Magazine Feature

You Belong Here

Creating a welcoming environment for teachers of color is key to narrowing the student-teacher diversity gap.
Bookmarked 2 times
Illustration by Sophie Casson

How did Tawana Graham-Douglas end up in a second-grade classroom? “By accident,” she laughs. Earning her master’s degree and teacher certification was meant to be a moneymaking step on the way to law school at Harvard or Georgetown.

Then she walked into her first job at Frank T. Wheeler Elementary in Plainville, Conn. “There was something about the environment—the sounds of the kids, the general feeling, even the smell. And the principal and staff made me feel so welcome. I was floating on air. After that, there was no looking back.”

Graham-Douglas was the only African-American educator in her new school, but her principal was committed to cultivating more diversity in his staff to help students engage the greater diversity of the wide world. “He was very, very supportive and bridged the way,” Graham-Douglas recalls. “He knew exactly what a new teacher would need to succeed.” That included regular contact and communication, teaming her with nurturing mentors, and soliciting her input on curriculum and other school matters.

Last year, Graham-Douglas—now a 13-year classroom veteran—was named Plainville Community Schools’ Teacher of the Year. The legal system’s loss was education’s gain.

Many leaders in education have been making concerted efforts to increase the diversity of K-12 faculties. By some measures there have been improvements, especially in areas of recruitment. More than 35 states now have programs to boost the ranks of teachers of color, and the rate at which new teachers of color are joining the profession has outpaced that of new white teachers.

Recruitment figures, though, tell only part of the story. For every Graham-Douglas, there is another teacher—or teachers—of color leaving the profession, according to a 2011 study, Recruitment, Retention and the Minority Teacher Shortage. This report was co-authored by Richard M. Ingersoll and Henry May, education professors at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There’s been a victory for recruitment but not a victory for retention,” Ingersoll told the Pacific Standard in 2010. “If we want to solve this minority teaching shortage that’s been long discussed, then there’s going to have to be more focus on retention. We’re hiring more minority teachers but also losing more of them. It’s like a leaky bucket.”

At some point over the next 10 to 12 years, the nation's public school student body will have no one clear racial or ethnic majority. 

—Center for American Progress



Decision-makers at local, state and national levels are increasingly looking at current students of color as future teacher recruits, and many districts are following their lead.

Take, for instance, Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, where district administrators collaborate with high school guidance counselors to identify potential teaching candidates. They then maintain contact with these students as they pursue college degrees. “If we see any jewels, we can be proactive in inviting them to do their student teaching in an Albemarle school,” says Mitsuko Clemmons-Nazeer, the district’s human resource manager.

Woodridge School District in Illinois builds relationships with nearby universities by communicating with former district teachers who now teach at local universities. They also have connected with universities formerly attended by district educators.

Patrick Broncato, assistant superintendent for personnel at Woodridge, says the value of recruiting teachers of color reaches beyond the classroom walls. “If we have diversity in our workforce,” he says, “we show our community that we value all races and the values they bring to our school district.”

On a national level, such recruiting efforts have seen some success. Between 1988 and 2008, the number of teachers of color nearly doubled from 327,000 to 642,000, according to the Penn study—a growth rate twice that of white teachers. Still, the ratio of teachers and students of color has remained largely unchanged on a national scale; the same is true of the ratio of teachers of color to white teachers.

Why? In part, due to the rapidly rising percentage of students of color in the country’s schools. But studies also indicate teachers of color are leaving the profession faster than they are joining—and not for reasons one might expect.



At the beginning of the 2003–2004 school year, 47,600 teachers of color entered the profession, according to the Penn study. A year later, 56,000 left—30,000 of those to other careers.

For teachers of color, the usual suspects were not the main causes for the turnover, according to Ingersoll and May: “Salary levels, the provision of useful professional development, and the availability of classroom resources all had little impact on whether they were likely to leave,” their study reported. “The strongest factors by far for minority teachers were the level of collective faculty decision-making influence in the school and the degree of individual instructional autonomy held by teachers in their classrooms.”

Tips for School Leaders:

Creating a Climate That Sustains Teachers of Color

Relationship building and communication are keys to welcoming and retaining teachers of diverse backgrounds. 

  • Conduct a detailed survey of students, staff and teachers to get a better sense of how they perceive your school climate.
  • Promote cultural competency as a value among all teachers through in-service programs and professional development opportunities.
  • Invite teacher input on school operations through formal and informal avenues. 
  • Team new teachers of color with positive, nurturing mentors to reduce isolation and help them navigate their new setting. Seek ways to formalize this relationship and make time for it during school hours.
  • Encourage teachers to think outside the curriculum if they make sound arguments that a different approach will help students learn. 
  • Be open to new ideas and content while upholding sound pedagogical practices.

In other words, these teachers felt frustrated that school leaders did not value their individual insights, experiences and talents. Attempts to bring in texts or other content they felt would resonate with students of color—but were from outside the approved curriculum—were rejected. Teacher input about cross-cultural understanding and school climate may have been viewed as rocking the boat. In short, the color of these teachers was welcome, but many found their cultural backgrounds and experiences were not.

“Teachers are told, ‘You’ve got to teach to state-mandated standards and in accord with the pacing guides,’” Rodney Ogawa, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told the Pacific Standard. Ogawa and another researcher conducted a five-year study of 18 new teachers of color, published in their book Change(d) Agents: New Teachers of Color in Urban Schools. “It eliminates a lot of opportunities. The teachers, like the kids, have to check their culture at the door.”

The solution? School leaders—administrators and top teachers—must examine their own assumptions and biases, take steps to expand their own cultural understandings, proactively solicit the input of teachers of color (all teachers, for that matter), and value their colleagues’ abilities and insights.

Graham-Douglas found this willingness and energy waiting for her when she walked through the door of her first school, and it changed the course of her career. It is possible to narrow and eventually bridge the student-teacher diversity gap. If schools value and validate teachers of color and trust the perspectives they bring, students will finally have the opportunity to learn in an environment that reflects the growing diversity of our society.

Students and a teacher, with a blue tint overlay and the Teaching Tolerance Toolkit watermark

Get state-by-state stats on the teacher diversity gap.

View Toolkit
A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More