Charissa McAuliff uses her experience to reach her students.
McAuliff grew up in the Philippines and moved to the U.S. after college. She now teaches English to Filipino and Marshallese students at Fulton Elementary School in Dubuque.
She understands what it is like to move to a new country and navigate a new culture.
“Trying to have them live in this culture and be successful in school is something that, while I wasn’t a child in this country, I also had to attend school in a college that didn’t look like my old college,” she said. “The teachers were different. It was just all different.”
Dubuque Community Schools leaders aim to attract more staff with experiences like McAuliff. A district initiative this year is working on diversifying staff — including teachers — to better mirror the community. Leaders of other local districts say they, too are looking at teacher diversity.
Local educators say bringing in teachers and other staff from diverse backgrounds benefits both minority students and their student bodies at large. However, officials say it will take sustained efforts to make an impact.
“The desire to do it is one thing, but to actually have a solid plan in place that brings that to fruition is really what we are trying to get more focused on,” said Stan Rheingans, superintendent of Dubuque Community Schools.
Non-White staff members make up just 3.3% of nearly 2,000 staff this fall in the Dubuque Community School District.
The largest minority group is Black staffers, who make up 2.2% of the district’s employees. Those with Asian or Pacific Islander backgrounds make up 0.6% of staff, American Indian/Alaskans make up 0.3%, and people who identify as Hispanic make up 0.2%
In contrast, non-White and multiracial students made up 23.9% of the district’s population this year.
“The Dubuque community, in the past 50 years or so, has changed significantly — our teaching staff, not nearly as much,” Rheingans said. “So how can we create a staff that accurately reflects our community?”
He said building a more diverse staff isn’t only about racial background. It also could include more men teaching in elementary schools or teachers with different language backgrounds or who grew up in other parts of the country.
He also noted that while the district has had some success increasing the percentage of total minority staff, the percentage among teachers has not increased as fast.
The issue isn’t just one for Dubuque schools. In the Darlington (Wis.) Community School District, 20% to 25% of students are Hispanic, but only about 3% of the staff are.
Similarly, Hispanics make up 16% of the students in the Galena, Ill., school district, while at least 95% of the staff is White, Superintendent Tim Vincent said.
“We know that it’s a need that we’re going to need to continue to address and have long-term plans to look at that,” he said.
Nationally, White, non-Hispanic teachers made up 79.3% of the teaching workforce in public schools in the 2017-2018 school year, compared to 48% of students that year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Jen Collins, director of the School of Education at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, said a lack of diversity in the teaching field generally ties back to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which succeeded in integrating U.S. schools but also led to tens of thousands of Black teachers losing their jobs.
Local demographics also play a role. Western Dubuque Community School District officials recently started talking about how they can become more intentional about the diversity of their staff. One challenge that School Board President Jessica Pape sees is the rural communities the district serves are not particularly diverse.
“It’s a much bigger issue than just going out and trying to recruit,” she said. “It really is a whole community effort.”
A general shortage of teachers applying for jobs can end up exacerbating the issue, some district leaders said.
“I think it’s an area that we could improve in,” said Cale Jackson, superintendent of the Darlington district. “However, there’s such a shortage of all teachers that we just hire the best candidate. Because a lot of times, we have trouble finding even one or two qualified candidates for an opening.”
There are some systemic challenges to diversifying the teaching pool, said Taj Suleyman, the Dubuque district’s director of equity. Those seeking to become teachers have to be able to access the education they need to do so. That includes being able to pay for their schooling and dedicating multiple years to pursuing a degree.
Making an impact
There is evidence that having a more diverse workforce has a positive impact on students, particularly students of color.
A 2019 article in the Review of Educational Research found that Black and Latino students are seen by teachers of the same race as fighting or being disruptive less frequently than when they are assigned to a teacher of a different race. Those students also “tend to receive more favorable ratings of their academic ability when assigned to a co-racial or co-ethnic teacher.”
