Attracting and Retaining Teachers of Color

Fall 1999

By Pearl Rock Kane and Alfonso J. Orsini

Every year the Klingenstein Center gets numerous calls from deans, department chairs, and school heads -- those responsible for hiring at their schools -- seeking to diversify their faculty. Sometimes the callers sound desperate, "You must know great teachers of color." Even with earnest intentions, independent schools have been moderately successful in recruiting faculty of color. NAIS Statistics 1998 (the National Association of Independent Schools' annual statistical report in key areas of independent school operations) reports faculty of color as 9 percent of the independent school teaching force, up from 4 percent in 1987. While the percentage of teachers of color is increasing, is this the best we can expect as we approach the year 2000 in which people of color are expected to constitute 28 percent of the total U.S. population?

To say that independent schools "recruit" faculty is a misnomer. In most schools, searches take place to fill specific jobs, and there is seldom a long-term strategy that involves an ongoing effort of faculty recruitment. Some independent schools have formed networks to recruit -- and, less often, to help acculturate and retain -- teachers of color, but these organizations are the exception rather than the rule.

The reality in most schools is that recruitment is a solo venture, conducted by people who are already overburdened by multiple responsibilities. Independent schools seldom have the benefit of trained human resource personnel for recruitment and, other than learning from experience, schools lack knowledge of how best to proceed.

Generous funding from the Altman Foundation, in its interest in increasing the number of teachers of color in independent schools, allowed the Klingenstein Center and NAIS to launch, in 1997, a comprehensive study of factors related to the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. The Altman study has utilized the resources of both the Klingenstein Center and NAIS, involving 24 graduate students2 at Teachers College, Columbia University. The study surveyed teachers of color in independent schools and teacher recruitment agencies. It also reported demographic findings on NAIS schools in relation to teachers of color. The findings of the study should help to unravel factors related to attraction and retention of faculty.

A Survey of Teachers of Color in Independent Schools

The survey took a look at teachers of color currently working in independent schools, their personal backgrounds, career paths, experiences in schools, their future plans, and the characteristics of the independent schools in which they work. A total of 691 teachers responded.3 Two-thirds of the respondents were female and one third male. The racial/ethnic background of respondents -- African Americans (59 percent), Asians (17 percent), Hispanics (14 percent), Biracial (7 percent), Middle Eastern (1 percent), and Native American (1 percent) -- was essentially representative of teachers of color in independent schools. Of those who responded to the question on age, 30 percent were under 30 years of age, 27 percent were ages 31-40, and 28 percent were over 40. Eighty-two percent of those responding worked in day schools, 4 percent worked in boarding schools, and 14 percent worked in schools that were a combination of day and boarding. Seventy-five percent of the schools were coeducational and 25 percent were single-sex schools. Again, these values are close to national independent school norms.

Who Are the Teachers of Color Currently Working in NAIS Schools?

The self-reports of teachers of color working in independent schools provide a profile of an independent school teacher of color who is likely to have grown up in a middle class family, graduated from a private college or university with a GPA of 3.3, and incurred a debt of under $20,000. The teacher is 20 times more likely to have attended an independent secondary school than the average person schooled in America.

Of nearly 500 respondents who discussed college finances, 38 percent reported family assistance, 32 percent reported scholarships, and only 29 percent relied on loans and other financial aid. If this survey is representative of teachers of color in NAIS schools today, over 60 percent represent themselves as middle class or higher.

It is hardly surprising that there was a statistically significant relationship between the level of debt and plans to leave teaching. As respondents' debt level increased, they were significantly more likely to plan to leave teaching, citing their reasons as low salary and poor benefits.

How Did They Find Their Jobs?

Fifty-two percent of the respondents indicated that previous connection with the school led them to their first teaching position. Newspaper job advertisements (15 percent), teacher placement agencies (10 percent), college placement offices (8 percent), faculty of color organizations (7 percent), and job fairs (6 percent) also figured into finding the first independent school teaching job. The academic level of students (47 percent) and the absence of requirements for teacher certification (24 percent) were most frequently cited as incentives to working in an independent school. The location of the school (33 percent), having a personal link to the school (25 percent), the feeling of support from the head of school (24 percent), the school's commitment to diversity (21 percent), and teachers at the school (20 percent) were the attractions to the current school of employment.

Are Teachers of Color Likely to Stay?

