Blain Watson, principal of Dominguez High School in Compton, helped bring the Compton Male Teachers of Color Network to his school and is working to expand it throughout the district. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)
Fabian Flores wants to be a third grade teacher because of a study he read.
The research, out of Johns Hopkins University, found that for some students of color, having a single teacher who looked like them by third grade could change the trajectory of their lives, making them more likely to finish high school and go to college.
Flores knows California’s teachers don’t reflect the diversity of the state’s students. Male teachers of color are especially rare, making up less than 10% of the workforce. So as uncomfortable as it can feel to be one of the only men in his education classes at CSU Dominguez Hills, he knows he’s needed.
Flores said he wants to teach in the community where he grew up in South Central Los Angeles. But he worries about what awaits him after he finishes his teacher-training program.
“What scares me is getting a job at an elementary school where I don’t have a mentor who shows me the ropes, where administration and teachers are not on the same page,” he says. “What scares me is not having the resources other schools in richer communities have.”
He has reason to worry. Flores’s mentor teacher, Los Angeles Unified’s Darryl McKellar, has seen a lot of new teachers come and go in his two decades on the job. “Especially young black, young brown teachers don’t choose to stay because they don’t feel supported,” McKellar says.
That’s why any effort to increase teacher diversity has to focus as much on what happens after teachers reach the classroom as before, says Travis Bristol, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.
California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has made diversifying the teacher workforce a key part of his strategy to close the achievement gap for students of color. As he begins that undertaking, experts like Bristol are advocating for investments that address turnover.
“Policymakers say, ‘Let's just create a fancy recruitment initiative, bring them all in,’ ” Bristol says. “But if the house is burning, who's going to stay?”
Poor working conditions are the thing most likely to drive any teacher from the profession, and according to one recent study by the Learning Policy Institute, teachers of color are concentrated in schools with the most challenging conditions. That’s in part by choice, Bristol says, but also a result of discriminatory hiring practices at schools in more affluent communities.
That’s a big part of the reason teachers of color leave at higher rates than white peers. The study found that half of public school teachers of color cited job dissatisfaction as a reason for leaving the profession. Turnover rates for black and brown men were 50% higher than rates for women of color.
Longtime Compton Unified teacher Marco Godinez has some thoughts on why. “The only time I ever seem to get a phone call is, ‘Hey, we've got these kids misbehaving in this class, can you come over and help them calm down?’ ” he says. “We're not respected at the same level as other teachers, we’re just seen as discipline experts.”
A few school districts around the country are experimenting with efforts to address high turnover among men of color by creating support networks specifically for them — places to learn from their peers, share expertise and build community.
“There was nothing in their professional development that helped them understand and make sense of these unique challenges that they believed were a result of their race and gender,” he says.
Now, at Godinez’s school in Compton, Bristol is experimenting with something a little different. Here, school leadership is working directly alongside those teachers.
“It's not enough to just focus on the men of color. You have to focus on the organization that they're in,” Bristol says. “If you're going to support teachers, you have to recreate and reimagine the condition of the school they're in, and the person who leads that is the principal.”
Among teachers of color who cited job dissatisfaction as a reason for leaving the profession, over 80% named frustration with administrators as the source of their discontent, according to the LPI study.
‘Like an AA Class for Teachers’
On a Saturday at Dominguez High School in Compton, a dozen teachers are gathered in the library, along with the principal, assistant principal and district superintendent.
“Good morning, good morning!” Principal Blain Watson greets them. “Welcome back to our Compton Male Teachers of Color Network meeting.”
The teachers recently paired up and visited each other's classrooms and begin to discuss some of the strategies they discovered.
“What I noticed in Mr. Ojini’s class — he was saying don’t worry about the mistakes, it’s OK to make mistakes,” Dominguez High School math teacher Chung Mo Kim tells the group. He explains his own tendency to criticize repeated mistakes. “I think I kind of put the kids a little more on the defensive. I need to empathize with the students more.”
