There’s a clear teacher shortage, Kent ISD educators say, and it’s crucial to fill the teacher pipeline with people who represent students’ ethnicities and backgrounds.
The pool of college students in teacher preparation has declined by more than two-thirds since 2008-2009, and diversity among those education students was just 4.8 percent African American and 3 percent Hispanic in 2015-2016, according to federal Title II data.
Consider those numbers with the fact that 59 percent of 106,700 Kent ISD students are white; 18 percent are Hispanic and 14 percent are African American.
“We know our kids deserve the very best. A big part of the process of giving them the best is in our hiring practices,” said Brandy Lovelady Mitchell, Kent ISD director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
About 110 area educators gathered at Kent ISD recently to address the need to recruit, hire and retain teachers of color to serve a growingly diverse population of students. The daylong forum, “Fierce Urgency of Now: Strengthening & Diversifying the Teacher Pipeline,” looked at practices related to strengthening the teacher pipeline and hiring diverse teachers.
“Who we hire to engage our students is one of the most important actions that we can take as educators,” said Lovelady Mitchell, who planned the forum. “Given the numbers in general, the downward trend (of teacher candidates) deserves attention, but even more daunting is the underrepresentation of diverse teachers. It’s time to hold space to bring people together to build synergy and harness all our resources to create positive change.”
She said the implications of hiring diverse teachers are wide-reaching. “Education impacts one’s quality of life, employment opportunities, insurance opportunities, housing opportunities, etcetera, so we need to get it right.”
Looking Deeper for Solutions
Educators explored the issue from various angles including the economic impact of not preparing students of color for college and the workforce. From a moral standpoint, they said, all students benefit from diverse teachers. Research shows the importance of a diverse teaching force and the benefits of students having teachers of color.
“I can tell you with our superintendents this has been a major point of emphasis, not only to address the teacher shortage, but the teacher shortage relative to teachers of color,” said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff.
In front of participants, GRCC student Ravel Bowman interviewed Professor Juan Olivarez, distinguished scholar in residence for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, on changing educational systems to support students of color.
Olivarez said improving systems has been a focal point of his career, which has included roles as an elementary teacher, a counselor in Grand Rapids Public Schools, president of Grand Rapids Community College and president of Aquinas College.
“I have been very focused on students of color for a variety of reasons but mostly because I saw so much failure and so much we weren’t doing to help our students,” Olivarez said. “We are still not prepared to deal with the urgency we have.”
As a nation, he said, “we are in serious trouble. The majority of babies being born today are babies of color, yet everywhere we look our professionals don’t represent that—in our hospitals, in our schools everywhere you go… We are not preparing these babies to be our future leaders, to be our doctors, to be our teachers or anything like that.”
What Teachers Say
During the forum, local teachers served on a panel to weigh in on attracting and retaining teachers. They also shared thoughts on what is pushing people away from the profession.
Plusses: quality training and professional development, mentoring and cultures of inclusion keep teachers in their jobs, they said.
“The ongoing professional learning is outstanding,” said Sheree Boss, a third grade teacher at Endeavor Elementary in Kentwood and an adjunct instructor for Davenport University’s College of Urban Education. “Also mentorship. Not only do I serve as a mentor, but I have many mentors in the district.”
Kentwood Public Schools employs the second most diverse teaching staff in the county, with 11 percent teachers of color. She said culture and climate play big roles in sustaining and developing teachers of color.
“Being the only African American teacher in my building, I see there is a need for cultural competency training and it really would help to strengthen our school culture and school climate,” Bos said. “Making sure it supports diversity and inclusion would not only benefit the teachers, it would definitely benefit the students.”
Also effective, Bos said, are “grow-your-own” teacher cadet programs within districts to allow students to explore teaching as a profession as well as recruiting at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Marc Mitchell, East Kentwood High School guidance counselor, said districts need to do a better job of retaining diverse staff. “When you get a person of color in that building, what do you do to make sure that person stays around?” he asked. “I’ve seen many, many people come and go — talented young people. We have to do better.”
In terms of inspiring young people to be teachers: “It starts by having more of us get in front of students so they can actually see us doing what we do so that it can become a possibility for them,” he said.
Networks and resource groups to support diverse teachers are needed, said Bill Smith, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of instructional services. “We need to build a system of inclusion where diversity is a resource that’s valued so there will be more interest in becoming an educator.”
In general, the narrative around education has been detrimental to the profession, said Tracy Horodyski, Kenowa Hills instructional coach and 2017 Teacher of the Year. “When I hear –continuously– teachers who discourage young people from becoming educators because of the current conditions, we are not doing ourselves any favors.”
But that discontent comes from teachers not feeling valued, she said, and that also applies to students. Ultimately, if young people feel valued and supported in an inclusive community, she said, that will bolster the profession.
“They are naturally going to be teachers. They are going to see themselves as having the capacity to be a teacher.”