Help Wanted: Schools Struggling to Keep Black Teachers

Innovative recruiting strategies like Teacher Villages aren’t keeping pace with the number of Black teachers leaving the classroom

By Joseph Williams, Word in Black
Guest Column

Study after study confirms it: Black children perform better in schools with Black teachers. They score better on achievement scores and have lower dropout rates and higher rates of college completion.

Yet Black teachers make up just 6% of the public school workforce.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that advocates for diversity in education are trying everything from innovative internships to an experimental “teacher village” in Los Angeles that offers affordable housing, mentorship, and a peer support system for young Black men.

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“What we’re doing is actually listening to young people,” who say they need encouragement and guidance as they learn how to teach, Peter Watts, who co-created the Teacher Village initiative, told Fox 11, a local L.A. TV station. “It’s us saying how can we support them to mitigate some of those barriers … to make it a little bit easier for them to enter into the profession.”

But experts, and some Black educators, argue the creative attempts to bring more Black teachers into the classroom mask a bigger, thornier problem: keeping the ones who are already there.

Chronic issues Black teachers face in K-12 education — ranging from lack of administrative support and being pigeonholed as an educator for Black kids to the constant stress of working in under-resourced schools — are driving them from the profession at a faster rate, and earlier in their careers, than their white peers.

Until those issues are addressed, they say, recruiting new Black teachers is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom.

Black teachers “are tracked into — and attracted to — schools with the most challenging working conditions,” says Travis J. Bristol, an associate professor of teacher education and education policy at Berkeley’s School of Education. That includes schools with high rates of students living in poverty and low scores on standardized tests.

Those teachers typically have little experience at the chalkboard, Bristol says, making it difficult to handle the pressure of teaching.

“We placed the most novice, earliest-career teachers in the most challenging schools, because that’s where the jobs are,” he says.

Bettina Love, professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, put a finer point on it in a March 2023 essay published in EdWeek.

“From the onset, the approach that school principals and district recruiters take in recruiting Black teachers is unequal to the labor demands they make when recruiting white teachers,” Love wrote. “Black teachers are expected to be Black students’ everything,” from role model to therapist, “while white teachers are allowed to be teachers.”

Statistics tell part of the story.

Focused efforts by the Department of Education and organizations like the Ford Foundation helped double the number of teachers from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, from about 327,000 in the late 1980s to 810,000 in the 2017-18 school year. But in 2021, as the percentage of Black students in public primary and secondary schools reached 15 percent, Black teachers made up just six percent of the workforce, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


At the same time, however, a RAND Corporation study found that, in the winter of 2021, nearly half of Black teachers reported that they were likely to leave their jobs at the end of the school year, compared with 23 percent of all teachers. Black teachers say they are leaving because of working conditions — including a lack of input in key policy decisions — not because of dissatisfaction with teaching more broadly.

To plug the leaky bucket, Bristol says school districts should save their money on elaborate recruiting schemes and use it for common-sense solutions to keep teachers in classrooms. That, he says, includes sending more resources to struggling schools, adding support for school principals as well as early-career teachers, and hiring additional support personnel, like guidance counselors and therapists, to help struggling students.

Given the challenges Black teachers face, Bristol says, ”it’s important to say and note that the best recruitment strategy is a retention strategy.”