Sharif El-Mekki is a former principal and the founder of the Center for Black Educator Development in Philadelphia, PA. This is part of our series on reimagining education.
I was a principal at Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker in Philadelphia for many years. We took to heart the concept of windows and mirrors, decorating our walls with images and quotes from Dr. King, Rosa Parks and Barack Obama. But we highlighted people from the community, too – Black people whose names students may not have known but whose work and scholarship our kids benefited from.
This is vital. Part of helping kids believe they can be successful is showing them that they can be successful, and there’s no more impactful way to show them than by who’s in front of the class. Because one of the answers to creating more equitable outcomes isn’t elusive. It’s not a mystery. One study found that Black students who had a Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to go to college. Two Black teachers? Kids were 32% more likely to go to college. And there’s research that shows that diverse teachers lead to better outcomes for all students, not just students of color.
We need to make teaching more diverse. In my city, 49% of our students are Black, but only 24% of our teachers. Worse still, only 5% of Philadelphia teachers are Black men. We have to change this, in my community and yours. That need is what has led me to where I am today: in my first year working full time to grow the Center for Black Educator Development.
Look, there’s no one answer to improving education. Simple solutions don’t solve complex problems. But it would make a transformative impact for our students to have more teachers of color, and it’s on us to realize this better future.
To realize this future, we need to focus on changing mindsets and changing the way we hire and support teachers. We can’t rest on the assumption that because the adults in our schools love our students, our communities aren’t touched by racial bias. If we can agree that American society is composed of a lot of institutions built on racial bias, then we should be able to let go of the naive notion that schools are different. Schools reflect the society that produced them.
We need to diversify, yes, but it won’t happen overnight. We need to be more comprehensive.
I always say the best recruitment strategy is a strong retention strategy. Instead of focusing exclusively on trying to hire great educators of color, I want to reimagine what “recruitment” means – and shift our focus to prerequisites for retaining diverse teachers.
Whatever your staff looks like, you can start now. Here’s how:
- Build trust with teachers of color by asking, “What is your experience like, as a person of color in this school?” This might feel like a scary question. It feels safer to just assume that teachers of color trust their leadership and love their schools. It takes work to build trust, and it’s hard to examine shortcomings.
- Build an environment of collective accountability. The best leaders ask their team members to call them out – and they mean it. Seek to build a culture in which feedback is welcomed and flows in all directions.
- Instead of sending out anonymous surveys, seek feedback directly from people whose voices might be marginalized. When you are a member of an underrepresented group, democracy can do you dirty sometimes. We have schools in which only one or two educators are Black or brown. If you rely on anonymous surveys for feedback, and that one Black teacher disagrees with the experiences of their white colleagues, their voice gets drowned out. The principal can stand up afterward and say, “99% of the staff agrees!” The Black teacher might be left sitting there thinking: My white colleagues may all agree, but this situation is racist. Instead of solely relying on those surveys, go seek out the voices of those who are underrepresented in your school. Have conversations. Invite input. Listen.
- Include your staff members of color in recruitment. If you want to recruit more educators of color, but your recruitment team is all white, then how serious are your efforts? Think about leadership by the people: Are there teachers of color who you can free up for a class period so they can focus on recruitment? Keep in mind that, even unofficially, the best recruiters for people of color are going to be the people of color already in your school.
- Make opportunities for teachers of color to build or find affinity spaces. For me, as a Black educator and as a Black school leader, connecting with fellow educators and leaders of color has often been a lifeline. As you plan meetings and PD schedules, ask yourself if there are opportunities to support affinity spaces for your team members – even if that means giving them time and support to connect with educators in other school communities.
- Acknowledge that you are still growing. Educators of color are not looking for some perfect principal. We don’t expect to find some magical school where racial bias never shows up. What we’re looking for are environments in which people are trying. We want to work with leaders who can say, “Yes, we know there are things that we’re doing wrong. We know that we may be complicit in this structural racism. We acknowledge that we have a lot of work to do and we’re committed to doing it.” That’s the type of attitude that makes someone want to give a school a shot.
I know school leaders want to throw open the doors to teachers of color, and say, “Come, come, come!” – and we should do that. But our immediate concern should be making our communities welcoming and supportive to teachers of color.
These are not one-time efforts. We need to stay vigilant, and we need to identify and address the root causes of bias in ourselves and in our school communities. But this is work worth doing – for educators and for students.