Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace

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Only 2% of K-12 teachers nationwide are Black men, and just 4.5% are Black women. Black teachers are 50% more likely to leave the profession than white teachers. Just 4% of university faculty are Black. (Photo: teacher.org)

This piece is the second in a three-part series about education in the US. The first is Back to School: How to Be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color.

A few years ago, when I was the senior lecturer at [name redacted] university, the only time my “senior lecturer status” was ever mentioned was when the department chair offered me a class in Black theatre because they “had to” due to my “status.” I told them to hire a Black colleague instead. My “status” as “senior lecturer” had never come up before and never came up again. In fact, that same year I was roundly scolded for “assuming” I had a particular class just because it had been offered to me. They suddenly announced at the last minute they were hiring a white man, lecturing there for the first time, and when I brought up the fact that the job had already been offered to me, I was sternly rebuked. So much for my “senior lecturer” status. I was scolded again by senior staff for later refusing to assist the new hire without pay.

My story is not unique. It’s not even particularly unique in my own academic career. White educators, especially white male educators, experience enormous privilege in the workplace, whether they know it or not.

White men are over-represented in all academic leadership roles. In public high schools, 70% of principals are male, almost all white. Independent schools fare no better; 90% of school heads are white and 64% are male. Over 86% of public school superintendents are men and 92% are white.

White men also enjoy a host of privileges as teachers. In an era when student test scores have become a (mystifyingly) critical marker of teacher performance, white men are assigned high-performing classes more often than women and people of color. Men are given better evaluations than their female colleagues and colleagues of color, even when teaching online classes with literally identical, copy-and-paste content. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in non-union independent schools, men are paid a full 32% more than women. Even in unionized public schools, men are paid 12% more than women. This may sound impossible given the codification of pay scales in teaching positions, but schools have a great deal of flexibility in determining which step on the pay scale a teacher begins when hired and what kinds of classes, certifications, and degrees they will accept for pay-raising post-graduate education. Educators of color are less likely to be retained, and Black teachers’ expertise in both subject matter and pedagogy is routinely downplayed or overlooked.

In short, discrimination is rampant in academia, and, although this piece focuses primarily on race, it’s not limited to race alone. Teachers with disabilities are routinely refused accommodations, and in most areas of the country, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming teachers are deeply discriminated against. Shockingly, half of transgender teachers report being harassed by colleagues and administrators.

White educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for educators of color. Male educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for women. Cis educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming educators. Able-bodied educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for educators with disabilities. While this piece focuses on race, there is much work to be done in all areas of inequity, and the techniques described below can be used to create diversity, inclusion, and equity for all.

EXAMINE RETENTION RATES. A site’s retention rates are key to understanding the experiences of those who work there. Is your site able to retain white people, but struggles to retain people of color? Are men retained longer than women? Has your site lost a number of women of color all within a short time frame? Examining your retention rates will provide valuable insight into whether your site is truly welcoming and equitable. If your site utilizes exit interviews, perhaps compiling the answers of the people of color who have left your site within the past few years will prove enlightening. Believe what people of color tell you about working at your site, and pay careful attention to trends in the compiled exit interview data.

ENCOURAGE DIVERSE HIRING AT YOUR SITE. Diversity in the workplace, both in teaching staff and in leadership, has numerous benefits. Although our student population is now “majority minority,” US teaching staff is 80% white, with many sites lacking even a single Black or Latinx classroom teacher, even in diverse areas, while evidence continues to mount that students of color have better outcomes when they have teachers of color. A 2015 Stanford University study showed that Black students are disciplined more harshly for the same infractions than white students. The odds of being assigned to a “gifted” or advanced program are 66% lower for Black students and 47% lower for Latinx students than they are for white students, even with high placement test scores. Non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers do, even when evaluating the same students. Non-Latinx teachers have negative perceptions of Latinx students, especially when they’re EL students. A more diverse teaching staff is the first step in creating a more equitable education for students of color. White staff will also benefit from working alongside educators with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Is your site hiring? Spread the word to colleagues of color. Post on social media and ask your friends to keep an eye out for candidates of color. Mention to administrators the critical importance of a diverse staff. Advocate for candidates of color when they apply. When you have the opportunity to invite guest speakers to your classroom, look for people of color regardless of the topic. Both students of color and white students need diverse role models.

