Even as some current teachers are leaving the education workforce—or, at the very least, considering it—plenty of would-be teachers are opting for other career paths, creating a worrisome landscape where there are neither enough teachers right now, nor expectations to recover the dearth in the future.
This is partly a pandemic consequence, but also the result of a years-long decline in the attractiveness of teaching as a profession. And numerous efforts are underway to address the shortage, at least in the immediate term.
One fledgling effort, based out of Pittsburgh, aims to reinvigorate the current educator workforce while also looking ahead to build a pipeline of enthusiastic eventual educators. And in this case, the work is specifically focused on Black educators, present and future.
The initiative, called Genius, Joy and Love: A Focus on Black Students, is the brainchild of Valerie Kinloch, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. And its inaugural cohort wrapped up earlier this summer, on Aug. 4.
The four-week summer academy brought together 14 students—a combination of rising high school seniors and incoming college freshmen, primarily from Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS)—to energize them around the idea of becoming teachers and to preview for them what the college experience will be like.
“My intention was to really work with school districts, particularly PPS, to figure out ways to encourage and inspire and motivate more students to see education—and I should say teaching—as a career path and lifelong profession,” explains Kinloch.
Currently, only 4 percent of K-12 teachers in Pennsylvania identify as Black, according to Kinloch, which has bearings on the future teacher workforce, too.
“If our students do not see at least one teacher who reflects their racial background, they start wondering if this is a profession they should enter,” she says. “Across the state, more needs to be done.”
Indeed, this idea is one that has been supported again and again by research: Black students—and especially Black males—experience numerous benefits, including higher college enrollment rates, from having at least one Black teacher growing up.
Inspiring Students to Become Teachers
Taliah Baldwin had at least three Black teachers throughout her school career, and it’s part of why she now wants to become a teacher too, she says.
This week, Baldwin is busy getting settled into her residence hall at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, where she is set to begin her freshman year of college. She’s studying early childhood education.
Baldwin, 18, spent some of her last weeks before college attending the student summer academy. She has known for some time that she wanted to become a teacher—Baldwin graduated from Brashear High School, a PPS school with a teaching magnet program for students interested in pursuing a path in education. But the Genius, Joy and Love program was different, geared specifically toward Black students like her.
Like the other students who participated in the summer program, Baldwin is a recipient of the Pittsburgh Promise’s Advancing Educators of Color (AEC) scholarship, which seeks to bring more Black teachers into PPS over the next seven years. The AEC scholarship covers the full cost of college for select PPS students who are pursuing their teaching certificates and who agree to teach in PPS for at least five years after their college graduation. Genius, Joy and Love is intended to complement that scholarship program by engaging the students who have expressed an interest in education and preparing them for the academic pace and rigor of college.
For four weeks, she and a dozen or so peers heard from guest speakers, went on field trips to schools and museums in the area and participated in a weekly yoga practice with meditation.
Every morning, they recited the poem “Our Deepest Fear” by Marianne Williamson, which begins, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. …”
They learned about STEM and literacy and mental health. They wrote their own poetry and connected the dots between academic success and social-emotional development. They visited university campuses. They worked on telling their own unique stories, something they’ll need to do as they write essays for their college applications. And they talked about the differences between “school,” which is tinged with oppression and negativity for some students, and “education,” which is near-boundless.
Baldwin says she left the program feeling more confident and inspired, in part because of the speakers who came through and the lessons she learned, but also because she was surrounded by adult leaders such as Kinloch and April Warren-Grice, whom she views as role models.
“Everyone who was there had some kind of impact on me,” Baldwin shares. “Even those who were quiet, they still had some awesome things to say. … I still can’t believe it’s over.”
One particular point of pride of the program for Kinloch is that about half of the 14 students were male. If Black teachers are underrepresented in education, Black male teachers are especially so.
But it was more than just numbers that made the program so rewarding, notes Warren-Grice, one of the project coordinators for Genius, Joy and Love.
“What also stood out to me was those Black males were the leaders” of the program, Warren-Grice recalls. “Many of those young men actually sat in the front and center of the room and were completely engaged. They shared a lot. It was just, like, wow. Because a lot of times that’s not what you see in schools.”
More often, Warren-Grice adds, Black male students are chastised in schools. But when they are in learning environments that embrace and support their “genius,” she says, schools will likely see the type of engagement and leadership she saw this summer.
Encouraging Educators to ‘Think Outside the Box’
As the students’ summer academy got underway, the other half of the Genius, Joy and Love initiative—an institute for educators—also kicked off, intending to remind existing Black educators why they got into this work in the first place.
“A lot of times educators feel restricted—teach to standards, teach to the test—but really you can learn in any place, wherever you are,” says Warren-Grice. “It gave educators permission to be, to dream, to think outside the box.”
Fatima Brunson, another project lead, adds that “it was really about supporting educators to break out of the fold, pushing back against stagnation, needing transformation.”
The educator institute ran for two weeks, compared to the students’ four, and overlapped so that the two groups spent at least one day together, at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
Many participants noted this as one of the most powerful parts of the program, Kinloch says.
“Students were able to hear what teachers were grappling with, and teachers were able to hear what students want for teaching and learning experiences. They want to be seen, they want to be heard, they want to be taught different types of books,” Kinloch explains.
Those exchanges, plus “field trips” to a local charter school and an independent school housed on Pitt’s campus, left students with a greater understanding of the challenges of a teaching career, but also with a taste of how rewarding it can be, Kinloch adds.
“Many came back [from the schools] and said, ‘We know it’s hard, we know teachers are under fire, but do you see these young kids and how they’re reacting to us because we look like them?’” Kinloch recalls. “That was the turning moment, when they were able to say, ‘This is hard work—the attacks and assaults and public narratives are difficult—but we can’t give up.’”
It was only the first cohort of a program that Kinloch hopes to run annually for many years to come. But already, it has made a lasting impression on the dean.
“To see the lightbulb going off for teachers the way it did for students? It leaves me hopeful,” she says. “These two programs are the highlights of my almost six years of being here” as dean of the school of education.
And will those 14 students actually become classroom teachers in a few years? Kinloch says, “I assume the majority will. All of them want to.”