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Mentoring for Diversity: Starting the Conversation

Author: Lisa Lachlan, Lois Kimmel, Andrea Guiden, American Institutes for Research Date: 10/06/2021 Category: Diverse Learners Educational Equity Teachers & Leaders
a woman assists a student at a computer

It seems like a simple question: Do teachers feel they can be themselves at school?

But the answers are complex. Perhaps teachers feel a need to alter their personality, beliefs, and attitudes to be accepted at their schools. Perhaps they’ve heard other teachers say that they cannot be themselves at their schools.

These are not easy questions, but the Ohio Department of Education—with help from Region 8 Comprehensive Center—wants to start the conversation. The department’s goal is to mentor teachers and support new teachers from diverse backgrounds so they feel more comfortable at school. Through mentoring for diversity, schools have the chance to create a culture, space, and community where all teachers, including teachers from unrepresented backgrounds, can be themselves in a way that strengthens the school environment.

To help start the dialogue, American Institutes for Research, a Region 8 partner,created a conversation guide, The Power of Teacher Diversity: Fostering Inclusive Conversations Through Mentoring. This guide helps experienced instructors mentor new teachers from diverse backgrounds by conducting authentic conversations about the intersections of personal and professional identities. The guide can be a tool for self-reflection or a structure for initiating critical conversations with new teachers either individually or in small groups.

Why mentor for diversity? In Ohio, students of Color make up 30% of all K-–12 students. Educators of Color make up only 5% of the educator workforce. We know from extensive, rigorous research that a diverse1 teacher workforce is critical to the quality of an education system and the learning of all students. Compared with white teachers, teachers of Color in Ohio are more likely to leave the profession early in their career, citing lack of support as a key driving influence. Mentoring and induction is a strategy for addressing retention equity gaps in districts and schools where the workforce is not representative of the student population.

Mentoring and induction is an effective way to improve teacher effectiveness and teacher retention. But a “one size fits all” approach to mentoring doesn’t work. Teachers from diverse backgrounds face specific challenges and benefit from mentoring and induction that is tailored to their needs. Structural racism and implicit bias contribute to additional barriers and tougher working conditions for teachers from diverse backgrounds.

Structural racism manifests itself in many ways, including the legacy of school segregation today. Although the United States Supreme Court declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, public school systems are still largely segregated, and that segregation is on the rise. Schools with majority brown students often lack resources and opportunities provided at predominantly white schools, and research shows that segregation has strong, negative relationships with academic achievement, college success, and employment and income potential for all students and especially students of Color. We need the most effective, committed, and resilient teachers in these schools.

Implicit bias refers to the “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”2 Implicit bias may manifest in the form of silencing conversations about race in schools, limiting access to supportive colleagues, and making teachers from diverse backgrounds adhere to restrictive curricula and pedagogical practices. Implicit bias may be as simple as assuming that the new male teacher in the school teaches physics while the new female teacher teaches prekindergarten.

Whichever way a mentor chooses to use the guide, there are a variety of entry points and modalities for engagement. The guide is divided into three sections:

  • SECTION I: Why Mentoring for Diversity Matters. This section provides background on why all students can benefit from having teachers from diverse backgrounds. It also considers the unique challenges that teachers from diverse backgrounds may face.
  • SECTION II: Practical Strategies in Mentoring for Diversity. This section includes tools and strategies that the mentor and beginning teacher(s) can use throughout the induction process.
  • SECTION III: Lessons Learned from Successful Mentoring Programs. This section features lessons learned from teacher mentors, school district personnel, and other experts who have successfully implemented mentoring for diversity.

Within each section, the guide provides examples, personal reflection questions, external resources, conversation prompts, and interactive activities. For example, one exercise presents three hypothetical teachers with their backgrounds and challenges. After reading about these teachers, participants answer a series of reflection questions on how these teachers might fare at their own schools. Questions include what challenges these educators might face as well as the positive impacts that may bring to the participants’ school.

During an interview conducted in creating this guide, a young male Latinx teacher shared: “I didn’t know I needed this space until it was created.” It’s likely that more educators have similar views. The hope is that this guide helps launch the conversation.

1 Race/ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, disability, socioeconomic status/poverty, and culture are consistently identified as elements that constitute diversity.