Philly meeting builds strategies to recruit and retain more teachers of color

By Dale Mezzacappa, Chalkbeat Philadelphia

Toni Washington, 24, who is about to start her career as a physical education teacher, describes herself as a decidedly unemotional person. That’s why she surprised herself when she choked up describing an encounter with a student at Colonial Middle School near Philadelphia during her time there as a long-term substitute.

The expression on the child’s face – as the sixth grader realized that she had a teacher who looked like her – is still seared in Washington’s mind and can, as the fledgling educator discovered, still provoke tears. It was a look of “pure awe.”

The incident confirmed for Washington that her career choice was the right one. 

“It was a light bulb moment,” she said. “I realized how much it meant to her to have a Black teacher.”

Washington was among more than 130 people at a CBED and Education Trust sponsored event last week in Philadelphia called “Building A Movement: Creating & Sustaining Diverse Teacher Workforces.” Teams from seven states, including Pennsylvania, were at the conference to brainstorm strategies for luring more people of color into the teaching profession.

The teaching ranks are still overwhelmingly dominated by white educators, even though the nation’s public school population has recently become majority non-white. 

The trend has persisted despite evidence that all students benefit from a diverse workforce. One 2018 study showed that Black students who have one Black teacher between kindergarten and grade three are 13% more likely to graduate high school and 19% more likely to enroll in college than Black students from the same school who did not have a Black teacher. Other research shows that white students who have had Black teachers also benefit, not necessarily academically but in terms of future attitudes and life choices, such as where to live. 

The conference “centered voices and experiences of diverse teachers and recognized the fact that a quality educator workforce is a diverse educator workforce,” said Sharif El-Mekki. He emphasized the need for policymakers to “keenly listen to the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and Brown practitioners.” 

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