Tennessee education officials are taking new strides to bring more teachers of color to school classrooms. The State Board of Education has adopted an educator diversity policy that’s been in the making since 2019.
“The real impact will come from the conversations that we’re already scheduled to have in part with directors of schools,” says Sara Morrison, the board’s executive director.
The goal is to diversify Tennessee’s teacher ranks. Studies show that students of color are less likely to be suspended and perform better academically when their teachers are the same race as them. More than 80% of the state’s teachers identify as white, according to the Tennessee Department of Education. About 40% of public school kids are students of color.
Now, under new rules, local education agencies will have to take steps to address that disparity. School districts are required to submit diversity goals and annual progress reports to the state’s education department beginning next school year.
“If we don’t know the outcomes that we’re looking for, it’s nearly impossible to get there,” says Holly Tilden, managing director of the Nashville Teacher Residency, an educator preparation program. “So this makes me feel hopeful that we will have a clear objective in the number of diverse teachers that we’re going to be able to have in our school system.”
Tilden says she’s also encouraged that the policy outlines steps to retain educators of color and make jobs more accessible.
Eliminating barriers for minority teachers
Lindsey Hamilton, who works as the Nashville Teacher Residency’s equity director, says aspiring teachers of color often face systemic barriers, like financial issues, that prevent them for entering the profession. Teacher preparation involves unpaid student teaching and other time-consuming training.
“They go into a teacher prep program and are asked to take a semester off from work and work a full-time job unpaid,” says Hamilton. “That’s a barrier that exist for people that were not able to take that time off and have Mom and Dad pay their rent.”
Hamilton is a Pacific Islander and former English language arts teacher. She also says it’s important for school leaders to understand that the issue isn’t always that people of color aren’t in school buildings.
The problem, says Hamilton, is that they aren’t in classrooms. Many aspiring teachers of color work in coaching, transportation, health, food and paraprofessional roles.
“We know that they are there,” says Hamilton. “And that there is untapped potential in our school buildings right now.”
Another barrier, she says, begins in K-12 schools where many students of color don’t receive the same accommodations — and tailored and quality education — as white students. She says this can also affect who does and doesn’t perform well on standardized exams that are required for teacher certifications.
“Sit in a room with people of color and ask about their K-12 educational experiences, and a lot of times there’s a lot of trauma there,” says Hamilton. “There are a lot of stories of not feeling welcomed.”
Moving forward, says Hamilton, the key to hiring a diverse pool of educators is creating a teacher certification process that fits the strengths and experiences of all people.