A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
How to use social-emotional competencies to retain teachers of color
Administrators can create an inclusive and supportive environment that addresses their specific needs
By Carol Larson | May | June 2024
In a former role, I was responsible for developing a new teacher induction program. After the first session, a teacher who identifies as Black approached me in distress. She expressed that her colleagues were dismissive and treated her as if she were invisible. I readdressed norms with the group, emphasizing the need for equity of voice, but I knew that wasn’t enough. As one of the few district-level administrators of color, I was often approached to act as a sounding board for teachers who felt excluded or unfairly treated because of their race. As a result of my experiences, I learned that if we want to retain teachers of color (TOC), we must act intentionally to create school environments that meet their social-emotional needs.
In this teacher shortage era, finding and retaining TOC is a pressing challenge for school leaders. Researchers have shown that students of color benefit from having teachers who look like and understand them. For instance, Redding (2019) found that Black students scored higher on achievement tests when they were assigned to a Black teacher, and that students with same-race teachers received more favorable teacher ratings. Blazar (2021) observed that when students of color were matched to teachers who shared the same race and ethnicity, students experienced gains in academic, behavioral and social-emotional outcomes, such as higher test scores, self-efficacy and engagement in classroom activities. Meanwhile, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2020), our teacher workforce is still largely White (79 percent overall), and they are teaching a student population that predominantly identifies as non-White (55 percent).
This imbalance in the educator workforce can be attributed to a few dynamics. Not only do TOC experience higher turnover rates (Achinstein et al., 2010), the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (2022) reports that among the dwindling preservice teacher enrollments at colleges of education, only 28 percent are people of color. In other words, within the overall teacher shortage, there is a more exacerbated TOC shortage, and this will likely persist for years to come. This means that many non-White students will have either limited or no access to a TOC and may not experience the benefits of being taught by one. In this landscape, there is an urgency in retaining TOC. But how?
Although TOC are concerned about job-related stress and low salaries, it is important to note that TOC attrition is also attributed to social-emotional factors, such as the absence of social support, feeling isolated or alone, lacking collaborative opportunities, not having access to safe discussions about race, observing negative attitudes towards people of color in schools, the absence of culturally relevant practices, and few or no opportunities to participate in decision making or to act autonomously within school environments (Achinstein et al., 2010; Bettini et al., 2022).
Because of these challenges, it is critical that we develop a sense of workplace belonging to reduce TOC attrition rates. First, some scholars argue that belonging is a human need and necessary for healthy psychological functioning (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Furthermore, The Harvard Study of Adult Development (see Waldinger & Schulz, 2023 essay) showed that having positive relationships was the strongest predictor for long-term health and happiness. This suggests that teachers’ mental health may suffer in isolating, non-affirming environments, which may fuel the desire to leave the profession. Thus, schools will benefit by promoting the type of teacher belonging that extends beyond simply being recognized. Instead, school leaders should strive to promote transformative practices that include the active building of relationships and participation of marginalized groups within the schools (Jagers et al., 2018). This is characterized by social acceptance, respect, inclusion and support within the learning environment (Allen et al., 2018).
Fortunately, administrators can leverage their social-emotional competencies in ways that facilitate belonging. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2020) generated a well-respected SEL framework and defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
Putting your SEL competencies to work Because TOC may face unique challenges related to their identity and cultural backgrounds, it’s essential to create an inclusive and supportive environment that addresses their specific needs. However, I would argue that building inclusive environments that strengthen belonging will benefit all teachers. Although the CASEL’s SEL competencies are defined and described separately below, it is important to note that they are intertwined and complementary in practice, and that administrators may need to call on several competencies at once in some situations.
Self-awareness Self-aware administrators and staff will be able to recognize and understand their emotions, strengths, weaknesses and values. They benefit by working on self-regulation skills to manage emotions to promote constructive discussions. They are also able to assess their impact on behavior and decision-making. One way to begin to strengthen this competency is by reflecting on your emotions and core values. Through self-reflection, it is important to be attuned to your emotions. How would you describe them? Are your values visible in your behaviors? How can you lean on those values to advocate for and promote belonging for TOC? Once you identify and acknowledge them, what needs to be done to be able to act on your values?
Additionally, administrators can create environments that develop greater self-awareness by encouraging teachers to reflect on their own cultural identities, values and experiences in ways that reinforce self-assuredness and worthiness. It is important to recognize that teachers often hold multiple identities, including race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, etc. Additionally, being able to explore self-awareness through reflections on how our various identities intersect and influence our roles as educators may stimulate productive conversations. In these collaborative spaces, administrators should support those who want to share experiences and insights while helping others to develop empathy and social awareness.
Self-management Self-management is about effectively regulating one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors. It includes skills such as impulse control, stress management, goal setting and motivation. Individuals with strong self-management skills can handle challenges and setbacks more effectively.
The field of education has been rife with conflict that includes heated debates on how to teach about race. The ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is a critical facet of today’s school leadership. Administrators can help staff develop self-regulation skills to manage their own emotions and reactions by offering training in stress-reduction and coping strategies, particularly since addressing cultural conflict can be emotionally taxing. Additionally, exercising time management and organizational skills will help you to be steadfast in realizing your school culture goals.
Social awareness Social awareness focuses on recognizing and understanding the emotions and perspectives of others. This competency involves empathy, which is the ability to appreciate and consider the feelings of others, as well as the capacity to navigate and respond to social cues and situations.
