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A Conversation with:
Eric Duncan

This month, we talked with The Education Trust’s Eric Duncan about retention efforts to support educator diversity. He shared his thoughts about creating opportunities for teachers of color to become the classroom, school, and community leaders they aspire to be.

Eric Duncan is director of P-12 Policy – Educator Diversity at The Education Trust. He specializes in policies related to educator quality and increasing the racial diversity of the educator workforce. Learn more. Learn more.

Why is recruitment and retention of teachers of color such a critical issue for schools?
We know from the research that having teachers of color in classrooms is just so important for students, students of color in particular. Their dedication and passion for the work, their alignment with a social justice perspective, and their understanding of the broader structural and systemic changes needed are so important. A real positive is when teachers of color can report feeling they have agency, being empowered to make changes, to improve their communities, to improve the futures of our children and children that look like them… [because that] really shapes society. That is something the field is responding to — that proclivity toward wanting to better their communities.

What are some of the common experiences of teachers of color that impact their job satisfaction and their personal and professional wellbeing?
What we hear from a lot of teachers of color about why they leave is the lack of leadership opportunities, lack of agency and autonomy to do their job effectively, lack of support from leadership in general, and not feeling safe and supported to voice their preferences or needs or advocate on behalf of their students and be heard. They’re looking for supportive cultures. They’re looking for leaders who value them, their intellect, all of the skills and passions they bring to the profession.

Teachers of color are often placed in buildings that serve high populations of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. It’s important to create an ecosystem of support so that the superpowers that a lot of our teachers of color have can be cultivated and utilized to support the students that need it most. Having that ecosystem, knowing that someone believes in them, whether it’s through mentorship, through leadership opportunities, through training, is invaluable. That’s what we hear, that teachers of color would be encouraged to stay if there were more of those supports.

What often happens to teachers of color is they’re pigeonholed into what on the surface might seem like positive, influential roles in the school culture but where they’re sort of tokenized in ways that don’t necessarily contribute to their own personal and professional growth. We’ve seen multiple instances where teachers of color are serving as translators. A lot of black males are put in the role of disciplinarian. In my experience as a teacher, I was seen as the “black male student whisperer.” “Call Mr. Duncan to deal with this child who is a black male who I can’t seem to get to.” Those are not opportunities rooted in a professional and personal growth trajectory for those teachers, and they don’t necessarily tap into the instructional leadership and other capacity that teachers of color bring.

Rather, teachers of color want to know leadership is investing in their future through growth opportunities to become an instructional coach, a principal or assistant principal, a superintendent. When you’re pigeonholed into serving as the grade-level translator or dean of discipline or coach or whatever it is because of your cultural background, you’re not provided the quality experiences you need to climb the leadership ladder.

How could mentoring or coaching be designed to better serve the needs of teachers of color?
We talk about high retention pathways in this work. Even early in the trajectory of a teacher’s career, in prep programs or places where they’re training to be leaders and teachers, having a mentor can help them navigate systems and structures that were not designed for their success. How do I navigate these challenges? How do I navigate the financial supports that I need? And then later: How do I navigate the fact that a principal may have created a set of conditions where I don’t feel welcome, or I’m the only person of color in my building?

Having folks who have been through similar experiences is really helpful. If they share the same cultural and ethnic background that’s great, but just somebody who can empathize with the challenges, be available for them, help them to navigate all of the barriers not only to entering but also staying in the profession. Then, having those mentors continue to help connect them to bigger opportunities in their career for leadership. Having that network of support is really important to sustaining them in a profession that can be really intellectually and emotionally taxing.

In those first few years in the profession, it’s critical to ensure that new teachers, all new teachers really but particularly new teachers of color, feel that teaching is a profession they can grow in, where they can make change and be successful. That’s where mentorship support is really, really important. But it’s not just emotional support for navigating barriers, or getting the resources they need, or protection from the racism or classism, or any of the other issues that teachers of color experience. It’s also that connection to professional development — opportunities for growth and access to high-quality and targeted professional learning in areas where teachers can see their growth and improvement. Where they can start to believe they can be a successful classroom teacher in the long term and their impact can be substantial. That they can not only be good teachers in their classrooms but leaders in their schools and communities through the profession.

