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North Carolina’s teacher and student demographics | Recruiting and retaining teachers of color

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In 2016, Consider It Mapped covered teacher and student demographics, focusing primarily on gender. This year, we are reexamining the data with a focus on race. To add context to the numbers above from the viewpoints of a teacher and school administrator, we asked Dr. Terrance Ruth, North Carolina educator and frequent EdNC contributor, to share his thoughts about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining Black and Brown educators. Dr. Ruth’s words follow.

In North Carolina, there has been a major re-focus on the role of race in education in the past few years.

In 2018, The Public School Forum hosted their inaugural Color of Education Summit focused on “race, equity, and education in North Carolina.” In December 2019, I witnessed Governor Cooper launch a task force to Develop a Representative and Inclusive Vision for Education (DRIVE). In January 2020, Judge W. David Lee signed an order related to the 1997 Leandro v. the State of North Carolina case. Leandro calls for all students to “have access to a sound basic education,” a ruling that often intersects with issues of race. The same period saw the launches of the Center for Racial Equity in Education and TEACH NC, and the expansion of Profound Gentlemen.

A common thread between all of the above-mentioned convenings, programs, and initiatives is the emphasis on the pursuit of Black and Brown educator talent. My experience has taught me that representation among school leaders and teachers is important for the students that they teach, but the maps above show that Black teachers are underrepresented in our schools when compared to Black student populations. Why is this the case?

Many ask this question and the answers vary. Some argue that we must examine the public schools’ historical policies around segregation, integration, hiring, and promotion to understand why educators of color have turned away from the profession. For instance, those who were students or teachers during integration clearly remember the plight of Black teachers: Irving Joyner, law professor at NC Central University, remembers seeing seasoned Black teachers demoted to positions for which they were overqualified as schools integrated. In some instances, Black teachers were dismissed outright. Others like Dr. Dudley Flood, long time educator, talk about how the historical focus on Black students centered the students’ experiences over teachers’, leading to an under-emphasis on the experiences of Black educators.

How the absence of Black educators impacts Black students

Despite history, recent thought has centered the Black educator. Education leaders are asking questions about the lack of Black teachers, and Black male teachers in particular. The under-representation of educators of color is often linked with unfortunate outcomes for students of color in public schools. 

Take Black male students, for instance: they are less likely to be recommended for rigorous courses, less likely to graduate, and are more likely to be suspended, in comparison with their peers.

I have always looked at the struggles of Black male students in relation to the gradual disappearance of Black teachers in the classroom. How do we recruit from the same demographic that we suspend and demote? How do we encourage these students to strive for careers in education when we restrict their access to rigorous courses, discouraging them academically? If Black teachers are absent in the classroom, how do we demonstrate the value of Black teachers to young students? Each question is connected to possible reasons for the absence of Black teachers in public schools today.  

The promotion and retention of Black educators

I have spent my career in different alternative settings. Alternative schools are in place to implement discipline- or disability-focused interventions. I have taught in and managed alternative schools that are focused on disciplinary concerns, and have found that these schools are disproportionately populated with Black, Brown, and low-income students.

In these schools, I have been privileged to work with majority Black staff, both in leadership and in classrooms. For me, it was not a surprise to see alternative schools saturated with Black and Brown staff members and students. As an alternative Black teacher and principal, my job was to build relationships with students who were long-term suspended and to help them develop their emotional intelligence. A lot of my energy was focused on preventing future outbursts, but not on developing my students intellectually.

My experiences highlight two potential reasons Black educators may exit the field:

  1. Through my various roles, I’ve encountered educators who felt that their only path to promotion was through positions in alternative or low-performing schools. Any combination of the difficult work of teaching, challenging student circumstances, lack of resources and support, and low pay may discourage educators from continuing their careers in the field. We need to be sure we get to know educators as individuals and do our best to promote Black educators in ways that align with their personal goals and talents, and not just outward assumptions of where they might be the best fit. We also must support educators taking on difficult roles.
  2. Over time, Black teachers get tired of being the “muscle” in traditional public settings that invest in the removal of Black and Brown students. Incidents with students and their own children force Black teachers to revisit their own difficult time in schools. For some, the perpetual work of addressing the symptoms and not the root problems of disciplinary issues pushes them to leave teaching.

How do we encourage Black students to pursue teaching, or encourage Black educators to persist?

The examples above strike at several potential causes of low recruitment and retention among Black educators. If we are to change the jarring ratios of Black teachers to Black students and promote representation, then we need to:

  1. Put teachers on a pedestal: Traditionally, Black teachers were revered in their communities. We need to show that that is still the case, through policies, how we invest in our schools, and how we talk to our children about education, starting at an early age.
  2. Support Black teachers and students: Schools must demonstrate that they value Black teachers and students by becoming familiar with their aspirations, offering supports, and by ensuring that their feedback is reflected in school policies and program implementation.
  3. Recruit Black intellect aggressively: Just like colleges recruit Black athletic talent, we need to seek Black intellectual talent from across the country.
  4. Collaborate with Black communities: School and district leadership should strive to bridge cultural gaps between the school and the Black community. One way to do this is to designate resources for collaboration and strategize with Black community leaders.

I am fortunate that I get to work with students regularly. Lately, I’ve been seeing a new wave of students that actively seek representation and equality — the students who may one day become teachers are not satisfied with the current disparities. If we recruit early and aggressively, we can create school environments that resist practices that lean favorably toward students from certain demographic groups.

I am a Black teacher, I am a Black principal, and I love education. It would be powerful to show that education (as an institution) loves Black teachers and students so much that the current talent pipeline imbalances become a thing of the past.  

About the authors