By: Dr. Nancy Coogan
Why Some Education Leaders Actively Seek Out Multicultural Teachers
I am greeted by a rainbow of eager faces whenever I enter a classroom here in the Tukwila School District, which The New York Times has declared to be the most diverse school district in the nation. The number of languages spoken is staggering. Poverty is pervasive. Home cultures often clash with public-school norms. But don’t assume I came here haphazardly; I coveted a chance to be an education leader in a district like Tukwila, and you should, too.
Teaching in a district with such complex demographics is mission work. We understand that education extends far beyond the school house and has the ability to alter society at its very core. In places like Tukwila, we believe that it is the right of every child to learn. We believe that all students deserve not only equal access but differentiated support to overcome whatever unique challenges stand in their way. We believe in doing whatever it takes to serve children.
In return, we see lives transformed, including our own. This is not work for the weary, but it’s worth it. I continually hear from employees here, “Why would anyone want to teach anywhere else?” You have never experienced anything like our culture if you are unfamiliar with majority-minority classrooms. Our schools are global marketplaces of ideas. We have Latino students showing Burmese students how to make Dia de Los Muertos sugar skulls. We have Nepali students demonstrating historical dances to Vietnamese students. We have black students beatboxing with white students. We have teenage mothers who bring their babies to Socratic-style seminars with the city council to discuss important ideas. This is an incredibly vibrant place where nothing seems out of the realm of possibility as real life—messy, challenging, joyous, and rewarding—constantly spills over into lessons.
Quite simply, it’s beautiful.
What makes us actively seek out diverse candidates?
We want our teachers and school staff to mirror the diversity and life experiences of our students. Why? Because it makes learning richer for everyone, it provides our students with strong role models to whom they can relate, and it reflects our interconnected nation and world. We need students to build relationships with teachers who understand their struggles and inequities. Furthermore, it is our moral imperative to provide a voice for those students whose families do not speak our language or who are intimidated by privilege.
While philosophically attractive, I realize that a complex, diverse district like Tukwila can be daunting for a teacher, especially those just beginning their careers. So while I encourage everyone to seek out culturally rich schools, I also want you to pay close attention to the type of classroom supports in place. Part of the superintendent’s vision should include ongoing professional support for new teachers to the district in order to alleviate feeling overwhelmed and isolated.
In the Tukwila School District, professional support is one of my top priorities. As the world’s most important profession, it is too critical to do this job without support. We begin the process with mentors assigned to all new teachers, and that peer support will continue in the subsequent years with research-based best practices. Math, literacy and ELL coaches assist teachers one-on-one with planning, and design differentiated strategies to help you reach all levels of learners. We have contractual time built in throughout the year so that educators can collaborate, learn from each other and move forward together on important initiatives. Additionally, we partner with the Martinez Foundation, which targets teachers of color for ongoing professional development throughout their careers.
“Race and equity is part of the lens through which I view all decisions as a superintendent.” Our strategic plan calls this out. This is an ongoing journey and conversation in our district as it should be in every district. Cultural competency is not a prescribed set of facts that can be memorized, but a distinct part of mission-driven work. We continually learn from one another, review policies that are not aligned and use a strategic plan as a roadmap that ensures our work is cohesive.
As we move into an age of high accountability and more comprehensive and robust evaluation systems, it is a moral imperative to provide the supports necessary to enhance professional practice. It is not only recruiting the best and the brightest; it is having the ability to retain teachers in a profession that saves lives.
What should you ask as you interview potential employers?
As a current or future teacher, it is incredibly important for you to determine whether a potential superintendent and principal align with your own values and purpose. Otherwise, the work will inevitably become bigger than your passion. Personally, I always asked myself: Do I see evidence that decisions are based on what is best for all students or just some? I have seen leaders monopolized by politics versus values. For me, that compromises my moral compass.
I applied to the Tukwila School District because, as the person responsible for each and every student, I knew I had the support of my school board to make those types of decisions on behalf of all students. Consequently, I leave satisfied after a hard-day’s work each evening knowing that I was true to myself and what I believe in. Make sure to set yourself up for a teaching position where you can say the same.
During your interviews, research and ask questions about how teachers are supported. As I mentioned above, no person comes to this profession with all of the tools they need. I would pay particular attention to make sure that professional development programs are ongoing (not just for the first year) and based on best research. Are there mentors? Coaches? Resources? Dedicated time? As someone wise once said about this profession: Pilots don’t learn to fly while mid-air; neither should teachers be expected to grow with no dedicated opportunity outside of student-contact time.
Most importantly (again, I go back to my theme), find a district that feels right. Schools and districts have incredibly different vibes. Some are tighter or looser with curriculum fidelity. They are rural or urban or in between. The actual condition of the buildings is a major concern for your safety and comfort. But I contend that there is nothing as culture-shaping as the students and staff themselves. Ultimately, I hope that you seek out the classrooms that are as diverse as you are. Our students need you. And you just might need them, too…