By Maya Pottiger
A 2022 survey found that matching college students of color in teacher prep programs with mentor teachers of color was a particularly popular recruitment strategy among Black teachers.
Schools don’t exist in a vacuum. They mirror the broader society, and structures of power and privilege, of racism and inequality, are replicated within their walls. And so, the journey of a Black teacher is inherently different. It is marked by a unique set of challenges that white teachers, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot fully comprehend.
That makes the significance of a Black teacher being able to turn to their Black mentor and ask “How have you dealt with this?” immeasurable.
“If I’m a white mentor, my answer to that question is gonna be very different than if I’m a Black mentor,” says Tabitha Grossman, the chief external relations officer at the National Center for Teacher Residencies.
That’s why in 2019, NCTR launched the Black Educator Initiative, a program that specifically helps recruit, prepare, and retain Black teachers.
In four years, the effort has worked with more than 700 Black teachers, providing them with support and encouragement they need to stay in the classroom.
Among the 2022-2023 cohort, 94% of Black Educator Initiative graduates stayed in the profession — the highest rate ever for Black graduates, and highest among all graduates last year.
“We definitely know how to recruit Black teachers to the profession, and we know how to keep them,” Grossman says.
She credits the success to a number of things: being intentional about centering culturally and linguistically sustaining practices, paying attention to working conditions, and, most importantly, providing a mentor with the same lived experiences.
“Navigating the profession when you are a person of color is different than it is when you’re not,” Grossman says because schools are “like microcosms of the larger world.”
Plus, having an “intergenerational model” is a really powerful ecosystem, says Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, which has its own mentorship ecosystem.
El-Mekki, a veteran educator, sees the success of his organization in the children who have gone through programs at CBED now signing up to be apprentices, to a former student asking for help to prepare for his principal exam.
“I just can’t help but to think about the mentorship they received and what it means for them to now pour into others,” El-Mekki says.
“This is an ongoing cycle. I really think mentorship is what makes the world go round.”
Mentorship/Residency vs. Student Teaching
Teachers who come through a traditional teacher preparation program have classroom experience before officially taking the helm. It’s typically in the form of student teaching, usually done during their senior year of college or during a credentialing program after graduation.
But their placement isn’t always done with a new teacher’s experience in mind. Sometimes, schools place a student teacher based on which classrooms need extra support instead of who would be the best mentor to develop them, El-Mekki says.
An effective mentor isn’t someone who says “I’ll see you at the end of the semester” or “I’ll check in every couple of months.” It has to be “more deliberate, more specific,” El-Mekki says.
Plus, a residency is a year-long process focused on clinical experience where mentees work side-by-side with a teacher. It’s comparable to the way medical residencies work, where “you are deeply immersed in what it is you’re going to practice as a professional,” Grossman says. For example, the mentor might model a lesson, and then the mentee actually teaches it.
It’s engineered in a way where they can’t get it wrong. The support is a feedback loop that’s constant, not just for the mentee, but also for the mentor.
“It’s engineered in a way where they can’t get it wrong,” El-Mekki says. “The support is a feedback loop that’s constant, not just for the mentee, but also for the mentor.”
NCTR works directly with school districts or teacher preparation programs to design residency programs, as well as support the growth of existing programs. They place residents with a carefully selected mentor, and the residents are generally in the classroom all five school days every week.
“The idea is that that mentor is modeling instructional practices, co-teaching with that resident, and giving the resident feedback,” Grossman says.
“So when that resident practices something or replicates something that’s been modeled by the mentor, they get feedback about what that actually looked like for kids.”
The Wide-Ranging Desire for Mentorships
Mentorships benefit nearly everyone in a school, from the mentee and mentor down to the students they’re teaching. During the year there is a mentee in the classroom, students achieve higher, and the mentor becomes a better teacher, Grossman says.
And, “overwhelmingly, the mentors who work with our teacher residents indicate the teacher residents are better prepared than traditionally prepared candidates to teach on day one,” Grossman says.
This increased preparation is far from trivial, particularly in the current climate of our education system. In its 2022 State of the American Teacher survey, RAND researchers did not find teachers particularly hopeful about the profession. Between 25% and 50% of educators — teachers and principals surveyed — said they were considering leaving their jobs within a year.
Intent to leave was particularly high among Black teachers — only 7% of teachers are Black — as well as other teachers of color, with more than 40% saying they intended to leave their jobs by the end of the 2021-2022 school year, compared to 31% of white teachers.
The survey also found that matching college students of color in teacher prep programs with mentor teachers of color was particularly popular among Black teachers. While the average popularity was 22% among all teachers of color, 27% of Black teachers rated this as a good strategy for recruitment and retention.
The idea was slightly less popular if it started once teachers were in the first year in the classroom, with the average dropping to 13% among all teachers of color and 16% among Black teachers.
Aside from being a good recruitment strategy for the mentees, it’s also a good retention strategy for the mentors. In addition, being a mentor provides an opportunity for teachers to take on leadership roles, which makes them more likely to stay in the profession.
Mentors often report the experience positively benefited their instructional practices, and after having a leadership opportunity, they’re more invigorated and have a renewed passion for teaching.
“Teacher residency programs change the culture of a school,” Grossman says. “They’re changing the culture of a school because the mentor is benefiting as much as the resident.”
And the idea behind mentorship isn’t new. A 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics tracked the retention of teachers with and without mentors from 2008 through 2012. Every year, the gap between the two grew, with 86% of teachers who were assigned mentors still teaching in 2011-2012, compared to 71% of teachers who were not assigned mentors.
“Any work that you do that’s in community with others, mentorship is a part of it,” El-Mekki says. “Instead of separating people, we’re bringing people together, which is a natural way that communal people are in relationship with others, how they naturally pass down information.”
Residency Programs Are Growing in Popularity
Residency programs are growing — both in existence and in enrollment.
Enrollment in NCTR network programs is up 98% from 2021, expanding from 1,140 participants in 2021 to 2,261 in 2023. And they’re now working with more than 30 locations to design residency programs — with an increased ability to develop residency programs with HBCUs thanks to a federal grant.
Another reason residency programs are gaining popularity is, at least through NCTR, residency programs pay residents. During her clinical experience, Grossman spent 20 unpaid weeks showing up to student teach.
“What we’re really trying to do with teacher residency, particularly as it pertains to candidates of color, is ensure that we are not creating barriers to the profession by persisting in a model that asks teacher candidates to assume expenses and debt,” Grossman says. “That would be very difficult for them to navigate.”
The “sink or swim” idea is a broken way of thinking, El-Mekki says. Throwing new teachers into a classroom without real preparation and mentorship does not create a supportive or comprehensive transition.
“We’re doing a disservice not just to that educator, but to those who they’re supposed to serve,” El-Mekki says.
As more colleges and universities embrace residency models, along with programs like NCTR and the National Center for Grow Your Own, El-Mekki hopes these opportunities become the norm for teachers across the country.
And it all goes back to the famous Mary Church Terrell mantra.
“‘Lift as you climb,’” El-Mekki quotes. “Part of the lifting is the mentorship.”