How our school retained educators of color

This post is the second in a two-part series on recruiting and retaining educators of color. Find the first post on recruitment here.

As school leaders, we know how much it matters for students to learn from educators of color. Data consistently affirms that outcomes for all students improve when they have more diverse educators. And I’ve seen firsthand the ways student and family experiences improve when they can see themselves in their teachers. 

That’s why the leadership team at my middle school knew that we needed to make it a top priority to hire more educators of color. In my previous post, I described how we made hiring a year-round effort – with transformative results. At the end of a three-year period, we were among the schools in our district with the highest percentage of educators of color.

But hiring efforts are only part of the picture. If we want teachers of color to stick around in our school communities, we need to invest heavily in retention efforts.

Below, I’ll share 3 practices that enabled us to build a school community where teachers of color want to stay.

1. Build a leadership pipeline: When filling compensated leadership roles, prioritize educators of color.

When I became an AP, one thing that struck me as I surveyed my school’s allocation of responsibilities was that female teachers of color were doing a disproportionate amount of valuable, uncompensated labor for the school. In large schools like ours, there are a lot of small roles for which teachers can earn stipends. And while I saw women of color stepping up to support fellow educators and fulfill unofficial leadership responsibilities, they were not often in roles with stipends – such as designated seventh-grade ELA team lead or designated athletic liaison. 

Our leadership team instituted a new goal: Any time we were assigning a role with stipends, we prioritized recruiting and supporting educators of color. It didn’t take long to significantly shift the demographics of our “official” teacher leaders. We soon had a staff of teacher leaders who were actually compensated for their extra labor and who could work toward cultivating long-term leadership aspirations. Two of the women of color who were hired into those positions are currently doing administrative internships at the school, on track to become principals themselves one day.

This step not only communicates to the teacher leaders that they are valued, but it also creates a more supportive environment for new teachers of color, who can look around and feel their identities reflected in their school’s leadership. 

2. Take the long view: Recruit community members into the profession.

When discussing teacher recruitment, I described the value in recruiting non-teaching community members, such as paraprofessionals and instructional assistants, into the teaching profession. We can encourage their pathway and connect them with alternative certification routes. This work also plays a role in retention: When we hire from within our students’ communities, our teachers are more invested in sticking around.

By way of example, one hire that stands out for me is that of a Somali educator who had served as our bilingual instructional assistant for about a decade. He went back to school, earned his Master’s degree and then was hired on to teach our special education math class. This educator knew the families. He knew students’ brothers and sisters. He knew their aunts and uncles. He was a part of their community. He could explain the IEP process to our large population of Somali families in a way that we hadn’t been able to before, without an interpreter as an intermediary. There were families whose students had needed special education services for years but who felt alienated by the IEP process. The introduction of this new special education teacher was transformative in connecting more families with services. 

The special ed math role has historically turned over every year or two, but this former IA has already served four years in the role. You can’t even measure the power of the consistency that provides for families and students.

3. Foster support and connection: Develop a mentorship program.

Mentorship is so valuable within the ecosystem of a school, and mentorship relationships often form and function unofficially. New teachers not only need support in honing their practice, but they also benefit from support in learning the culture of the school, learning the quirks of the copy machine, how to navigate tricky relationships and how to overcome roadblocks that can add to the overwhelm of a new educator. 

As a teacher, I had piloted a mentorship program for ongoing onboarding of newer teachers, so when I took on an AP role, I was eager to solidify the program. 

Our program identified those experienced teachers who often stepped into unofficial mentorship roles and made them official. Each new teacher was assigned a mentor that was aligned to their needs to the best of our ability – usually a teacher in the same discipline or with a similar focus area. We held paid after-school meetings to address routines and procedures that might not be obvious to new teachers, and we shared a mentor calendar with paid time for their work.

We also introduced an “inventory of appreciation,” asking all new teachers to answer questions like: What makes you feel appreciated? What are the things we can do and say? We shared the responses with mentors, and I kept reminders in my calendar at intervals when I knew things got hard for teachers. I would send out an email to mentors with a prompt like: “It’s now early November. We’ve made it through October, and the back-to-school adrenaline is gone. This is a great time to look back over your teacher partner’s inventory of appreciation and check in with them.”

One bright spot in my memory of this program was a mentorship match between a new Black female teacher and an older white male educator in the same discipline – not the most obvious match on paper. She had a really hard first year. She started the year COVID hit, and her mentor was a critical support, talking through lesson plans with her every morning. He was also the team level lead for his grade level. When deciding to step down from his leadership position, he came to me and recommended his mentee for the role. He said, “I think she’s ready.” To see leadership pass from a veteran white man to a newer Black woman is one illustration of the role these mentorships can play in shifting power in a school. 

Accept imperfection, and keep growing.

I consider each of these endeavors a success, and I’m proud of the progress my school made over a three-year period. Even so, I would say to anyone considering embarking on this journey: It was so imperfect. 

This work is always about iterating, learning, getting better. There were times when I messed up and times when mentors messed up, and we learned from those mistakes. Even while making meaningful progress, we didn’t “solve” the crisis of hiring and recruiting diverse staff, but at least we pushed forward. We saw growth – and that’s something to be proud of. It’s slow work. It’s messy work. And every step is worth it.