Speaker 1:

Welcome, advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. Today, I got a special guest, Dr. Anne Burns Thomas. She is the author of Please Hire More Teachers of Color: Challenging the Good Enough in Teacher Diversity Efforts. So without further ado, Anne, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Thank you so much for having me.

Speaker 1:

Pleasure's mine. I'm excited to talk about this subject. It's a subject that I find very dear to my heart. So, I'm really excited to get into it. But before we do, I'd love for you to share a little bit about yourself and what you currently do.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Sure. I'm a professor at SUNY Cortland, which is in central New York. I work in the Foundations and Social Advocacy Department. I teach foundations courses to our teacher education students, and I also coordinate a scholarship program for students of color who are interested in becoming teachers. I've done this work since 2006. Before that, I was a middle school English teacher in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Speaker 1:

All right. So, tell me more about the scholarship program to get teachers of color into ... Because I want to say our stats nationwide is about 80% or so higher of white teachers. So, tell me more about the scholarship program.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Sure. You're right about the 80%. And that's one of the most persistent demographics of teachers throughout the past 50 years. Teaching remains a very white, very middle class, very female-dominated profession. The scholarship program began at SUNY Cortland before I came. But at the time, the president of our college felt that since we were such a large teacher education institution, we had a responsibility to do something about the fact that teaching was not a more diverse profession. So, we began an externally-funded scholarship program. We award 10 to 20 scholarships per year. The students can be in any major that leads to teacher certification.

               A fun fact about SUNY Cortland is that we are the largest preparer of teachers east of the Mississippi River. You might think 10 to 20 teachers in the scholarship program per year, that's a pretty good number. But proportionately, it's a very small percentage of students that are enrolled in our scholarship program that receive recognition and support for becoming teachers. It's a quality program. The students have introduced me to a lot of different perspectives about why we need a more diverse teaching force. And yet, we can do so much better.

Speaker 1:

I mean, I agree. The work continues. There's always more that we can do. There's always room for growth. I'm glad that work is being done out there. So, kudos to you and your president, I guess the president that started this scholarship program. And I'm glad that you're doing this work.

               I want to get into your research. We don't have to get deep into the data and all that stuff, but I kind of wanted to know what brought you to this research, please hire more teachers of color, challenging the good enough. And I want to touch on what the good enough is and teacher diversity efforts.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

I guess it was twofold. We all hold multiple identities. So at the same time that I'm working at SUNY Cortland in this teacher diversity role, I was also a parent of elementary school children. And every year, parents in our district get sent home a form. What are you looking for in your teacher next year? Of course it's not guaranteed, but what are you looking for?

               And for me every year, I would ask, I would request to have the teacher of color for my children, and there was only typically one or two at every grade level. Routinely, that would be a request that was ignored, and I always wondered a little bit about that. Why isn't that something that we can request? Because we want our children, in this case, my children are white, to have a mentor, a role model who is of a different background than them. And yet, you can request to have your children placed with their friends in their kindergarten classroom, but you can't request a richer teaching experience by asking for a teacher of color to be assigned in that way. That was one question that I had.

               The second question was I look at the program at SUNY Cortland as, as you said, important work. But, what are the ways that it's also hiding the fact that more of our students who are admitted to the regular teacher education program aren't students of color, don't identify as black, or African-American, or Latinx, or Native American. By highlighting every year, look, we have this scholarship program with these amazing students, which we do, we're also kind of downplaying the fact that it's a very small proportion. So, I wanted to look at both at the district level and at the teacher education level what are these efforts to try and diversify the teaching force and why aren't they working? Why aren't we further along in this process? So, that's kind of where my research came from.

Speaker 1:

Okay. Now, we're going to get into that a little more, but I want to know, what is the good enough? What does that mean? Touch on that because I want to kind of make sure that we're on the same page.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Sure. In my understanding, is it good enough to have what the district I studied called a teacher on special assignment, which was ... This woman was a retired administrator. She identified as a woman of color, and she every year would be assigned for two months to go to teacher fairs to try and recruit diverse candidates. So, the district could say they had a program to try and diversify the teaching force, and yet it's not their actual HR representative. It's not a full-time position. It's not something that is embedded into the fabric of the district. It's this partial add-on step.

               Another thing that I found that people would point to as good enough was in this district that I studied, they had a small increase in the number of teachers of color from one year to the next. This was really highlighted in their PR materials as what a great thing we have here. And when you dug into it a little bit deeper, you saw that the increase was due to teachers that the superintendent had hired for administrative positions. So again, it's not embedded into the fabric of hiring. It's these half steps and these partial efforts that people can point to and say, "We're trying." And yet, is it really good enough? Are we doing enough to try and actually make a difference in, like I said, this very stubbornly white profession?