Most respondents (65 percent) were employed at their current school for five years or less, although 52 percent of the respondents had more than six years of teaching experience. The overwhelming majority (86 percent) of teachers plan to stay in teaching, but not necessarily at the school of current employment. The reasons given for considering leaving the school were related to issues of diversity -- wanting to work in a school with more teachers and students of color (20 percent) and a feeling of isolation (9 percent) -- but job advancement (19 percent) and the desire for a more supportive administration (8 percent), which may or may not be related to being a person of color, also figured into reasons for considering changing schools. For the small percentage of teachers planning to leave teaching altogether (5 percent), low salary and the desire for advancement were cited most frequently.

One of the findings that proved to be statistically significant is the relationship between intention to leave the current school for another independent school and the school's collaboration with public schools. Respondents working in independent schools that collaborated with public schools were less likely to say that they were considering leaving their school because of a feeling of isolation or because they want to work in a school with more faculty of color.

Demands Placed on Teachers of Color

When respondents were asked, "As a person of color, do you feel you have more demands on you than other teachers?", fully 59 percent said "yes" and 5 percent said "sometimes." The greatest burdens placed on teachers of color responding to the survey involve the expectation of supporting all students and parents of color (26 percent), the pressure to be "perfect" to negate stereotypes (22 percent), being expected to be the spokesperson/expert for one's race (20 percent), and coordinating diversity work including educating the community about diversity (18 percent).


Respondents were asked, "What do independent schools need to do to recruit more teachers of color?" There were more than 600 responses, over half of which offered different approaches to recruiting. One respondent summed up the general sentiment by saying, "recruit actively and creatively and don't just give lip service to recruiting." The suggestions included the more familiar forms of recruiting such as contacting colleges, particularly African-American colleges and universities, targeting teachers of color through agencies, and job fairs. Others suggested using "nontraditional approaches" such as advertising in people of color publications, recruiting at "non-premiere" colleges, recruiting through churches and community centers, recruiting alumni/ae, creating a pool of substitutes of color, sending teachers of color to do the recruiting, and using the network of parents of color at the school.

Other respondents talked about the need for structural changes such as reflecting the goal of diversity in the mission statement, engaging board support, deciding why the school should become diverse, and having a clear plan to become an inclusive community. In short, a vision for diversity.

When respondents were asked, "What do independent schools need to do to retain more teachers of color?" there were 955 suggestions with almost three-fourths focusing on demonstrating a commitment to diversity at the school. Specific suggestions included offering professional support and mentoring, having more administrators of color, giving teachers of color a voice, admitting more students of color, creating a critical mass of teachers of color, including multicultural events in the curriculum, and offering racial sensitivity workshops for the entire school community including students, staff, faculty, administration, and trustees.

Among the other suggestions offered for retention, improving salary and benefits, providing professional development, defining job expectations, and providing an inviting atmosphere figured most prominently.

A Survey of Recruitment Agencies and Organizations

To enhance our knowledge of issues in the attraction and retention of teachers of color, we approached 20 recruitment agencies and organizations, of whom 12 responded. While this number is small, each of the respondents had worked with hundreds of candidates of color and so their responses were based on extensive experience. These respondents included major commercial agencies, small one-person operations, and collaboratives of schools. When we asked these recruiters, "In your experience, has a profile of the successful candidate of color for independent school teaching emerged?", five key characteristics recurred in their responses:

  • College attended (Ivy League and other highly regarded schools): 9 responses;
  • Attended an independent school: 7 responses;
  • Not too ethnic: 5 responses;
  • Fit in (no boat-rocking): 5 responses; and
  • Middle class background: 3 responses.

These recruiters expressed their frustration with what seems to them to be too rigid a profile, and when asked to give independent schools a grade (on a scale of 100 percent) on their "willingness to hire teachers of color," they gave an average grade of 54 percent. When asked whether they thought independent schools were fully utilizing the pool of candidates of color, 11 of 12 responded "no." When asked what percentage of qualified candidates they thought they were reaching, eight of the 12 respondents stated a percentage below 50 percent. Asked what they would do to recruit more teachers of color if they had more resources seven of 12 stated that they would do more on-campus recruiting and three stated that they would advertise more extensively. When asked about what makes a school attractive to a candidate of color, the most frequent responses were as follows:

  • Diversity of student body;
  • Diversity of faculty;
  • Atmosphere/Environment of school;
  • School's commitment to diversity;
  • Faculty are respected (autonomy, voice); and
  • Salary/Benefits.
Conversely, the lack of these qualities in any given school made that school unattractive to candidates of color.

