Diverse Teachers Matter: How to Build a Diverse, Inclusive Workforce

By Jennifer Barton

Diversity among school staff is considered one of the most important factors in the achievement and success of all students.

Why it matters

A vast amount of research shows students benefit greatly from opportunities to interact and connect with classmates and teachers from different backgrounds, cultures, and viewpoints.

Academic achievement improves and disciplinary issues diminish as students engage with authority figures who are more reflective of themselves and who have higher expectations for them within the classroom. Students lean toward higher academic and behavioral success, and often the learning environment becomes more tolerant and accepting in the wake of challenging stereotypes in the educational world.

A report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2017–18, 79 percent of teachers in the classroom were white when more than 50 percent of students identify as a race other than white. This disparity affected the success of students and how likely they were to graduate and pursue advanced education beyond high school.

When the composition of a school’s staff is more reflective of its students, benefits include:

  • Increased academic achievement for all students
  • More diverse role models in positions of authority and who exemplify success
  • High expectations for all students, especially students of color and different backgrounds
  • Differentiated approaches in building relationships and interacting with students, especially in disciplinary situations
  • Improved dropout and graduation rates among high school students
  • Opportunities to challenge stereotypes in the classroom, which creates a more tolerant and accepting atmosphere for all

Barriers to hiring diverse teachers

A recent article written by Glenn Cook for the National School Boards Association highlighted experiences from 2019 National Teacher of the Year, Rodney Robinson, as he spent time speaking to students and educators across the nation. Through his engagements, Robinson confirmed the importance of minority recruitment and retention in education, but he also acknowledged the challenges facing schools in hiring for diversity.

“So many things work against teachers of color,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t matter if you recruit more, if you’re still losing teachers of color, you’re pouring water in a bucket that has a hole in it.”

Robinson isolated several factors that deter minority teachers from entering the teaching profession, including past experiences in school, the high cost of college, and testing biases to enter higher education.

“Going into teaching is not a smart financial move for many of these kids, and we’ve got to find a way to incentivize them,” Robinson said, noting that he believes districts should look more closely at the experiences of minority students in their schools, offer more scholarship money for those who go into education, and make a commitment to review every school policy with an unbiased eye. (Cook, 2021)

Recruiting diverse teams

First, it’s important to understand that diversity encompasses both inherent and acquired traits. Inherently, we think of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, age, and gender. Acquired traits are those related to education, knowledge, and values. While all traits are important, we must remember that diversity can be both visible and invisible when recruiting quality candidates.

So how do organizations or schools find balance between hiring for diversity and hiring for skill set? The answer is found in an honest assessment of the skills needed to perform the job in relation to intangible qualities desired in an ideal candidate.

Schools searching for the best teachers and staff desire high-quality candidates, but they must also keep in mind that creating a diverse workforce is pivotal to student success. A good first step for schools to determine if they are truly meeting the needs of students and the learning community is to assess the current level of diversity in the environment.

Questions to ask include:

  • Is our current staff reflective of the community we serve?
  • Does the skill set of our current staff meet the needs of our community of learners?
  • What points of view could better benefit our staff and our teams?
  • Do we have biases preventing our teams from performing at an optimal level?
  • Does our learning environment promote inclusivity of students, staff, parents, and community members?

By acknowledging the value of diversity and a diverse workforce, schools commit to supporting their students and current staff in their work toward achievement and success, as well as the importance of creating a sustainable and equitable educational environment over time.

Hiring best practices

When hiring for diversity, many school administrators believe the focus should be on hiring more minorities or more women. However, best practice is to be strategic in how candidates hired are uniquely tailored to the needs of the school.

The metrics for hiring should emphasize how the candidate will contribute to the overall diversity of the school and how the candidate will contribute to growth and overcoming challenges in the organization. By using the vision and mission of the school as a guiding philosophy, the hiring manager can develop a criterion for candidates that provides a fair and equal evaluation of candidates who bring different but equal experiences.

Strategies to help diminish bias and create a better hiring process for all candidates include:

  • Setting realistic goals related to creating a diverse workforce on each campus. Schools need candidates who can provide results and bring enthusiasm to the job, but it may be a large undertaking to revamp current processes and it may take time to effect change.
  • Evaluating and rewriting job descriptions to ensure criteria do not include any biases that may discourage highly qualified and/or diverse candidates. Exclusionary language and rigorous requirements can eliminate potential candidates early on in the hiring process.
  • Removing subconscious and implicit bias from the hiring process by ensuring objectivity as an integral part of recruiting and interviewing candidates. Training hiring managers and interviewers in recognizing and mitigating bias is key, as well as using data and facts to evaluate candidates during the process.
  • Examining and redefining diversity through the scope of the job and the needs of the school. We often attribute diversity to gender, race, and ethnicity, but diversity has a much broader scope in a school system.

Fostering an inclusive work environment

Within the diversity and inclusion conversation, school leaders often focus on diversity without recognizing that inclusion (or an inclusive work environment) is often the greater challenge. Investing in employees goes beyond training and development. Every employee must be valued for the unique abilities and talents they bring to the organization, as well as respected for their voice and ideas. When employees can flourish within the organization, employee satisfaction improves and retention rates rise.

School leadership is instrumental to creating and maintaining an inclusive culture for staff. School leaders essentially make or break district initiatives, so leveraging their influence is crucial to making inclusive behavior a core competency for all staff. Once leadership is on board, the district can begin to implement practical strategies to foster an inclusive culture in schools.

Some examples of these strategies include:

  • Harnessing teacher leaders and staff committed to diversity and inclusion to evaluate current levels of inclusivity across campuses and lead efforts to bring needed changes to current district practices.
  • Celebrating employee differences by creating events that honor the diverse backgrounds, traditions, and cultures that exist within the organization.
  • Connecting with employees by giving them a voice. Districts can use surveys or forums that allow for input and impact on district decision making.
  • Shaping the daily work experience by valuing the time and effort of staff by eliminating unnecessary meetings and activities, improving processes, and creating more efficient systems.
  • Maximizing positivity and eliminating fear. While fear can be a motivator, it often encourages employees to narrow their perspective and parse their feedback.
  • Assessing and revamping the district brand. Brand and culture are intimately connected, as are the values and biases of the organization. Branding should reflect the commitment of the district to the concepts of diversity and inclusion that, in turn, will communicate more positive messaging to the community served.

By creating conditions that are based on the premise that every individual is valued and important in the organization, schools can retain the best talent, and they can champion their talent to influence change and growth where needed — either among their teams or in their classrooms.

Start where you are

While creating a diverse and inclusive culture doesn’t happen overnight, school districts can take the first step by recognizing the need for change. To be a truly diverse and inclusive organization, districts must provide employees with voice, the freedom to be themselves, and the opportunity to tend to personal responsibilities without retribution. With a strategic plan and buy-in from top leadership, schools can become a more inclusive and responsive organization for their employees and learning community.

Jennifer Barton is an HR and compensation consultant for TASB HR Services.