Other teachers mention tech tools they discovered or new educational materials. They consider the value of class time spent getting to know students personally, and how shaking each student’s hand at the door can build rapport.
Eric Wells, a history teacher also from Dominguez High, says that learning from fellow teachers in a nonjudgmental space gives him inspiration and makes him feel less isolated. “A lot of times in a classroom you can feel like I'm the only one dealing with this,” he says. “So to hear other people have gone through it, it's almost like an AA class for teachers.”
These meetings are as much a source of camaraderie and nourishment as a place to develop and share expertise. So on this Saturday, the group turns to talking about a campus lockdown that happened a day earlier when a student made a violent threat. Bristol asks the teachers how they’re feeling about it.
“Our kids don't know how to react to that trauma because they're kids,” Godinez says. “It's like we have to model that.”
But what really frustrates him is how parents can thwart those efforts. “Sometimes you call a parent because the child's been in a fight, and the parent’s coming down here to get into a fight with someone, you know, and escalate it.”
“We're here for the kids,” Godinez adds. “But it's like the whole community needs the help.”
‘He Needs Help Just Like We Do’
As the teachers talk, Principal Watson listens intently. “I've literally woken up in the middle of the night thinking about kids here at school, like are they OK?,” he says. “We’re talking about self care — I don't know how to care for myself when I'm waking up thinking about someone else's children, right? I don’t know how to deal with that.”
This is a place where even the principal doesn’t have to have things figured out. Dominguez High special education teacher Damon Stokes says seeing Watson show such vulnerability helps humanizes him. “I was like, ‘wow.’ I thought he had it all together. He needs help just like we do,” he says.
The experience, Stokes says, has changed how he relates to Watson. “Before I just thought he was this hard principal,” he says, noting that he used to take it personally when Watson seemed upset. “Now, when I look in his face I can see he’s in distress, or something’s bothering him.”
The intimacy of this space isn’t the only thing that’s changed the relationship between school leaders and staff. This is a place where Watson formally seeks teachers’ advice to inform his decisions.
Each month, Watson presents an issue he’s dealing with. “The core problem here is that the admin team is overwhelmed,” he tells the group.
He explains how he’s struggling with a group of veteran teachers he feels aren’t doing enough to enforce discipline in their classrooms.
“Teachers are kicking kids out of class without proper intervention and students just show up in the main office, students are wandering the halls,” he says.
The teachers take turns asking questions, making suggestions and offering feedback.
Godinez, who has been at Dominguez High for 19 years, has some thoughts on why these teachers may be uncooperative. “I can't even count how many principals we’ve gone through,” he says. “We’ve had a revolving door.”
He says every time a new leader comes in, it feels like history gets erased; teachers’ past experiences don’t matter and the sole focus is on what comes next.
“A lot of those veteran teachers at that point feel disenfranchised, like ‘You don't want to hear about the stuff that we've had to endure. But you want me to buy into your vision?’ ” he says. “They're like, ‘We'll just wait for him to go, and we'll get another one. Maybe that guy will listen to us.’ ”
Godinez says that these meetings have changed the power dynamic on campus. Watson has given teachers more space to shape decisions.
In turn, Godinez and other teachers have stepped into leadership roles.
The program provides teachers and administrators with a $2,000 stipend for the hours they dedicate to the work. In its second year, it has expanded beyond Dominguez High to include a few teachers from other district schools. Watson hopes to expand it districtwide.
Godinez supports the idea. “For me, this is the first time that I've felt like we're getting down to the actual issues that are plaguing this school and we're finally getting down to real solutions.”
Those conversations are particularly meaningful for newbie teachers like Angel Gonzalez, the ones most at risk of leaving.
“As a man, I feel that I'm welcome,” he says. “I feel that I'm needed.”
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the James Irvine Foundation and the College Futures Foundation.