A Study of the NAIS Database

After hearing from NAIS teachers of color and the recruitment agencies and organizations, we realized that we should try to more carefully study the hypotheses that are so often advanced about why some schools are more diverse than others. The annual NAIS statistics present important aggregate statistics and averages, but figures such as the 1997 NAIS statistic of 7 percent teachers of color, when the study was conducted, did not reveal much about individual schools and why some are more diverse than others. Thus, we decided to look more closely at the specific internal and demographic factors at NAIS schools that might be associated with greater faculty diversity. Discounting the schools in Hawaii and the U.S. territories4 and the 80 schools that did not respond to the NAIS survey on diversity issues, we wound up examining 865 mainland NAIS schools. We were surprised to find that among these schools, the median percentage of teachers of color proves to be 4.26 percent. Thus, at the median school no more than one in 20 teachers on staff would be a person of color. More shockingly, we learned:

  • 233 schools (or 27 percent) had no teacher of color on staff;
  • 44 percent had no more than one teacher of color on staff;
  • 47 percent had not a single African-American teacher;
  • 50 percent had no Hispanic/Latino teachers; and
  • 65 percent had no Asian/Pacific Islander teachers.
The reality is that many NAIS students may never work with a teacher of color over the course of their precollege studies. On the other hand, of the many "other" school employees that NAIS students will come in contact with (the maintenance staff, secretaries, security, and dining room people designated as "other" by NAIS) approximately 20 percent will be people of color. Consider the conception of people of color that such an experience will shape in the minds of NAIS students. Now picture these same students at around 40 years old, at the height of their careers in the U.S. workforce in 2025 when people of color are projected to constitute 38 percent of the U.S. population. This may explain why the study conducted by NAIS in 1991 found that 47 percent of parents with incomes over $100,000 who were polled said that they would not send their children to "private" schools because they wanted them to have a diverse, real world experience.5

Which Schools Are Likely to Be More Diverse?

To study which factors might be most closely associated with faculty diversity at NAIS schools we gathered data on several internal variables at schools including endowment, tuition levels for first, sixth, and 12th grades, starting and median salaries, school size, percentage of students of color, and percentage of financial aid devoted to students of color. Among these variables the ones that showed the highest correlation with the percentage of teachers of color on staff were: starting salary, median salary, percentage of financial aid to students of color, and percentage of students of color at the school.6

Both the Teacher of Color Survey and the Recruitment Agency/Organization Survey had suggested that the school's commitment to diversity is a major factor in attracting candidates of color to an independent school, an assertion that seems to be confirmed by the high correlation of both the percent of students of color and the percent of financial aid to students of color with the percent of faculty of color.

To look at demographic variables in the areas around the schools, we used the Census Bureau data on zip codes.With this data, we were able to determine for both the zip code and the 20-mile radius of each of the 865 NAIS schools all of the following:

  • total population;
  • percent of population who live in urban, farm, or rural/non-farm areas;
  • race/ethnicity of population;
  • percent of people of color in the population;
  • median family income; and
  • median house price.
Among these features, the ones which were most strongly associated with percent of teachers of color in the schools were: total population, the percent of urban population, and the percent of people of color population.8 Thus, it seemed that, to some extent, a school's ability to diversify staff was associated with its location, a finding that is corroborated by the 33 percent of respondents to the Teacher of Color Survey who cited location as a major factor in why they chose to work at their current schools. In general, the more diverse schools are located in more urban, more diverse, and more densely populated areas. This conclusion is also born out by common sense and experience, which tell us that it is a much more difficult odyssey for a person of color to venture into a remote, largely white, rural area where there is no guarantee of a community of color.

Features at Schools with Higher and Lower Faculty Diversity

We also gained insight into the factors most strongly associated with faculty diversity by comparing means of internal and demographic features at schools with different levels of faculty diversity. Though we looked at many different levels of diversity, it will suffice here to juxtapose the conditions at schools with less than the NAIS median of 4.26 percent teachers of color, schools with 4.26 percent to 11.99 percent teachers of color, and schools with more than 20 percent teachers of color. The accompanying table graphically depicts the key differences between these higher and lower diversity schools.

Clearly, the 26 schools with greater than 20 percent teachers of color tend to be located in more urban, more densely populated, and more diverse areas, which would explain their much higher median family income and house value, as well as the higher starting and median salaries. We should note, however, that in the higher cost of living areas, the slight increases in salaries may not represent much in actual dollars. The more telling features are clearly those within the schools where the more diverse schools, which tend to be smaller, seem to be devoting a much greater percentage of financial aid to students of color, even though they have much lower mean endowments. They are thus attracting more students of color and, perhaps as indicated by our survey respondents, more teachers of color. They also proved to be attracting more paying students of color. Indeed, despite the significance of financial aid to students of color in trying to diversify faculties, we should remember that only around a third of students of color at NAIS schools receive aid.

Implications and Recommendations for Action

Though they have not been advanced here, the arguments for diversifying independent school faculties are numerous and compelling. What, we ask, can our research offer to those many schools that have tried earnestly to diversify or to those that now want to begin diversifying their faculties?