Speaker 1:

What I'm hearing is on paper you could say, "Oh, yeah. We have these programs. And we're actively involved in trying to diversify our teaching pool." However, as you kind of could observe, yeah, it looks good on paper, but the actions weren't really there. And it sounds like you just had one person, literally, that was going out to try to recruit, "Hey. Hey, guys. We need more." And I could see how that could be a challenge. I guess, what was the result of the recruitment? So, it sounds like there was some increase, but, I mean, obviously there was more needed or ...

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

This woman who was the administrator on special assignment, she was a force of personality, so she did actually recruit several teachers of color to the district. But, the thing was that she was a retired administrator who would come out of retirement to kind of do this cult of personality. She only did it for a few years, and so you weren't really building any sense of momentum at that point. It was the special one-off kind of things.

               Another effort that the district had that I think shows this too is that they had decided that one of the main problems was nepotism or people hiring their nieces or their neighbors. So, they put in a really very strict application and interview. It was supposed to get rid of nepotism and increased diversity. One of the features was actually an essay about what diversity means in teaching. Well, that continued to privilege a certain kind of applicant, not necessarily someone who lived a diverse life, but someone who could write well about diversity. So again, they could point to it and say, "Look, we did this thing," but what was the impact?

               Actually, a principal told me that she would routinely try and go around the essay because she felt like the people she wanted to hire, the teachers of color that had passion for changing the lives of their students might not always be the best at these standardized essays but were living the kind of anti-racist teaching that this principal wanted in her school. I think, again, it's a kind of ... It's an attempt. But, what does that attempt do in real, everyday practice? And in this case, the principal that I talked to who taught at the most racially ethnically and economically diverse school in the district felt like it was actually constraining her efforts to hire more teachers of color who live diverse lives.

Speaker 1:

Okay. All right. That leads me to my next question, because I was going to ask you how intentional was ... Obviously the principals, even though you have a pool of applicants. Were they intentionally looking to hire teachers of color or were they all kind of lumped into now I have more applications coming in from teachers of color, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to hire them based off of the applications because I'm going to look at ... Sounds like that if there was a rubric or whatever measurements were used, according to that essay that had to be written, that had to be added in as well. So, how intentional were principals out there that would like, "Oh, yeah. I want to get more teachers of color. Here's some applications"?

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

That's a great question to ask. And it shows how much insight you have into this that maybe some of the principals and leaders of this district were lacking at the time. I have to stress again this was 2015, so lots of strides have been made in the meantime. But, I think it's important to learn from the ways in which there were blind spots, and I think the principal pool was another blind spot.

               I interviewed one principal who said, "Hiring teachers of color is my number one priority. I'm actively recruiting in the community on all of these lists serves wherever I can." She understood also that she needed to begin with having connections to teacher education programs so that diverse student teachers could come in, so that she could cultivate those relationships.

               Then, I interviewed another principal who he taught ... He was the principal of this school that had the most kind of dichotomized. They had wealthy white students, and then they also had the students of color who came from really economically challenged backgrounds. At first, during our interview, he seemed to really get it. He said, "I understand that my students of color need to have role models. And I understand why we need to be hiring diverse people." Then, as we went along, he said, "But, I'm not just going to hire anybody. I'm not just going to hire ... I'm not just going to say, 'Well, I'll hire you because you're a teacher of color.'"

               And to me, as he kept talking and you're in one of those strange situations where you're researching and you're kind of pointing to the phone like, "You know I'm recording this, right?" But, he really said, "Basically, I shouldn't have to hire someone who's not the best teacher." And I said, "Well, what if the best teacher is a teacher of color?" And he seemed to not be able to make sense of that. Like it was either or in his mind. I think that your question is actually so right on. We need to be doing the work to make sure that the principals understand their own bias and don't let that bias get in the way of hiring the best person for the job, who's probably a teacher of color.

Speaker 1:

See, and then that was going to be my concern, because people lumped the affirmative action piece or, well, I need to hire the best candidate. And rather than thinking that, oh, I had to throw in a person of color, and then you're not equating that to being possibly the best candidate, but you're just saying, "Well, I got to hire a black staff or Latinx staff," but you're not looking at them as being qualified, highly qualified staff. You're just looking at I'm meeting a number. I'm trying to hit this quota because my boss is telling me that I have to do this, but I don't necessarily want to do is or know how to do it.

               And I agree that there are so many biases that we hold when it comes to, well, what school did they go to? How well did they ... Let's see your transcript. Then, how did you do in your classes and those kinds of things, as opposed to looking at the whole picture. Stats, data numbers, don't tell a whole story. But, we got to get them at least to the school or at least do those interviews and get a chance to know them on a personal level and just kind of find out would they'd be a good fit for the school. But, I think that's a step that's missed often.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Yeah. And how do we support people or welcome people if we didn't want to hire them in the first place or we don't understand why we're hiring them in the first place. That's another key point for me.

