*In order to understand the reasons BIPOC teachers are leaving education, the experiences of BIPOC teachers have to be considered with respect to the differences between the various identities comprising this categorization. BIPOC is a category made of distinct racial identities, and respectively, these identities uniquely impact the experience of being an educator. It was widely supported amongst community conversation participants to not collapse all experiences into an expansive not-white category. This consolidation requires us to neglect important distinctions and may eliminate nuanced explanations of experience in favor of a more homogeneous account of the experience of BIPOC educators. With an understanding of these flaws, we will use the term because participants consistently named, analyzed, and problematized the use of BIPOC.
Not only have school districts had trouble recruiting new BIPOC teachers into the educational system, increasingly, many BIPOC teachers are looking to move away from traditional educational settings. In the Denver Metro Area, this dynamic is creating concerns that many students will get through their entire K-12 education without ever encountering a teacher of color. If school districts continue to struggle to retain BIPOC teachers, schools throughout the metro area will remain places where there is a significant mismatch between the demographics of students and their teachers.
Many community members noted that the retention of BIPOC educators is deeply intertwined with the ability to grow the overall pool of teachers from the local community. One current educator in Boulder Valley Schools noted that the lack of funding for education in Colorado makes it difficult for people in the metro area to begin their teaching career in-state. As he put it, “We don’t invest in education in Colorado so we’re not cultivating our own teachers… So if we don’t invest in our teachers and make it affordable for them and do a good job of that, then we’re going to have to bring in kids [young teachers] from out of state and they’re going to have to go through all the culture shock of moving here. Denver’s a weird place, there’s not a lot of other places like this, and learning to live here whether you’re white or Black is challenging.” He noted that due to the more lucrative opportunities out of state, many of the students of color who had expressed interest in becoming a teacher ended up pursuing their training and starting their careers elsewhere. Unlike teachers recruited from elsewhere, these teachers might’ve been more likely to have a positive experience in the early stages of their career as they did not have to adjust to a new social environment on top of adjusting to a new role as a professional teacher.
The inability to cultivate homegrown talent can cause students of color in the metro area to disassociate themselves with the possibility of teaching as a career path. As one former educator put it, “if you don’t see a teacher of color, you don’t think teaching is for you as a person of color…. When we’re asking why it’s difficult to retain teachers of color, that’s why. You’re not seeing communities like yours come up in this industry.” She further suggested that instead of trying to present teaching as an attractive career option to local kids, school districts in the metro area seem eager to recruit teachers from nationwide programs that cultivate a pool of young, largely white, teachers whose attachment to teaching often stems from the desire to alleviate student loan debt.
Several educators suggested that the inability for schools to retain BIPOC teachers presents an opportunity to rethink the relationship between educators and students. Taking cues from the innovative spirit of the Combahee River Collective, these educators suggested that reforms to the educational system should be compatible with an overarching commitment to creating systems which are liberating as opposed to dominating or oppressive. One former educator suggested that given the repeated failures of districts in the metro area to provide an environment that can attract and retain BIPOC educators, ensuring students are taught by educators of color may require creating a new educational landscape in which schools are not the only way for BIPOC educators to interact with students. As she put it, school districts are going to have to learn to “Be happy that we’re in the space of children and impacting children just not the way that you want us to be.” She furthered the point noting that our commitment to maintaining existing ways of connecting students with educators unduly limits our imagination in terms of producing solutions. As she put it, the conversation of retaining BIPOC teachers in the contemporary educational system could be a waste of time, trying to reform something that is unsalvageable. Instead of inventing new ways to ensure districts in the metro area can retain BIPOC teachers, she suggests that we may perhaps be better served by beginning to creatively design new ways of ensuring BIPOC educators get opportunities to interact with students.
Districts within the Metro Area are aware that teachers of color often feel isolated in their respective schools and attempt to step in by creating affinity groups which often function like focus groups. These affinity spaces are intended to give BIPOC teachers an opportunity to voice their specific concerns, build a network of other BIPOC teachers, and strengthen the relationship between teachers and administrators. However, these spaces can often feel inorganic and disingenuous, leaving them unable to help BIPOC teachers develop the type of environment that would make remaining in teaching more attractive. Several current and former teachers noted that having these conversations outside of the purview of authoritative figures from the district would allow them to function better as spaces that actually build a sense of community. Not only would they provide an opportunity for BIPOC teachers to expand their network, but it would also provide an opportunity to strategize ways to improve educational spaces even if that involves critiquing existing systems and practices.
Some of the reasons BIPOC teachers are prone to leave schools can only be attended to through sustained long term efforts, simply treating educators more kindly would also go a long way to help retain teachers of color. As one current educator put it, “There’s some really simple human things that they could be doing and they just don’t do them.” Educators pointed out that simply acknowledging the significant contributions of teachers could make teaching feel more fulfilling and less draining. Doling out schwag like coffee mugs and plastic pens does not provide teachers with the sense that their work is actually appreciated and in fact can remind teachers that their labor is truly undervalued. This dynamic can be especially frustrating for BIPOC teachers, who have to manage an invisible caseload on top of the regular duties assigned to a teacher.
Retaining BIPOC teachers is going to require community members, educators and administrators to be open to new and innovative ways of arranging educational spaces. It also requires a commitment to ensuring that teaching is a viable profession, where one can reliably make a living and experience a work environment that does not cause systematic burnout. Importantly, there was an overwhelming consensus that having a diverse teaching staff is critical for the development of students and the current state of affairs regarding BIPOC teacher retention is going to cause a crisis in education, if it has not already.