Prevent teacher shortages from robbing students of color

Pause your day. Take some deep breaths if it helps. Envision the teacher who changed your life. How did their classroom feel? What did their teaching mean for you? How is your life different today for having shared a classroom with them? Whisper a word of silent thanks for the life that their teaching helped you grow.

Now think of the young people who are sitting in classrooms right now with no teacher at all. Or the umpteenth substitute in a rotating cast. Or their fifth regular teacher of the year. Think of the young people whose life-transforming teachers were driven out of the profession too soon, were never allowed to become educators, or are ghostly shells of the teachers they could have been with equitable affirmation, love and resource support. Think of the youth who never once in their years in school have had a teacher who shared their racial affinity, dual language status, sexual orientation and gender expression or class background.

At the root of any educational policy challenge must be a nuanced, equity-focused analysis of how the policy realities affect students, especially those traditionally oppressed by the contours of our society. While we perform this analysis, we must remember the cardinal rule of policy making: in an inequitable society, any policy that does not explicitly address inequity will exacerbate it.

In my own teaching career, I have taught exclusively in highest need, under-resourced, segregated Chicago Public Schools serving students of color. Of the nearly two-thousand students I’ve worked with, I have had a single white student. I have been asked to do additional work without pay on top of my normal duties to support Asian American students and provide restorative justice support beyond the classroom (and my African American colleagues have been asked to do more). I have been recognized with multiple national, state and municipal teaching commendations thanks to this work and in part to my status as a non-black educator of color. I have been fired three times with tenure due in portion to this work supporting students and in portion to a lack of funds to provide even a basic classroom teacher. I have been assessed as being below average by white principals in areas of instruction in which my students and I regularly provide professional development at local and national gatherings. I have observed over two dozen classrooms in my career without a regular classroom teacher at all, including four that had no adult assigned to the room at all. I come back because I really believe that this daily struggle helps my students learn to combat the forces in our society that inflict daily inequity, but without that bigger goal, I think I would have long ago joined the legions of my teaching peers of color who have been pushed out.

At the root of any educational policy challenge must be a nuanced, equity-focused analysis of how the policy realities affect students, especially those traditionally oppressed by the contours of our society.

The teacher shortage problem is a complex systemic problem that mimics the inequities that define our society. We cannot simply analyze the number of certified teachers coming out of colleges of education and alternative programs without acknowledging deep inequities in distributions of teachers. We cannot increase the “rigor” and selectivity of teacher preparation programs without understanding how these can be and have been whitifying forces on the teaching profession.

We’ve seen this in teacher evaluation reform, where such reforms have consistently produced lower scores among teachers of color as compared to their white counterparts and among teachers in highest need/lowest resource schools. We’ve seen it in teacher certification reform where new assessments and systems have disqualified larger proportions of prospective teachers of color. We’ve seen it in big name teacher placement programs which while claiming to deliver higher teacher quality, have had a strong whitifying impact on many districts.

So we have a complex problem that is negatively impacting tens of millions of students daily and we must address it with nuance and with urgent, vital speed. We have to start with the assumption that communities matter, students matter and teachers matter. Then we need to design solutions that aren’t conceived by the privileged white mind. Here are several concrete solutions to impact our classrooms and our students immediately.

Solutions 1-4 Retention:

  1. Create accessible affinity groups. Educators, especially educators of color and groups facing oppression need loving spaces where we can reflect on our practice with strong support and mutual care. At a distance, groups like #Educolor can help. We also need in person affinity support to survive, to grow and to thrive.
  2. Create “individualized educator plans” to drive professional development (PD). A common subject of our teacher conversations is that we’ve most felt like quitting entirely on the yearly principal directed PD days. At my current school, we have teacher-led PD and every educator is encouraged to develop our own plan for development, including booking our own classes and conference opportunities.
  3. Place an immediate freeze on teacher evaluation systems and immediately develop a non-punitive system of reflective practice and improvement. The current systems are abrasive to the very educators we are trying to retain and do not improve instruction. Instead, we need systems that integrate long-term student impacts (life impacts, not test scores), student reflection and peer feedback. I already do most of this work with my students and it guides and shapes my teaching on the regular. I completely ignore the principal-led feedback system and instead just ask my principal for concrete reflection on my teaching that I can choose to integrate or ignore depending on its relevance.
  4. Focus on the teaching conditions in highest need communities; both urban and rural. When teachers are expected to compensate for all of the inequities in society while having less resources, supports and compensation, it is a recipe for burnout. The most supported environments and teaching roles ought to be the ones most difficult to fill.

Solution 5-7, Recruitment:

  1. Focus on lifelong recruitment of needed demographics of teachers and for environments with teacher shortages. Students from highest need schools should be encouraged to be teachers. They should be supported throughout their own educations and provided necessary financial resources to teach in their own communities.
  2. Remove all standardized “quality” based barriers to teacher induction. These are racist and ableist. Period.
  3. Create an aggressively equity-focused and intersectional standard of instruction for teacher education programs. Many current programs both fail to prepare educators to teach in highest need environments and actively push out prospective teachers of color with a hyper focus on discipline and standardized white cultural content. By reversing this dynamic, the teachers most needed are more likely to thrive in teacher training programs and those with less empathy for students facing inequity with either learn in this area or choose a different profession.

By fighting for these changes, we not only will immediately begin the work of providing more equitable access to teachers for every student, but support those students with the power they need to craft a better, more equitable society.

I find myself coming back to two quotes: Are teacher shortages the problem?

Schools are succeeding at what they are designed to do.

Any proposed solutions to institutional inequity that retains the value assumptions of the existing systems of power will by necessity exacerbate that problem.


Xian’s post is part of a roundtable blogging discussion sharing educators’ stories on our nation’s teacher shortage. We want to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation by commenting on and sharing this blog and by reading the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the discussion on social media.