Are Diverse Teachers Welcome?

How schools can go beyond ‘diversity blindness’ to retain teachers that mirror their communities

Patricia Hanson and Seema Imam

The increasingly diverse urban and suburban student population presents school boards with the challenge of creating positive learning environments to meet the needs of these diverse students. Part of creating this positive learning environment is to make our schools more welcoming of diverse students and families. For this effort to succeed, a stronger focus on hiring diverse teachers in schools and their retention is needed.

School environments play a critical role in the development of children and future society. Are school leaders evaluating whether their schools are meeting the needs of all of their diverse student groups, including addressing any systemic inequalities that are suspected.

Classroom environments should be carefully evaluated for evidence of cultural warmth and should to some degree mirror the community by the presence of some diversity in the school staffs themselves. Schools have an obligation to the diverse children and families in their community that goes beyond a mere “diversity blindness.”

We encourage school leaders to regularly and systematically evaluate whether they, or those that they have delegated the responsibility to, have implemented hiring practices that result in the hiring and successful retention of staff with the requisite diversity. These should be employees who can serve as role models and possess the life experiences that will assist in better meeting the needs of diverse children. Examining hiring practices ensures that there is active outreach to create opportunities for diverse administrative, teaching, and counseling candidates. A proactive approach has multiple benefits to the school and the community, not the least of which is to make the diverse student and his or her family feel more welcome and provide the school with greater resources to understand and meet the needs of that student.

Moving beyond “diversity blindness” also requires school leaders to examine any preexisting beliefs and attitudes about minorities that could lead to feelings of discrimination on the part of minority students or staff. If a diverse teacher is religiously prohibited from participating in some school-related events, is he or she then assessed as not valuing participation or collaboration?

School leaders also need to be able to step forward and provide leadership and alternate resources when a staff member who provides the role model and potential resource for the diverse student is confronted with a hostile work environment. It is important for school boards to convey this message to teachers’ supervisors. In those situations where opinions of diverse staff are not valued or welcomed, diverse students are invariably the losers.

Whether the dominant racial or ethnic group in a district is aware of it or not, they often cast the dominant culture across their schools’ individual leaderships. The question is whether the school board is informed and proactively strives to understand and address the needs of its diverse students. This effort must extend to awareness of the hiring and retention of diverse staffs in schools, and the effect of the dominant culture on the learning and work environment.

School leadership should examine whether it has operated on “auto-pilot” and has not considered the possible effects that an unexamined dominant culture that can have on both learning and work environments, ranging from merely unhelpful at one end to outright hostile at the other end.

We make these following recommendations to school board members -

  1. Get to know your diverse teachers by making an effort to create opportunities to better understand what they believe they can bring to the district to serve diverse student populations that is unique.
  2. Pay attention to hiring with an eye toward providing representation in the form of role models to your increasingly diverse student populations. There can be a tendency to hire staff members that “fit” into the school community norms. Challenge administrators and hiring teams to look at candidates who can bring a new perspective to the school community. Educate hiring committees on the importance of hiring diverse candidates. Invite community leaders from diverse groups to participate in hiring in order to have a diverse perspective in the hiring process.
  3. Evaluate the existing diversity in the leadership in your schools. Are diverse staffs that have been hired being retained? If not, why not? Are diverse staffs able to address the problems that they see both in the student body and in the employment place, while they are still members of the school district, or do they do so only after they leave your district? Are all students able see a variety of role models in their school?
  4. Reach out to diverse families and community groups. As new families, religious and cultural groups establish themselves in the school community; make an effort to provide opportunities to meet them, including on their terms.
  5. Evaluate administrators’ efforts related to getting to know the diverse families in their schools. Do they organize and participate in school and community cultural events? Are they able to share how their own participation has helped them become a better school leader?
  6. Evaluate the cultural competency of staff and establish a diversity committee that consists of staff and community members.

Challenging privilege and the norms of the dominant group can be uncomfortable and even politically challenging work, but it is critically important. School leaders should work to create avenues for diverse teachers to seek out support when they feel they are being marginalized, experiencing injustice or encountering a hostile work environment. Promoting cultural competency at all levels in a school community is key.

Patricia Hanson and Seema Imam are long term educators and members of large Islamic communities in Wisconsin and Illinois. They are advocates for religious minorities in public schools. This piece stems from their personal and professional work in public schools as well as their research on the experiences of Muslim students and families in public schools.

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