May 8, 2019

Teachers are telling us something, let’s listen

Five educators participate in a group activity during Meyer’s 2018 Teachers of Color Gathering at Northwest Health Foundation.

On May 8, public school teachers across Oregon planned a walkout to advocate for more state funding. Districts responded by cancelling school for the day, adjusting calendars and, in the case of Portland Public Schools, demonstrating support for increased public education funding: “Our educators and students deserve better. It is long overdue that we prioritize schools in Oregon,” said Guadalupe Guerrero, Portland Public Schools superintendent.

As Oregon teachers continue to advocate for deeper investments in schools statewide, Meyer supports their efforts by investing in a system that not only guarantees teacher voice, but also sees it as a trusted, integral part of how schools operate and how students learn. As we elevate the voices of all teachers, Meyer is deeply committed to centering those who have been our communities’ most marginalized: teachers of color.

Meyer’s Focus

A key outcome for Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio is diversifying Oregon’s public education workforce. Data show that racially diverse teachers have a significant positive impact on the achievement of priority students, specifically students of color, but we and others would argue all students benefit. The Oregon Legislature is seeing this need, too; the Joint Committee on Student Success is currently reviewing House Bill 2742, which directs the Department of Education to distribute grants for the purpose of developing and diversifying Oregon’s educator workforce, from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Meyer believes incorporating teacher voice is crucial to our state’s education puzzle. Legislation, district policies, grants and scholarships alone will not move the dial on our biggest challenges: We must build mechanisms designed for inclusion, created to recognize expertise where it exists and engendered to promote agency in determining the most effective solutions. Led by these principals, Meyer has sought opportunities to participate in education discussions centered on this topic. We discovered that those who are the most critical to defining challenges and creating solutions are often missing from the conversation entirely.

For Meyer to make informed decisions on investments that further our outcome of diversifying Oregon’s public education workforce, we needed to engage those closest to the subject. To do so, we connected with our statewide networks and gathered together teachers of color from across Oregon who are known equity champions in their schools and districts. This diverse group of 23 teachers of color discussed what brought them to teaching, what keeps them teaching and what daily challenges push them to consider leaving the profession. Most importantly, we discussed their recommendations for how public education in Oregon can attract, sustain and retain teachers of color.

The information below was collected during our gathering. It has informed Meyer’s present work and will serve as a guide for future investments.

Group Profile

Meyer’s Teachers of Color Gathering was facilitated by Zalika Gardner, a teacher of color who taught for more than 15 years and now serves as education director for KairosPDX — a school she co-founded in North Portland in 2012. The 23 participants were from different racial and ethnic groups and identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, Latinx, Native American, South Asian and multiracial (identifying with two or more races). The educators’ experience teaching varied from less than five years to more than 20 years and one administrator with five years of experience. The teachers came from cities and school districts across Oregon: Portland, Hood River, Clackamas, Medford, Gresham, Eugene and Seaside. Most teachers had earned their teaching credentials in Oregon. The few who earned their credentials out of state earned them in California or New York. One participant was a credentialed teacher in Mexico but was not able to teach in Oregon without earning a master’s degree in education in the United States.

Many participants commented that they had never been in a space with such a diverse group of teachers, primarily folks of color. Those who had experienced a similar space said that it did not happen in Oregon. Within the first few hours of the gathering many teachers began to express that eight hours would not be enough time to grapple with the topics of the day. It was clear that the event itself was serving a crucial need for networking and relationship building among educators of color within Oregon.

What We Heard

Teachers of color are mission-driven. The core message from participants was their love for their students and communities compelled them into the teaching profession and that passion for their students and communities keeps them teaching and persevering through common challenges.

Throughout the gathering, four themes emerged as central to transforming Oregon’s public schools and education system into an institution that attracts and retains teachers of color:

  • Teacher preparation programs must do a better job of educating emerging, pre-service teachers in culturally affirming pedagogy. At the same time, programs must create honest and nurturing spaces for pre-service teachers of color to share experiences and build support networks with other teachers and mentors of color that will sustain them as they enter the teaching workforce and face biases on a daily basis. Key programs cited as exemplary: Sapsipkwala program, Portland Teachers Program, and the Bilingual Teacher Pathway program at Portland State University.
  • Excellent, culturally matched mentors matter. In almost every activity, the necessity and influence of effective mentorship surfaced as a central reason participants remained in teaching. Participants insisted that placing emerging teachers with content-specific and grade-level specific mentors who are honest, culturally empowering master teachers is critical to achieving and retaining a diversified teaching workforce.
  • Teachers of color need an organization that shares the values and concerns of diverse teachers. This idea emerged as a “collective” or hub that offers resources for professional coaching, mental health support, legal support, lobbying and advocacy services. Teachers of color don’t always feel represented by their unions; leadership is predominantly white and trails behind national educator organizations on issues of equity. Because the majority of Oregon’s teaching workforce is white, the union serves the agenda of the majority of its constituents. Some participants felt they were vulnerable to being marginalized, tokenized and forced to stay quiet when union decisions and actions put them directly at odds with the organization charged with representing them.
  • The higher you move up in education leadership in Oregon, the whiter the population becomes. Currently there are 197 superintendents across Oregon and just seven of them are leaders of color: Guadalupe Guerrero (PPS), Paul Coakley (Centennial), Danna Diaz (Reynolds), Katrise Perera (Gresham/Barlow), Gustavo Balderas (Eugene), Koreen N. Barreras-Brown (Colton) and George Mendoza (La Grande); less than 1% of district leaders. Oregon’s teachers of color rarely have leadership that understands what teaching or leading in a school building feels like as a person of color. The cohort of teachers identified more responsive, culturally affirming training for emerging school building administrators and thorough ongoing professional development and equity training for those already leading buildings. Teachers believed that school building leaders set the framework for cultural norms in the building. Thus, this is a crucial role, one that has an immense effect on whether or not a teacher of color remains a teacher. It’s important that these leaders know how to lead, affirm and develop a diverse teacher workforce.

Conclusion

Meyer’s Teachers of Color Gathering uncovered clear alignment in why participants chose the teaching profession: their love for their communities. Teachers also shared the central issue that challenges them to stay: biased co-teachers, building administrators and others openly dismissing, belittling, disparaging and underestimating teachers, children and families of color.

If we truly seek to create an educator workforce that reflects Oregon’s increasingly diverse student population, we must not only examine how we prepare and train teachers of color, but also radically reshape the expectations for pre-service white teachers and administrators. A training system that exposes and examines biases isn’t one class or a few discussions but a central area of mastery essential to becoming a teacher or administrator in the state of Oregon.

Next Steps

Meyer remains committed to elevating the voices of teachers and administrators of color. We will continue to work with this core group of educators to determine meaningful investments toward our outcome of sustaining and increasing Oregon’s education workforce diversity. Heeding the feedback we received from the first gathering, we will hold another gathering in winter 2019, bringing back this core group of educators and adding more, including administrators of color who are leading for equity. We also plan to connect pre-service teachers of color with this incredible collection of educators to promote networking and relationship building for these burgeoning teachers.

We look to our partners: Oregon Department of Education, Educator Advancement Council, Counsel of School Supervisors and Administrators, Oregon Education Association, Portland State University, University of Oregon, Western Oregon University, Chemeketa Community College, Columbia Gorge Community College and school districts around the state and others to share in our commitment. All Oregon’s public school students deserve an educator workforce that is representative of their communities in their school buildings and district offices, and we’ll work diligently to support those dedicated to this equitable goal.

— Bekah