This week at SXSW@edu, an annual conference of innovators and educators in Austin, Tex., I’m speaking on a subject I’m passionate about: the shortage of teachers, particularly teachers of color, and ensuring that all students have the caring, qualified, and committed educators they deserve.
The research shows that teachers of color have a positive impact on the academic achievement of racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse students. This impact is especially pronounced in students who are struggling.
But the absence of teachers of color – some refer to it as a “disappearance crisis” – isn’t just a problem for non-white students; it is a problem for all students. Teachers of color “can help disrupt what are often one-sided portrayals of the world and offer invaluable insight to students from different backgrounds,” says a recent article in The Atlantic, by Melinda D. Anderson.
There’s no question that something must change – and quickly. Baby boomers are retiring and the candidates who could fill their jobs are simply not there. More than 50 percent of public school students are African American, Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islander, or Native American. Yet, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are non-White. We need to talk about the dire need to recruit and retain more teachers and the importance of ensuring that they represent the richness and diversity of our students and nation.
But it’s not as if we need to pull the Scooby Doo gang back together and solve a mystery. We understand the problem and the answers are pretty straightforward. All we need is the commitment to deal with it.
Here’s what we need:
Increase pay for teachers and all educators. Make college affordable and improve federal student loan forgiveness programs so that if you go into education, you won’t still be paying off your student loans when it’s time to retire. Provide more high-quality professional development and mentoring programs to support and retain teachers.
As teachers, most of us can’t imagine doing anything else. We consider what we do for a living our calling. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paid and treated as the professionals we are.
If everyone in our schools, from bus drivers to paraeducators and lunch ladies, were paid what they were worth, educators would be at the top of the salary food chain. Unfortunately, our nation says this work is important, but we pay like it isn’t. If the average player in the NBA earns $4.6 million a year, then surely we can raise the salaries of educators, who – not to take anything away from Stephen Curry – do the most important work there is.
Our nation must also address college affordability. This is the focus of the NEA’s Degrees not Debt campaign. Many college students would love to pursue a career in education, but it’s a choice they can’t afford to make given what they’ll likely earn. The prospective of student loan debt may be particularly discouraging for students of color, who are often the first in their families to attend college and start out with fewer resources and less family wealth than White families. (In fact, there is a gap of $236,500 between the average wealth of White families and Black families.)
We need to enhance programs that forgive federal student loans for teachers and others who work in public sector. These professionals, by virtue of what they’ve chosen to do for a living, are making an investment in our nation’s future. We should be willing to invest in them.
Making an investment in teachers also means committing resources to our development and growth. I know in my heart of hearts that we have the best jobs on the planet. But our work is also demanding and, at times, difficult. Newcomers can feel isolated and alone. They need the support of their colleagues, but they also need the opportunity to continually enhance their skills. This happens through evidence-based professional development, induction services, and mentoring programs that can help us retain educators who might otherwise leave education.
The bottom line is: The solutions to dealing with the teacher shortage and building a more diverse workforce are staring us in the face. It all starts with recognizing that educators are, first and foremost, professionals, and treating all of us that way.