First, it seems clear that a critical mass of students of color is key in attracting teachers of color. It is also evident that a greater commitment of financial aid may be the surest way to attract students of color.

Second, to build more diverse faculties, independent schools may need to stretch their conceptions of the ideal independent school teacher, especially of the ideal teacher of color, and recruit more broadly. If, as the recruiters suggest, independent school administrators have come to view the ideal teacher of color as a middle class person who attended independent school and a private competitive college who will not "rock the boat," then it is time for us to re-think the ideal. We may also need to study more carefully all independent school teachers to have a fuller sense of our teaching force -- their backgrounds, credentials, reasons for teaching, and reasons for staying.

Third, independent schools have to be aware of the inordinate demands, both implicit and explicit, that are being placed on teachers of color -- demands that make their work lives untenable at the school.

Fourth, as far as recruitment practices are concerned, it has been established that candidates of color are influenced positively in their decisions to teach at a given school by the teachers that they meet. Also, we have learned through past studies9 that among Columbia and Barnard students surveyed, students of color particularly said that they would be positively influenced by on-campus recruitment. Thus, as the survey suggested, shouldn't independent schools be doing more on-campus recruiting themselves, especially by sending to college campuses current independent school teachers who can share their own positive experiences with prospective teachers? Furthermore, if over half of current teachers of color in independent schools have found their jobs through some affiliation with the school, are independent school administrators making the most of networking to find new teachers of color? Do administrators consult students and parents and current teachers of color when openings arise? Do they form collaborative connections with churches, social service organizations, nearby public schools?

Fifth, while it may be true that independent schools in urban areas may tend to have more diverse faculties, geography does not guarantee diversity. The true make-or-break issue of hiring teachers of color may be the human factor. Independent school leaders may need to re-evaluate the climate and atmosphere of their schools. Is the school truly a welcoming place where diversity is tangibly honored? The human connection that is offered or not offered when a new person enters the school may be the single most important moment in efforts to recruit teachers of color. Will a candidate entering the school be greeted with warmth and acceptance and interest, or with a posture of exalted scrutiny? If the latter, then even a school in the heart of New York or Los Angeles may have trouble diversifying. If the former is the case, and if a school connects significantly with the outside larger community and with people of color, then faculty diversity may be an attainable ideal after all.


  1. The authors wish to thank Randolph Carter, director of diversity and multicultural services at NAIS, for his assistance in conducting and interpreting the Teacher of Color Survey.
  2. Teachers College students included Phil Kassen, Mark McLaughlin, Doug Norry, Michael Simmonds, John Yoo, Jan Scott, Michelle Smith, Lynn Sorensen, Danielle Wilcox, Kate Knopp, Tracy Knox, Jerry Loewen, John Barrengos, Cathleen Randall, Marc Bogursky, Virginia Carnes, Kolia O'Connor, Dennis Bisgaard, John Baldwin, Gary Niels, Sidney Bridges, Kathleen Brigham,Christopher Harrow, and Tom Doar.
  3. The sample was obtained by using the 1997 NAIS mailing list of 430 diversity coordinators and contact people. We asked the coordinators and contacts to distribute the surveys to teachers of color in their schools. We received 691 surveys representing 21 percent of the total teachers of color in independent schools, according to NAIS statistics.
  4. At the 16 schools in Hawaii and the U.S. Territories, 71 percent of all students and 26 percent of all teachers are people of color. Of course, this meant removing some 9,593 students of color and 306 teachers of color from the NAIS numbers. But if Hawaii is comprised of 70 percent people of color among whom 59 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, then perhaps we should be looking at statistics on people of non-color.
  5. M. Walsh, "Upper Class Parents Support Diversity, Quality of Public Schools, Study Finds." Education Week, March 13, 1991, pp. 8-9.
  6. Correlations were: starting salary .22 (a <.025); median salary .22 (a <.025); percent financial aid to students of color .35 (a <.005), and percent students of color .44 (a <.005).
  7. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Zip Code Summary File 3B. Washington, DC, 1990. To find all of the zip codes in a 20-mile radius of each school we used the Map Info Program.
  8. Correlations were: total population .29 (a <.005); percent urban population .28 (a <.005); percent people of color population .39 (a <.005).
  9. Kane, Pearl. "Just Ask Liberal Arts Graduates to Teach." Phi Delta Kappan. June 1990. Vol. 71, 805-807.
Pearl Rock Kane

Pearl Rock Kane is the Klingenstein Family Chair Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Alfonso J. Orsini

Alfonso J. Orsini recently completed his doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is headmaster at the Leysin American School in Switzerland.