State's top teacher, from Mundelein: Just hiring more teachers of color isn't enough
Hiring diverse teachers isn't enough to make schools equitable. School leaders also need to create a culture and climate in which minority students and employees feel welcomed, says Justin Johnson of Mundelein, Illinois' top teacher.
Johnson, a band instructor at Niles West High School in Skokie, is the 2021 Illinois Teacher of the Year -- a distinction that earned him a yearlong paid sabbatical to provide equity-focused training and career guidance to teachers statewide. It's the first time the state's Teacher of the Year has gotten a paid sabbatical since 2009.
Johnson aims to focus his sabbatical year on increasing the recruitment and retention of diverse teachers and mentoring new teachers, building upon his work in Niles Township High Schools District 219.
Johnson stood out during the Illinois State Board of Education's Teacher of the Year selection process "for the way he impacts the lives of his students but also in how he supports his peers," State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said.
"In addition to mentoring new teachers and working to diversify the teaching profession, he meets with other educators once a week to study literature and have authentic conversations about the most difficult issues of our time," she said.
Johnson has helped District 219 increase its hiring of people of color by 200% during the last three years, officials said.
The district's roughly 4,600 students are 41% white, 34% Asian, 14% Hispanic, 6% Black and nearly 4% two or more races. Its teachers predominantly are white -- nearly 84% -- and 8.5% Asian, 2.5% Hispanic and Black, and 2.6% two or more races, according to the Illinois Report Card.
State education officials acknowledge a need for more diverse educators. The state's more than 130,000 teachers are 82% white, 7% Hispanic, nearly 6% Black, and nearly 2% Asian. Its nearly 2 million students comprise roughly 52% minorities -- after the 47.5% white, 26.6% of them are Hispanic, 16.6% Black, 5% Asian and 3.8% two or more races.
"(ISBE) has set a target to increase the percent of candidates of color enrolled in Educator Preparation Programs by 15 percentage points -- from 30% to 45% -- over the next three years," ISBE spokeswoman Januari Trader said.
Starting in 2022-23, all teacher preparation programs are required to set enrollment targets for recruiting and retaining candidates of color and to share their strategies for meeting those targets as a part of an annual reporting process, she added.
The agency also has invested $6.5 million in partnership with the Illinois Education Association, Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the Chicago Teachers Union for a statewide mentoring and virtual coaching program for first- and second-year teachers.
Having a teacher workforce that reflects the student population is crucial, but districts that merely transplant diverse employees into schools without support systems in place are in for some growing pains, Johnson cautioned.
"(Teachers need) a place where they actually feel like they belong, because if you just hire them and you don't address any of those things, they're going to leave," he said.
He noted that Black students especially don't see teaching as a viable career option because there aren't enough examples of Black educators, particularly men. That's also true for band and music instructors because the costs of music education can be a barrier.
"There's only 2% of (Black men) teaching right now across the country," Johnson said. "Those are some things that kind of have to be broken down and dismantled when you start talking about hiring diverse staff."
Johnson said initiatives like the Golden Apple Scholars program are helping minority students see the value of a career in education. But, he adds, the state needs to make it more affordable for students of color to take the required teacher certification tests, which can be cost-prohibitive for some applicants.
"Once you navigate all of those difficulties and you get that first job, that first year is critical," Johnson said. "You may be the only Black male (teacher at school). ... That's got to be difficult in terms of trying to navigate that space."
Schools must develop mentorship programs pairing first-year teachers of color with others like themselves and provide resources to support them, he said.
Johnson said research also shows that having diverse teachers in the classroom can help close achievement gaps that disproportionately affect Black and Latino students.
"There's just so many systemic things that keep us from being able to break down that barrier," he said. "If we want to really reach those students ... we need to put people in front of them that look like them."
State officials said offering a paid sabbatical allows Johnson, and future Teachers of the Year, to travel statewide to promote issues about which they are passionate. Johnson's focus on increasing the recruitment and retention of teachers of color also is a goal of the state board.
The agency has streamlined the teacher certification/licensure process allowing candidates who have met some, but not all licensure requirements to be granted interim credentials to begin working in schools. It also allows for that classroom experience to count, instead of the required student teaching and internships, toward full licensure.
"ISBE is planning to reexamine licensure tests that have disproportionately low pass rates among teachers of color," Trader said. "The analysis will allow the agency to drill down to specific test questions that may be problematic and take remedial action, such as removing the questions or convening a bias committee to revise (them)."
Meanwhile, Johnson is working with Teach Plus Illinois to help develop a model policy for school districts on improving school culture and climate. It is geared toward training teachers on how to address racial bias and harassment in the classroom.
"The point is for students to be safe in their classroom ... because if a student isn't safe, they're not going to achieve at their maximum potential," Johnson said.
Through the sabbatical, Johnson also will mentor a newly licensed teacher for a year in his classroom. Interested candidates with endorsement in music education can apply online with District 219.