We see in our nation today the devastating repercussions of white supremacy and systemic racism practiced against communities of color for generations. It’s a grievous offense that our educational systems, which possess a duty to help every child achieve their full potential, often act as instruments to deny this opportunity to all.

As educators of color with decades of experience teaching and leading, we know that education is central to the elimination of racism in society and a more just future for all of us. Education can disrupt entrenched biases. It can amplify our communities’ stories of strength, and achievement and be a force for liberation and self-determination.

While there are many actions we can and should take at every level of our educational systems, the evidence is clear what our first priority must be: investing in a more racially diverse educator workforce.

Here in Washington state, half of K-12 students in public schools are youth of color. Yet only 11% of teachers are.

This matters because research unequivocally demonstrates that students thrive when they see themselves in and can relate to their teachers. Among the many social and academic benefits that students of color stand to gain, we know that Black children are more likely to be placed in gifted education programs and less likely to drop out of high school if they have a Black teacher. The inherent academic and cultural excellence of students of color is more likely to be recognized and fostered by educators of color — representation matters a lot.

And, it’s just as important for our white students to learn from teachers of color. A diverse teaching corps ensures that every student can understand and appreciate different perspectives. This understanding is crucial for white students to be allies in the fight against racism and systems of oppression. This experience can also disrupt privilege by stretching the perspectives of white students so they see excellence in adults who don’t look like them.

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So, how do we go about creating an educator workforce that reflects the rich diversity of our nation’s student population?

First, we must remove the financial barriers that prevent many people of color from entering the profession. People of color graduate from college with significantly more debt than their white peers, which can make the decision to enter a modestly compensated profession, like public education, a daunting prospect even to those who feel the call to teach.

We’ve seen the difference it makes when prospective teachers of color don’t have to worry about taking on more debt to earn their teaching degree. In Seattle Public Schools’ Academy for Rising Educators, which covers tuition in return for a commitment to serve in the district, 100 of 139 candidates have been people of color. These are leaders in our own community who want to give back and serve our students and families — these public servants shouldn’t have to take on significant debt to do so.

At the local, state and national levels, we must provide more financial assistance to aspiring teachers of color as they earn their degrees.

Second, we must ensure that all teacher candidates are prepared to practice culturally sustaining teaching practices when they enter the profession.

It’s not enough to simply recruit a more diverse pool of teachers. All aspiring teachers must enter the workforce knowing that the success of students of color is central to the success of their own teaching. We must intentionally prepare future teachers to uplift the strengths and knowledge that our students of color bring to the classroom by embedding this experience into all teacher education programs.

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Finally, we must support teachers of color during their critical first years in the profession so that these highly-effective educators remain in the teaching workforce for the long term and don’t exit the workforce at a higher rate than their white peers.

That means investing in meaningful mentorship and professional learning opportunities for all staff so we cultivate school- and districtwide cultures where conversations about race are ongoing and racial equity work is embraced. In Federal Way Public Schools, this means engaging in ongoing, sustained professional learning on racial equity for all staff, creating a culture of common vocabulary and protocols for discussing race and its impact on schooling, thus allowing teachers of color to continue to grow and thrive as educators. Our schools and districts must adopt policies and procedures that bend toward equity — and track their progress toward these goals.

We know that investing in the recruitment and retention of outstanding teachers of color is a successful strategy for combating racism, but our state and society must do far more before our teaching workforce will reflect the students they serve.

The sooner we do so, the closer we will be to a world where outcomes for our students of color will match their undeniable talent and potential.