The article also notes that having Black teachers is connected with improved achievement for Black students, though there are some studies that do not find such a connection.
A 2017 study published in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal found that students who have a teacher with similar demographic characteristics show positive benefits to academic perceptions and attitudes. Those showed up most consistently when there was a gender match between the student and teachers, with the largest benefits shown by a combination of gender and racial matches.
Suleyman said exposing students to staffers from a variety of backgrounds helps the children see the kinds of jobs they can hold later in life.
“I think that there is a transformational opportunity for students to see the possibility of, yes, they can be teachers, yes, they can be administrators, and they can be part of contributing to the community,” Suleyman said.
It also helps students understand the experiences of others, a key skill as they get older.
“We’re looking at it not only just for the sake of, and I want to use the term, tokenizing someone ... but also looking at it from, no, the person is actually bringing something to our culture, expanding on our culture,” Suleyman said.
Vincent said Galena school officials seek to prioritize diversifying their staff so students with different backgrounds can see someone like them teaching, someone who understands their background and experience.
However, the importance of having a diverse teaching staff expands beyond minority students, Vincent said. It’s also important for students in majority groups to interact with people from different backgrounds, which helps with social-emotional development.
“It’s certainly important for our minority students and our less-represented groups,” Vincent said. “It’s important for them to see themselves, but it’s just as important for our majority students to interact with people from different backgrounds, and that’s adults and students alike.”
Mariah Garner graduated from the University of Dubuque in 2018, starting her teaching career at Anna B. Lawther Academy before finding a job at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Dubuque, where she teaches language arts and works with special education students.
Garner said that while the students at her college were diverse, she still was one of two Black students in the teacher education program. She also noticed when she did her field experience in the district that there wasn’t much diversity.
However, she opted to stay in Dubuque because she believes that diverse representation is important.
“If kids see people that look like them in positions of power, it might change their outlook on life, and ‘Hey, I can make it. She looks like me. She’s doing something I want to do. I can make it,’” Garner said.
Efforts so far
As part of their efforts, Dubuque district officials are planning for job fairs and outreach to seek diverse candidates, reaching out to community partners to support people who want to apply and reviewing attraction and retention practices, according to strategic planning documents.
One key effort, though, will be to look at how district officials can find more teacher candidates locally, Rheingans said.
That could include working with high school students to help them look at the teaching field or supporting paraprofessionals working in the district and other community members to help them become certified teachers.
“The strategy is, how do we increase the pool of candidates so that when we have openings, we’ve got applicants who help us with that goal?” Rheingans said.
District officials also are working with local colleges so their students have experiences in the district, which could lead to future teachers and other staffers, said Amy Hawkins, the district’s chief human resources officer. Officials also have talked with colleges about ways to diversify teacher preparation programs.
Because many students at UW-P come from and tend to go back to jobs in the region, Collins and her faculty are looking at the kinds of diversity that exist locally, such as an influx in the local Hispanic population.
“How do we take the folks that already know our area … and how do we focus on working on our Latinx community members?” she asked.
However, knowing that many students come from White, English-speaking communities and return there after college, another key is helping those students understand equity and diversity and take that knowledge back with them.
“Even if they are coming from an all-White community … there are things that we can do to help them expand their understanding of diversity and equity,” Collins said.
At Holy Family Catholic Schools in Dubuque, staff are spending the school year looking at the diversity that exists within the staff to help them be mindful of inclusion and equity, said Mariah Reeves, academic innovation coordinator at Wahlert Catholic High School.
“Even though we may outwardly look like one another, there are lived experiences and there’s diversity in our narratives,” Reeves said.
With those efforts, staff can strengthen their identity as an inviting system for all — including those from different socioeconomic statuses, backgrounds and races. The work on inclusion also allows them to better recognize the different ways that students navigate life.
“If we can examine who we are currently, then we can better get at who we want to be,” Reeves said. “That ultimately includes a diverse teaching staff.”
