I heard once, "You can't be what you can't see," and then I wondered how many factors must have conspired to lead me to a career in education when I didn't have my first Black teacher until I was in college. Research on teacher diversity focuses on areas like recruitment and certification. While both are important parts of the pipeline, there's one that doesn't get a lot of attention: the environment in which candidates of color learn to become teachers.
It's true recruitment should remain a critical policy area of focus for teacher diversity as it marks the open door by which more candidates of color will enter the profession. But what happens once they've walked through that door? A 2019 NCTQ report found that only 38% of Black teacher candidates and 57% of Hispanic teacher candidates pass the most widely used licensing tests even after multiple attempts, demonstrating why certification too remains a top priority. Yet there is something missing in how teachers of color are being prepared that impacts their ability to become licensed teachers. My hypothesis is that one influential factor is the experience of going through a program that does not acknowledge, support, or respond to a key component of teacher identity: race.
An increasing amount of attention has been paid to race in education when it comes to creating equitable, inclusive classrooms for students of color. However, little attention has been paid to the role of race in creating those same types of learning environments for teaching candidates of color. In a prep program, you essentially become a student again, one impacted by the cultural competency of your instructor, the perspectives presented in your coursework, and the ways in which the "classroom" affirms or denies your racial identity.
In an interview, Sharif El-Mekki, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Black Educator Development explains that there are three reasons teachers of color often leave their schools, "relationships with their supervisors, how they're treated by so-called colleagues, or the working conditions." What might the reasons be for teacher candidates of color who don't successfully complete their prep programs? Relationships with their professors, coaches, and peers impact their experience. The workload, access to support, and level of psychological safety impacts the learning conditions. It's important to audit, assess, and reflect on how the culture of teacher preparation programs may be adversely impacting candidates of color.
To build a space in which the identities of candidates of color can be affirmed, teacher prep programs need to ask themselves how race impacts their staffing, syllabi, and program structure. Does the makeup of the staff adequately and accurately represent the diversity of the candidate population? What perspectives are represented in the texts, topics, and underlying research included in coursework? What perspectives are missing? How might the structure of the program favor the cultural practices of one race over another? These questions are not easy to answer, but they are worth asking to begin acknowledging that race plays a role in how teachers experience their preparation.
Cultivate Affirming Spaces for Teachers of Color
To cultivate the type of learning environment that would support and sustain candidates of color there are three areas to consider: community, curriculum, and communication.
- Community: It is important for teachers of color to have a safe, reliable community in which they can find peer and mentor support related to a variety of topics from academics to navigating school politics.
- Curriculum: Both the content and structure of coursework should ensure teachers of color have the specific knowledge needed to build subject matter expertise and ability to apply that knowledge in instruction. Additionally, the curriculum should include representation of diverse perspectives and approaches that include the contributions of people of color in the field.
- Communication: Everything sends a message, from the marketing brochures used in recruitment that may feature all white faces to the classroom examples that describe Black boys acting up in a course on behavior management. Consider what messages are being sent by written, verbal, and behavioral communication to teachers of color about their race and ensure those messages are asset-based and inclusive.
At the end of the day, a candidate of color should leave their preparation program feeling like they have the knowledge, skill, and efficacy to be a great teacher. Erica Buchanan Rivera asserts that "identity validation and inclusive environments are the catalysts for students' success." The same is true for teacher candidates. To support their success, the teacher prep environment needs to be one that acknowledges and affirms their racial identity. Now is the time to take the opportunity to assess and reflect on the ways in which teacher prep does just that. If we can openly assess and reflect on how the teacher prep environment is meeting or failing to meet the needs of candidates of color, we can shift policy and practice to do better.
My hope is that one day, teacher candidates of color will leave their programs successfully licensed and prepared to serve students in their own classrooms. My hope is that they will leave their programs having experienced an environment that authentically created a culture in which the following are true:
My race is an asset not a barrier to becoming an effective teacher.
My racial experiences are seen, heard, and valid.
My instructors are trained in culturally responsive pedagogy and cultural sensitivity.
My program ensures I have the content knowledge and testing acumen to successfully take and pass my licensing exams.
My hope is that teacher prep programs take this invitation and begin the journey to better serve candidates of color.
Adrienne Williams is an NCTQ Senior Visiting Fellow. Adrienne is the Director of ELA Content Design at Teaching Lab. Prior to this role, Adrienne served as a manager of lab development at Teaching Lab and spent eight years at Center City Public Charter Schools where she taught first and third grade, designed and led district professional learning, and was a coach for curriculum and instruction.