received both a B.A. in English as well as his M.A in teaching from the university's urban teaching education program. He is originally from Detroit, Michigan.

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