SUPPORT YOUR COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. It’s not going to do much good if you hire educators of color and then dismiss, minimize, or contest everything they have to say. This is diversity without equity—hiring people of color and then relegating them to a voiceless underclass. Practical ways you can support your colleagues of color (and remember that all of these can be extrapolated to colleagues with disabilities, LGBTQ colleagues, etc):

  1. Educate yourself. Read writers of color and believe what they have to say about whiteness. If you’re uncomfortable with their critiques, work to change the impact of whiteness on their lives rather than fault writers of color for telling the truth of their lived experiences. A better understanding of the experiences of your colleagues of color will increase your effectiveness as an ally.
  2. Listen and believe your colleagues of color. Do not argue with people of color about their lived experiences of racism, especially if your argument is about intent (“I didn’t mean it that way!”). Impact is much more important than intent. If a colleague of color trusts you enough to educate you about something racially problematic happening at your site, or something racially problematic that you’ve done or said, listen to them. Your colleague of color is taking an enormous risk by discussing this with you. Honor that by listening sincerely. Then support your colleague if further steps need to be taken, such as bringing a proposed policy change to administration, or requesting administration reverse a racially charged decision.
  3. Work with administration to get diversity and equity training for the whole staff, and approach the work sincerely by educating the staff about white fragility beforehand. I’ve been through many diversity trainings, and I honestly think most white people imagine diversity training will just be a lengthy affirmation of our cherished belief that we are “not racist.” We imagine that we will sit for a few hours shaking our heads in dismay about “those racists over there” while congratulating ourselves for being “not that.” White people in diversity trainings become enormously fragile, defensive, and even angry the moment they realize that diversity training is actually about combating our own implicit racism and the ways in which we support systemic racism. White people will angrily or tearfully insist we’re “not racist” and “a good person,” insist we “don’t see color,” insist the trainer is incompetent, crow about our resistance to the training (such as boasting about “stumping” the trainer with whataboutism or examples of “reverse racism”), state that we feel “attacked,” dismiss accounts of racism by people of color as “exaggerated,” and more. Staff-wide education around white fragility could provide some tools to mitigate those all-too-common negative reactions to the work. Until white staff are past fragility and defensiveness, little progress can be made.
  4. Work to create clear policies and procedures. When we leave decisions to “case-by-case bases,” more often than not, implicit biases create inequity. Clear policies and procedures, applied equitably, can insure that decisions are as untainted by implicit biases as possible. For example, it’s startlingly common for white male administrators to plan privately with white male educators, securing the most desirable classes and assignments for the white men and then offering the remainder to the women and people of color on staff. “We didn’t know you were interested!” is always the excuse, an excuse created by keeping initial planning secret so the question is never asked. Codifying equitable policies would avoid the resentment that such favoritism breeds, increasing retention.

DIVERSIFY LEADERSHIP. In the US, the vast majority of educational leadership is both white and male. Such homogeneity not only reduces effectiveness, but perpetuates itself in that white males are far more likely to hire and promote other white males, minimize or discount their errors and failures, and assume competence even with extraordinary evidence to the contrary. (We’ve all been in situations where a white man who failed spectacularly at another site is hired for a position of leadership at ours.) Homogeneity in leadership leads to the implicit biases common to that group running unchecked through the industry as a whole. Leadership– from department leadership all the way through the superintendent and school board or board of directors– must reflect the diversity of the surrounding community if it is to effectively serve that community.

Diversity without equity is not effective. Hiring women and people of color and then refusing to pay them equitably, promote them, or even listen sincerely to their input is not reflective of a true “commitment to diversity,” a phrase every school and university across the nation displays proudly on their websites. We have much work to do in our industry– and in our culture at large– to live up to that promise. Let’s get to work.

Next: Back to School: How to Fix the “Broken Education System”

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