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The Critical Role of Teacher Wellbeing in Retaining Teachers of Color

Teachers of Color

[Wellbeing is] feeling a connection like you’re connected to your school, where you’re at, where you’re working. Some type of way that you understand that whatever reason you got into teaching for, you’re able to accomplish that.

Teacher, (Ed First interviews 2022)

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and districts nationwide are scrambling to fill classrooms in the context of what one education researcher has described as “a chronic and perpetual misalignment of teacher supply and demand.” More than 300,000 public school teachers and school staff left the field between February 2020 and May 2022, and in the lead up to the 2022-2023 school year, several states experienced turnover at its highest point in at least five years. In RAND’s 2022 State of the American Teacher Survey, 50% of interviewed teachers attributed a desire to leave their job to factors related to the pandemic. As is so often the case in a system rife with inequity, teacher shortages have the greatest impact on districts and schools serving high percentages of students of color and low-income students.

Challenges with retaining educators are not new. Prior to the pandemic, 44% of new teachers left the classroom within their first five years of teaching. Historically, these turnover rates have been higher for teachers of color than the national average, in part because of antagonistic school cultures and a lack of agency in their teaching. This trend is particularly concerning since research clearly demonstrates the positive impact that teachers of color have on all students, especially students of color, and the fact that the teaching force in the United States remains disproportionately white, even as the proportion of students of color continues to rise.

It is clear that addressing teacher retention is also critical to improving teacher diversity–and the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic have only heightened the need to focus on retaining teachers of color. How might policymakers, state departments of education, funders and other key stakeholders address this challenge?

One promising approach lies in efforts to improve teacher wellbeing. In fact, improving teacher wellbeing–through a focus on improving the health of the broader school and district environments–is a powerful lever for improving retention for teachers of color while simultaneously positively impacting other student, teacher and school outcomes. Research demonstrates that improving teacher wellbeing can improve retention rates for teachers of color directly by creating healthier work environments in schools. In addition, increases in teacher wellbeing can support positive teacher-student relationships, effective classroom management and effective SEL implementation, which in turn fosters a healthy classroom climate conducive to positive student outcomes.

To better understand what factors influence wellbeing for teachers of color, Education First conducted interviews with teachers, school leaders, non-profit leaders, researchers, and district and state policymakers. Our interviews uncovered seven key factors: 

Teachers of Color

Another clear takeaway from our interviews and research is that wellbeing is distinct from individual-focused notions of self care. In other words, wellbeing is a collective issue rather than an individual responsibility, and to impact teacher wellbeing, there must be a focus on improving the school environment. It’s critical that school and district leaders involve teachers of color when designing approaches that meet their needs. Sustaining conditions that promote teacher wellbeing requires culturally competent leadership at the school and district levels.

Examples of actions school leaders can take include: 

  • Provide opportunities for teachers to connect and professional learning opportunities for teachers that center anti-racist, culturally responsive practices
  • Practice distributive leadership, ensuring staff are compensated for their efforts and that teachers of color are not asked to engage in extra, unpaid labor
  • Have high expectations for teachers and students, recognize staff members for a job well done and provide them with individualized support and feedback
  • Attend principal trainings around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and set personal growth goals on how to implement DEI practices within their schools

To support school leaders in setting their schools for success, district leaders should: 

  • Build authentic and trusting relationships with community members, develop self-awareness and identify biases, create structures that sustain student-centered decision-making 
  • Co-create a shared vision of principals as leaders of anti-racist, equitable schools
  • Create a system of support for principals to grow as leaders of equitable schools 
  • Develop a strategic partnership between the central office and principals

State leaders can promote teacher wellbeing by: 

  • Developing incentives and funding supports for districts to establish programming that fosters teacher wellbeing such as racial affinity groups and mentorship programs
  • Providing loan forgiveness, service scholarships, loan repayment incentives, and relocation incentives​​
  • Investing in the recruitment, preparation and development of strong, culturally competent  diverse school leaders​​
  • Funding districts to conduct equity audits ​
  • Collecting and disaggregating recruitment, hiring and retention data​ by race, ethnicity, etc. ​

Perhaps the most important takeaway from our research is that teacher wellbeing is a collective responsibility that requires certain school-wide conditions to be in place, such as a culture of mutual trust and respect. Currently, many teachers of color experience a hostile, unwelcoming work environment that leaves them feeling undervalued and unsupported, which can drive them from the profession despite their care for and positive impact on students. The steps that teachers of color recommended schools and districts take will ultimately lead to more antiracist and equity-focused school environments– environments that foster student, educator and community thriving.

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