               And it was also really interesting to me that when I did these interviews with the school board member and many of the principals, they would talk about the district, which is ... It's not rural. It's kind of a town. It's not urban. It's not rural. It's college town kind of situation. They would talk about the district needing to recruit teachers to the town all the time. I asked at one point like, "What about recruiting from the town? There are obviously people of color in the town who might be a good pipeline to develop to becoming teachers." But, there was, again, that bias that if we're going to recruit people to be teachers, it has to be from a city or it has to be from some teacher education program that's in the city. That was a really strange blind spot for me as well.

               One of the board members that I interviewed, he identifies as African-American and he had an amazing quote. He was like, "What makes people think that I don't want to live here, that I wouldn't want the amazing things about living in a college town, and being on a lake, and having world-class dining, and all of these things? What's the blind spot there?" So, it's like this surface level of understanding the need to diversify without really digging deep into how it would challenge assumptions and bias.

Speaker 1:

Okay. Now, we've focused mainly on teachers. As far as the principals, assistant principals, your principals, your administrators, okay? That could be deans or whatever they have available at the school. And even counselors, school counselors. Was this mainly for just teachers or were we looking at also diversifying the administration and some of those support staff positions as well?

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Well, the superintendent identified as a black man, and he had recruited a lot of teachers of color to become principals. So at the time when I did my study, the administrative team was much more diverse than the teaching population. And of course, kind of the teacher assistant pool was, again, more diverse than the teachers. So, it really was an effort to try and recruit classroom teachers, which I think is also another interesting kind of question to dig into. It's something that in teacher ed we have to really take a close look at. Where are the obstacles to becoming teachers for a diverse range of students? Why don't we have a richer pool of candidates of color coming out of our teacher education institutions? What are the obstacles there. Because if they were administrators and they were also teacher assistants, you have to ask what's happening in the middle there.

Speaker 1:

I read an article, some research that basically showed how teacher certification, like the practice exam, those kinds of courses, exams you have to take, are like second to the CPA exam as far as the hardest.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Wow.

Speaker 1:

What they found was teachers of color, if they failed the practice exam the first time, they were less likely to try it again, as opposed to white candidates who may have more funding to retake the test, may have access to some sort of tutoring. Or not tutoring, but study guides and things like that to kind of help them out. So, that was one of the indicators as to why they weren't as many teachers of color that were certifying in their position. Have you seen any research like that?

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

I haven't seen research like that. One of the interesting things that I keep thinking about is what are the experiences in K-12 that lead you to want to be a teacher or not want to be a teacher. One of our biggest majors at SUNY Cortland is in physical education. And that is also the most diverse population. So, why is it that so many students of color, especially male students of color, can see themselves in their coaches, can see themselves in these inspirational teachers that they have in PE so then they can imagine themselves doing that? Why don't they see that in their elementary school teachers? Why don't they see that in their middle school social studies teachers? That's the question for me, is really trying to replicate the positive, kind of identity-building experience that these students have had through PE into other places so that they have that resilience to try again because becoming a teacher is a passion instead of just a career.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. Yeah. The other thing that I've seen is ... I mean, because, let's see, you're in New York, so, I mean, you have some ... I mean, you have Howard University is in Washington, DC. Historically black college is often seen as the mecca, if you will, of black institutions. Were there any active recruitment to historically black colleges or Hispanic-serving institutions or any of our tribal institutions? Were there any recruitment done or was it just kind of like, "Well, we just can't find anybody. We just can't seem to find any qualified staff?"

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Well, interestingly enough, the woman who I talked about who was the administrator on special assignment, she was very well known because she would go to every teacher fair and she would not follow the kind of guidelines about waiting at your table for people to come up to you. She would make her rounds and say, "I want to talk to you, and you, and you," and pull people. So, she was very intentional.

               But in terms of districts recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, I haven't actually heard anything like that. Syracuse City School District, which is, again, close to SUNY Cortland, they have some really interesting intentional recruitment efforts that begin in their own district at the middle school level through a program called Syracuse Teach. Then, they have a high school small learning community, which actually a high school in Buffalo does, too, that is a role model. Those places, I think, have shown other districts what it's like to be very intentional about cultivating visions of yourself as a teacher from a very young age. But, I haven't actually heard about districts, at least in New York State, who have done ....

               Actually, you know what? Well, I know that Syracuse, which we have a partnership with, they do have a partnership with Howard also. But, I'm not sure that it's just for teachers or that it's kind of a circular try and recruiting the Syracuse students to Howard and then, yeah.