One can begin to develop social awareness through curiosity. If you are noticing that some teachers are isolating themselves, it is important to check in with those teachers and to explore the reasons why. You can begin by asking staff, “Are you OK? Is there anything that I can do to help?” It is important to note that healthy relationships are built on trust, and it may take time before a person feels safe to express vulnerability. However, showing that you care by taking an interest in the social-emotional lives of staff is a good first step.
Administrators can also promote belonging via social awareness by organizing workshops that teach staff how to develop cultural competence via empathy, recognition of biases and the understanding of how microaggressions and stereotypes can negatively affect collaboration and relationship building. The goal is to create a school environment that welcomes multiple perspectives and includes culturally relevant practices. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Why DEI Training Doesn’t Work ­— And How to Fix It,” the authors share that DEI programs fail when participants feel shame, guilt or moral inferiority (Banaji & Dobbin, 2023). Thus, it is critical that school leaders focus on building inclusive working environments that promote the respect and dignity of all staff. It also requires administrators to develop an understanding of what motivates others to foster community belonging. One way to do this is to create a common cause for staff. What is your purpose as educators? What do you hope to do as a group? Since TOC are often driven to the field of education to advocate for students, focusing on purpose and meaningful work may create a sense of “we are all in this together.”
...Within the overall teacher shortage, there is a more exacerbated [teacher of color] shortage, and this will likely persist for years to come. This means that many non-White students will have either limited or no access to a TOC and may not experience the benefits of being taught by one.
Relationship skills Relationship skills encompass the ability to establish and maintain healthy and positive relationships with others. This includes effective communication, active listening, conflict resolution and cooperation. Developing strong relationship skills is crucial for forming meaningful connections with peers, family and the community. Administrators can promote belonging through facilitating collaboration and teamwork among teachers of all backgrounds. Encourage staff with diverse backgrounds to work together on projects, share resources and co-teach if possible. They can also create mentoring or buddy programs where TOC can connect with more experienced colleagues who can provide guidance and support. If TOC are few in numbers, creating affinity groups or professional networks where they can build relationships and/or receive mentoring from TOC at different schools or across a region may also increase a sense of belonging. Another important way to exercise relationship skills is to address conflicts or misunderstandings promptly and constructively. It would be beneficial to offer training in effective communication, active listening and conflict resolution, so that staff can develop the tools needed to engage in difficult conversations and productive collaboration. Opportunities for team-building activities and exercises will help teachers build trust and strengthen their relationships with colleagues, particularly when they have the opportunity to work in diverse teams. Finally, administrators can create structures within the school day that promote relationship building and collaboration. Bonding events, such as team retreats, will enable teachers to spend time together and get to know one another. By fostering a sense of belonging for TOC, administrators can create a welcoming and inclusive school culture. Responsible decision-making Responsible decision-making involves making thoughtful and ethical choices. It includes considering the consequences of one’s actions on oneself and others, as well as using problem-solving skills and ethical reasoning to make decisions that align with one’s values and the well-being of the community. Administrators can exercise their responsible decision-making competencies by developing clear guidelines and policies for addressing issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Within this context, it would be beneficial to provide training on how to make culturally responsive and equitable decisions. Administrators will need to ensure that teachers understand how to make decisions that consider the needs and perspectives of diverse team members and help teams consider the collective well-being of all staff. These processes can be buoyed by encouraging TOC to participate in decision-making processes related to curriculum development, school policies and professional development opportunities. Administrators can go a step further by intentionally including TOC in leadership roles. Strengthening your social-emotional competencies will take time and may include occasional failure (such as ineffectively resolving a conflict). However, it is important to stay the course in sharpening these skills if your goal is to create an inclusive environment that promotes a sense of belonging for TOC and other marginalized groups. As you practice your social-emotional skills, you will continue to grow due to experience, learning and the hard work of personal development. By cultivating this type of social capital, you will be able to generate more support for your school’s mission and vision and, hopefully, retain staff during this critical period of teacher shortages. References Achinstein, B., Ogawa, R. T., Sexton, D., & Freitas, C. (2010). Retaining teachers of color: A pressing problem and a potential strategy for “hard-to-staff” schools. Review of Educational Research, 80(1), 71–107. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654309355994 Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9389-8 Banaji, M., & Dobbin, F. (2023, August 17). Why DEI Training Doesn’t Work-and How to Fix It. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/business/c-suite/dei-training-hr-business-acd23e8b Bettini, E., Cormier, C. J., Ragunathan, M., & Stark, K. (2022). Navigating the Double Bind: A Systematic Literature Review of the Experiences of Novice Teachers of Color in K–12 Schools. Review of Educational Research, 92(4), 495–542. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543211060873 Blazar, D. (2021). Teachers of Color, Culturally Responsive Teaching, and Student Outcomes: Experimental Evidence from the Random Assignment of Teachers to Classes (EdWorkingPaper: 21-501). https://doi.org/10.26300/jym0-wz02 Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2020). CASEL SEL Framework. https://casel.org/casel-sel-framework-11-2020/ Colleges of Education: A National Portrait Second Edition. (2022). www.aacte.org Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Borowski, T. (2018). Equity and Social Emotional Learning: A Cultural Analysis (Issue November). http://nationalequityproject.org/ Redding, C. (2019). A teacher like me: A review of the effect of student–teacher racial/ethnic matching on teacher perceptions of students and student academic and behavioral outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 89(4), 499–535. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654319853545 Waldinger, R., & Schulz, M. (2023, January 13). The lifelong power of close relationships. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-lifelong-power-of-close-relationships-11673625450 Carol Larson, Ph.D., is a former educator and district administrator. She is also an educational psychologist who specializes in social-emotional reasoning.