Q&A With Sharif El-Mekki and Shareefah Mason: You Won't Retain Black Teachers Without Transforming Your School Culture

Oct 21, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Shareefah Mason of Teach Plus and Sharif El-Mekki of the Center for Black Educator Development (CBED) believe that schools can only recruit and retain Black teachers—essential role models for students of all colors—if educational leaders create identity-affirming school cultures. Yet few school districts accomplish this task.

As a follow-up to a report from Teach Plus and Education Trust called, “If You Listen, We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover” this new collaboration between Mason’s and El-Mekki’s groups is called, “To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures.” It looks at what responsive school conditions look like and what school leaders can do to create those conditions, especially for Black teachers. 

Conclusions from the report are based on focus groups with 105 Black teachers across the country, who told analysts what mattered:

  • Supporting a diverse school faculty
  • Choosing leaders who foster an inclusive school culture
  • Creating culturally-responsive curricula and environments
  • Using equity-focused professional development for teachers
  • Authentically implementing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts

The report includes concrete recommendations for teachers, school leaders and state policymakers.

Mason and El-Mekki spoke to me about the new report. Here is a lightly edited transcription of our discussion.


Everyone talks about the importance of diversifying the teacher pipeline, but we don’t seem to be making much progress. What needs to happen?

Mason: You’re right—we’re not making much progress at all. By 2030, the majority of working-class America will be people of color. America is becoming less white, yet Black teachers make up only 7% of K-12 educators. And our turnover rate is much higher, even as more and more studies validate the importance of students seeing teachers who look like them, both for their academic outcomes as well as their futures after they graduate from high school. It matters for white students too—their performance increases when they have teachers who are more diverse. 

So what are Teach Plus, Education Trust, and CBED doing about this?

El-Mekki: We are going into districts and schools to work with them on creating the sort of culture that Black teachers, Asian teachers, Native American teachers, Hispanic teachers say they need. It starts with having unapologetic dialogues and with the leadership being honest with themselves, with their constituents, both inside and outside of school. It starts with goal-setting, putting resources behind those goals, and asking the question—over and over again—if those goals remain aligned with culturally affirming ecosystems.

So we go in and provide professional development and resources and accountability so that school leaders and teachers are empowered to be bold, courageous and honest. Otherwise, it’s just a roller-coaster.

Mason: Yes, exactly. Representation matters! We all know that children need to have teachers in the school who look like them. If a Black child has even one Black teacher K-12 they’re 13% more likely to enroll in college. If a Black student has two Black teachers they’re 32% more likely, for a crucial break in the school-to-prison pipeline. But if schools are going to be successful recruiting and retaining Black teachers, they must embrace extensive transformations so their environment helps Black teachers thrive, honors their vernacular, gives them everything they need — including affinity groups where they can discuss the unique challenges they face, encourage one another, and build skills together. [pullquote]It’s just not enough to have pretty words on pretty websites about equity and inclusion.[/pullquote] 

The whole point is to go in and ask the hard questions about what is working and what isn’t working. We have the ideas, the resources, the recommendations, but we need to get these foundational concepts embedded throughout the system to take away the fear from school leaders and school teachers and work with them to create a welcoming culture.

What are they afraid of?

El-Mekki: For some, they’re afraid of reprisals from the rest of the community. What does it mean to stand up and say, “this policy is racist”? What if the human resources department isn’t responsive to reports about racism? What do Black educators do in these cases where they’re abandoned? If I’m a Black teacher who is experiencing macroaggressions from colleagues, what do I do if this is triggering not only my own experiences but those of my students too? What if the recruitment team isn’t culturally responsive and puts all the weight of retention on one teacher? What if the Black teacher has to shrink in white supremacist spaces? There are plenty of reasons to be afraid.

It sounds like this kind of transformation to a culturally affirming environment isn’t something that happens overnight.

Mason: Oh no, it’s a year-long or two-year process. It’s all about mindset, how people look at people of color and recognize their own biases. There is a current cultural incompetence that comes with a tendency to undermine relationships and this affects teacher quality and skill levels. Remember, this is all about student outcomes. 

El-Mekki: Look, this goes back over a hundred years ago to Caroline LeCount, who was a teacher and principal in Philadelphia when schools were forced to desegregate with Brown v. Board of Education and this country lost 80,000 Black teachers. She told Philly district leaders, “colored children should be taught by their own.” That was true then and it’s true now, yet our efforts lack intentionality. There are all these folks talking the good talk about recruitment, but not serious about retention. They recognize the importance of the data but—let’s be honest—[pullquote]if Black teachers walk through the front door, why wouldn’t they leave through the back door as quickly as possible?[/pullquote] This will continue to happen when we have the invisible tax of a hostile and racially insensitive work environment.

So with this marriage of Teach Plus and CBED, how can you help schools and districts and campuses create these culturally affirming environments and eliminate those hostile environments?

Mason: We know through all the focus groups and the research—and just talking to Black teachers—that until schools are ready to hear, respect, value and embrace Black colleagues all efforts will fall short. We all need to engage in difficult conversations about race. If these conversations only happen during Black History Month, then you’re not trying hard enough and your efforts are superficial. 

We are here to provide resources so that school leaders know their audience and Black teachers know that they deserve authentic affirming spaces in their classrooms. We have the tools to make this happen to foster a true pipeline so students—and, really, in the end, this is about the students—are able to thrive in an environment that celebrates their authentic selves.

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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