The push to diversify predominantly white independent schools (PWIs) can be seen in carefully placed photos and percentages on school websites and admission flyers, yet this push may ignore the challenge for PWIs to maintain “diversity” and promote inclusivity, and thereby, retention––of students and faculty.
I’ve been particularly interested in understanding what factors promote retention for educators of color, so I chose to explore this as part of my doctoral work at UCLA. To begin my exploration, in March 2019 I conducted a focus group with seven Black faculty and staff members at the independent school where we all worked to better understand their experiences and how these experiences might correlate to retention, if at all. The themes that arose—concerns about acceptance, experiences of microaggressions, burdens of code-switching, and varying levels of administrator support—laid the groundwork for my dissertation, a broader study exploring the experiences of belonging and support for teachers of color in Los Angeles-area PWIs.
To shed a light on these issues and possible solutions, my 2020–2021 study explored the comparative experiences of white teachers and teachers of color in Los Angeles-area independent schools through a survey of 133 teachers (78 identified as white, 55 as persons of color) and 21 follow-up interviews with teachers of color intended to illuminate and center their experiences. The study yielded several notable findings: Teachers of color face additional barriers to belonging that white colleagues do not face, and they deal with pressures to prove themselves because of judgment from the constituents in their PWIs. While the study only included teachers in the Los Angeles area, all schools can consider how the findings may be applicable in their context.
Additional Barriers to BelongingIn the survey, teachers of color more often than white educators reported being called names, insulted, threatened, or harassed because of their race or ethnicity. One-third of teachers of color strongly or somewhat agreed that they “regularly experience microaggressions at school.” Additional challenges that women of color face stood out: 19 out of 44 women of color (as compared to three out of 10 men of color) reported that a school leader committed a racial microaggression against them. These experiences create an emotional toll that may hinder a sense of belonging.
Teachers of color often faced the energy-sapping process of navigating PWIs, as 83.8% were often or sometimes “expected to adapt to the dominant cultural norms of the school,” as compared with 61% of their white counterparts. More starkly, 70% of teachers of color often or sometimes felt the “pressure to perform at the highest level in order to negate stereotypes about my racial or ethnic group,” while this was the case for 10% of white teachers. As one Black educator shared, the emotional toll of the adaptation process can “remove energy from your ability to give yourself fully to your students.”
Almost two-thirds of educators of color were often or sometimes asked to be a spokesperson for their racial or ethnic group, while this was the case for 10% of white teachers. Nearly 60% of teachers of color reported that they are frequently or sometimes asked to do extra work to attract and support students and families of color.” Notably, 75% of teachers asked to do this extra work were not compensated, and nearly 90% said these duties were not included in their job descriptions. Teachers of color reported fulfillment when working with communities of color at their schools, yet they were frustrated when, for example, a teacher proctoring a study hall was compensated in the same manner as a teacher of color supporting a student affinity group.
More Judgment and PressureTeachers of color reported being “more closely monitored and questioned by parents” than their white peers at almost double the rate. As revealed in the interviews, parents may question educators of color about what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is assessed. Several interviewees often felt burdened to prove themselves to parents, as seven out of 21 teachers reported a need to present their educational “receipts” in order to prove their qualifications.
This weight of judgment may cause a teacher of color to question their belonging at their school. One Black woman reflected that a white male colleague in a parallel role “had a certain level of gravitas [and] respect” with parents that was “afforded [by] virtue of his gender and probably race as well.” This experience impacted her “ability to stand up for herself” as she wondered “if it’s going to be pushed back.”
Prioritizing Belonging for Teachers of ColorBased on my research, I believe there are a few ways school leaders can promote belonging and enhance support for teachers of color at PWIs.
Invest in relationships. In the interviews, teachers of color regularly called for a personal relationship with their school leader. One teacher said, “I would advise leadership to make space for advocacy because we, as people of color, as marginalized groups, need to feel like we can express ourselves.” Leaders should check their colorblind approach and understand the experiences of educators of color in a PWI is different from their white peers.
Focus on professional development. Leaders should engage in regular personal and professional development to understand their own racial identity and how racial, ethnic, and cultural differences may impact institutional culture and policies.
Empower and develop leaders. If school leaders want to retain teachers of color, promote their belonging, and impact institutional change, they should offer viable pathways toward advancement.
Provide equitable pay for extra work. Supporting communities of color—from students to parents to colleagues—is fulfilling for many teachers of color, yet the work can be time- and labor-intensive, often on a social-emotional level. This work should be clearly outlined in job descriptions and fairly compensated.
Create and support affinity spaces. Affinity groups promote belonging for folks who are marginalized at PWIs, and school leaders should support these efforts as one part of their retention plan. One teacher said of her faculty and staff affinity group: “I felt a sense of belonging because in that space you get to let your guard down, and there’s less of an expectation to perform professionally. I didn’t have to speak complete proper English. Like I can say...more of our cultural language.”
Set firm expectations for how parents communicate. School leaders should proactively convey appropriate communication channels and standards of respectful conversation in the student-parent handbook, on the school website, and in their regular communications. If a parent crosses the line, school leaders should swiftly and publicly defend the teacher to reinforce the teacher’s worth and belonging.
When I asked one Asian-American teacher what advice she would give school leaders regarding the retention of teachers of color, she posed this question: “Am I being invested in or harvested?” The implication is that teachers of color are more than a statistic to “harvest” for schools’ superficial diversity efforts. Behind percentages are people who deserve investment.