‘A sense of home’
Stephanie Rohrssen, who is Black, has two children in Dubuque Community Schools, both Black. Her children are originally from Minneapolis, and they have struggled to adjust to the lack of diversity in their schools, she said.
“They don’t have any teachers that look like them or, quite frankly, understand them, and I think that’s an enormous problem in Dubuque, period, but the school district as well,” Rohrssen said.
Her son attends Dubuque Senior High School, and her daughter attends George Washington Middle School.
Rohrssen said her children have dealt with racist incidents at school and times when their peers or teachers didn’t seem to understand Black culture. When the curriculum includes the contributions of Black Americans, it seems to only focus on a few key figures without letting her children explore the other contributions of Black people.
She said she believes having a more diverse staff in the district would make her children feel more at home.
“I think that would give them a sense of home and allow them to feel like if there is an issue or a concern, that they have somebody that they can go talk to … that will understand them and not judge them,” Rohrssen said.
Jacqueline Hunter, who is Black and the director of Dubuque’s Multicultural Family Center, has three children in the Dubuque district. Her daughter is a student at Senior, and when conversations about race happen in the classroom, she often wonders whether the teacher would be sympathetic to the issues affecting communities of color.
“I think there’s an assumption, if you walk into a space with someone who looks like you, they’re more likely to identify with some of the struggles that you are identifying with,” Hunter said. “She doesn’t have that security net that she’s had in other spaces of knowing where someone stood.”
She said there needs to be a draw to bring more teachers of color to Dubuque, not just for Black students but for Hispanic and Marshallese youth as well.
“We’ve got to get more people of color in the school system,” Hunter said. “Whether they’re teachers, administrators, support staff, I think that is important ... because oftentimes we are able to give clarity to behaviors, conversations, perspectives that you may not necessarily get if you haven’t had that.”
Anthony Allen, president of the Dubuque branch of the NAACP, said the district is doing fairly well at adding more diverse staff for some of its positions, such as paraprofessionals, but he would like to see more diversity among teachers.
People who have spoken with Allen have said it would help to see more staff who look like them, he said. Marshallese students would have someone to help them navigate language barriers and other issues. For Black students, seeing more Black educators could help them see themselves becoming teachers, Allen said.
He said he hopes that with Suleyman in place as the district’s equity director, the diversity of Dubuque’s educators expands more readily. Having a diverse team of people recruiting new staffers is important to finding diverse candidates, Allen said.
“If you don’t have anyone who looks like that individual, that could be a barrier,” he said.
Time and resources
Building a diverse teaching staff isn’t something that will happen overnight, Rheingans said.
“I think it’s possible,” he said. “I think we can do anything we put our time and resources into, and this is one of the things that we’re putting our time and resources into.”
Suleyman said building a diverse staff means looking at every aspect of hiring and retention to create an inclusive work environment.
“When we are looking at diversifying our workforce, it continues to be part of our mission and our values to uphold for our students,” he said.
Collins and her colleague Edina Haslauer, an assistant professor in UW-P’s School of Education, cautioned that creating a more diverse teaching pool isn’t simple.
It isn’t just a matter of hiring more people, but looking at some of the underlying issues and complex history that contributes to the diversity of teachers, too.
“This isn’t just a, ‘Let’s do this and throw money at it and fix it,’” Collins said. “It’s so much more complicated than that.”
To some degree, building a diverse workforce in the school district is going to take community-level efforts, Garner said. That means looking at what Dubuque has to offer to people of color that would make them want to stay.
“I think it’s bigger than (the district),” she said. “I think it’s, what are we as a community going to do to support people of color and make them feel welcome here and make them want to stay here? What kind of services can we offer?”
Allen said making schools more diverse isn’t a hard goal, but efforts to do so need to be consistent across the district.
“We should be consistently working on diverse issues, but we should be working on them in a unified manner and not separate,” he said.