What research, national policy trends, and innovations are you following in this area?
In terms of the retention piece, we will continue to work with partners like Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus (see Voices from the Classroom and If You Listen, We Will Stay) and our networks. A lot of the focus in that work is on retention practices, talking to educators of color on the ground at varying stages of their careers and capturing their perspectives and insights and the trends. And in all our educator diversity work, we are looking at the pipeline and retention. When we look at grow your own programs, residency models, apprenticeship models, for example, we’re looking at how some programmatic aspects of these models can ultimately lead to higher rates of retention.

We are coming out with a study in the next year or so that looks at the ESSER investments in high-dosage tutoring and other staff-building endeavors to support unfinished learning. What we want to see is schools and systems encouraging prospective teachers of color who they hired as tutors or support staff to ultimately matriculate through the profession. What are the opportunities they’re providing to break down some of the barriers to entry? Then in terms of support, we are looking at what the mentorship connections they offer for these prospective teachers of color.

We are looking at states that are going the registered apprenticeship route to access different funding streams to help support teacher training. Apprenticeship programs have been around for a number of years in other professions, but it’s a relatively new mechanism in the teaching profession. Residency and grow your own programs are now applying to become registered apprenticeships, which unlocks federal government and workforce development funds to supplement tuition, training, and clinical experiences.

We’re also following efforts to address some of the income or wealth inequalities that many prospective teachers of color face, whether that’s scholarships or loan forgiveness in prep programs or other types of financial supports. Connecticut is offering mortgage assistance incentives for prospective teachers and prospective teachers of color, for example, so we want to see what that does in terms of helping to retain teachers. What happens when you create a space where teachers of color feel like they’re part of a community and that they can use the profession to accumulate wealth, through either addressing their debt-to-income ratio or helping them to acquire property and wealth?

We are tracking ESSER investments and the ways that states have tried to reform some of their policies to ensure that the impact of layoffs aren’t cutting against teachers of color when the funding cliff hits in the next year or so. Many states, particularly in the Northeast, have been hiring much larger numbers of teachers of color. What policy changes need to be made, particularly with last-in-first-out policies, to protect teachers of color who were recently hired when those federal resources dry up?

Illinois has invested significantly in retention models around affinity groups, which we know from the research are really important for teachers of color in terms of feeling safe and supported and creating affirming climates that include their voices.

Tennessee supports teachers of color to come together through the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance to make sure there are safe spaces for teachers of color to not only connect and share some of the things that they’re dealing with but provide a lane for advocacy and organizing. Teachers in this group are supported by the state and trained to be advocates, to go into the state legislature and school board meetings and advocate for changes to laws and restrictions that are creating climates of fear and cultural repression.

And Maryland has invested in credentialing options for teachers of color, getting them access to national board certification to provide opportunities for leadership and elevate them in the career ladder.

At the school and system level, how can leaders better support teachers of color and keep them in the classroom?
Connect them to opportunities. Tap a teacher of color on the shoulder and say: What are you working on? What do you want for your career? How can I support you and show you that we value you as an individual and all the great things you bring?

Connecting individually and listening to teachers of color so they know their leaders care about and value them. And not in a token way as the person who’s supposed to only work with students of color. Provide a space to connect with them and share their perspective and build that trust.

In the end, it’s really about culturally sustaining and supportive climates. A lot of folks are able to take for granted that they’ll go into spaces and be affirmed, heard, listened to, valued in some way. When you have folks who have traditionally been marginalized in school systems and academic settings — in those exact spaces that they’re coming back to teach in — they are really sensitive and attuned to that because they always have to have their guard up.

So when you have a leader setting the tone and culture of a building; who values your intellect, your social justice orientation, and listens to you; that creates an environment of support and trust, and I think that’s probably a little bit more important for those folks who might not necessarily trust education systems and structures. They might value it more because they can’t just take it for granted. A trusting and open environment, a culture where people are taken care of and where teachers’ and students’ emotional wellbeing is valued, it takes a weight off. When that stress is removed, teachers of color want to stay, to better their community, for the future of their communities.