Speaker 1:

Okay. Okay. That's something I would like to see more of. I mean, if you're saying it ... Because I hear the conversation about, oh, we, we can't find anybody. Basically, that's normal. At least your district was trying, on paper at least. They were trying. But, I've seen some districts that would just basically say, "We can't find anybody," or, "We can't get anybody to apply." And I just say, "Well, how far have you gone? How much have ... What funds have you been willing to spend when it comes to travel and sending out recruiters out there to find people that, again, are qualified staff that could fill your schools up and diversify the teaching staff?"

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Yeah. I mean, it's interesting to me, too, to think about in terms of the district that I studied what were they willing to sacrifice or what were they willing to give? In some ways, what I feel like is required is a real community engagement about why this is an affirmative action, about why this is in fact sound educational practice. But if you try to do half measures and you try to do things without arousing too much suspicion, I think you don't spend the money and you don't have a permanent position. And that leads to not a fully successful program.

               SUNY Cortland is not a Hispanic-serving institution but has a significant percentage of students who as Latinx. And I think that's such an interesting area for more research because not all Latinx students are going to become teachers in the same way. Do you speak Spanish? Are you a person who has had a lot of connection to your Latinx roots or is it something that you haven't really necessarily connected with that side of the family?

               I know in our scholarship program, we have many, many students who identify as Latinx, but that means very different things, and they need very different kinds of support to become anti-racists, culturally responsive teachers. And I think that, again, it's not an honest conversation until you acknowledge those things. Instead, you're kind of, as you said before, grouping everyone together like, "Oh, we'll just have someone in there. It doesn't matter really who they are." It doesn't take advantage of the richness of somebody's personal experience if you're just calling them a person of color without really getting into the strengths that they bring to the teaching profession.

Speaker 1:

Based off of your research, based off of your experience, what suggestions would you make when it comes to trying to recruit and going beyond the good enough? What strategies would you provide?

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Well, I think that the entire district needs to engage with the questions of why would we hire more teachers of color so that teachers, parents, community members can become advocates for a really robust hiring program that might give relocation benefits, or it might give additional education credits, or it might give bonuses to increase the diversity of the teaching force.

               I think teacher ed institutions should model after SUNY Cortland. And all of us should have a scholarship programs so that we can acknowledge that teaching is a profession that is demanding, for sure, but for many first-generation college students or their families it's not seen as so lucrative. Or how can we acknowledge the effort and the sacrifice of becoming a teacher? So, give a scholarship. Give a bonus. Give some sort of acknowledgement.

               I also think that we need to really reckon with what are the negative experiences with teachers that are causing people to leave the profession. And until we have podcast episodes and more research that delve into these questions, I think we're going to end up with a good enough efforts, kind of half that don't significantly change the experiences of students of color or teachers of color in many school districts.

Speaker 1:

Then, the other piece, and I say this a lot, but the other piece is one thing to recruit, but then how do we retain?

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Yeah.

Speaker 1:

Because when we have just, okay, we got three new black teachers for the whole district and then they stay for a year and maybe a little more, and then it's like, "Okay. I didn't feel welcomed. I dealt with all these microaggressions and straight up aggressions. Biases came out and just not ... A lack of cultural competency was displayed, and I moved on." And not only did I move on, maybe I moved to a neighborhood district or I just left teaching altogether. So that to me, that's the other piece, is to make sure that not only are we recruiting, but we're also retaining.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Yeah. An interesting thing that, again, I haven't done a lot of research about, but this is just in my experience with over 14 years of graduates so far, so many of our SUNY Cortland graduates who are teachers of color are snapped up by charter schools because they have these really tight hiring practices. They can offer a job in February that you start in August and you have that assurance that you're ready. Then, within two or three years, you're an administrator. You're moving up. And I feel like charter schools have a role in our society, but what can public schools learn from the ways that charter schools recruit, retain, promote, support teachers of color, especially in New York City? It's just been very fascinating for me to watch a year after graduation I'm being asked to write a letter of recommendation so someone could be an administrator. It's something that we need to look more closely at, for sure.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. Yeah. I would agree. Anne, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you can provide to our listeners?

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

My word of advice would be to stop settling for good enough, to demand actual change. I think teachers are doing that every day, and so I'm inspired by the work of teachers doing that.

Speaker 1:

All right.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

And this podcast. Thank you.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. Thank you. If we got some folks that want to connect with you, what's the best way to reach out online?

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

The best way to reach out would be by email right now. It's [email protected] My website is cortland.edu/cure, C-U-R-E, which is the name of the scholarship program I coordinate.

Speaker 1:

Nice. Once again, I am speaking to Dr. Anne Burns Thomas, author of Please Hire More Teachers of Color: Challenging the Good Enough in Teacher Diversity Efforts. Anne, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.

Dr. Anne Burns Thomas:

Thank you.

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