It’s not common to see Chicago’s Board of Education take the lead on a policy discussion. So it was a surprise earlier this year when the board announced a new committee dedicated to the topic of increasing teacher workforce diversity and equity. Chalkbeat sat down with board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland ahead of the first community meeting Dec. 16 to discuss her vision for the committee and how her work as a history professor specializing in education policy and racial inequality informs those plans.

Tell us about the diversity committee.

Our student population is primarily students of color, and our workforce does not reflect that diversity. The goal we’re focusing on at this first public meeting is hiring more black and Latinx teachers. Research says there are increased educational outcomes from having teachers of color. It breaks down societal perceptions and stereotypes. For some students, it might be the first time having a person of color in front of them in an authority position. 

Even as a board member, I didn’t know about all the initiatives Chicago Public Schools already has in these areas, and I think the community doesn’t either. I want the session to be a time to come forward and say we see this as a challenge, and it’s a challenge they’ve started to undertake with future initiatives, genuinely engaging the community and consulting with interested stakeholders, because it’s a challenge the district alone can’t tackle.

Why is this such an important issue? 

Speaking for myself, this work is deeply important to me professionally, but also personally. I know what it means to have black teachers and how important that was to my own development. I know what role black teachers have played historically in communities. They’re holding down blocks, buying from local businesses. They’re a stable middle class in deindustrialized or disinvested communities. Teachers are there holding down communities and raising children, not only in classrooms, but in communities. That’s where my passion for this work comes. 

What sort of tangible results do you hope to see from these public meetings?

 This first one, the goal is particularly informational. We’re not going to solve the problem in one meeting, absolutely not. But we’ll have a conversation about the approach and existing programs like the teacher residency program, then we’re going to divide into smaller group table discussions to have people give feedback, consult and contribute to what this might look like going forward. 

I don’t know what exactly will come out of it. The conversation has to be broader than a one-off with a lot of different people. Maybe people who are already community-based partners will share more in these groups about what they’re doing. I would love it to be an opportunity for students, parents and teachers to come be involved and contribute, as well.

Is this the first time the Chicago Board of Education has focused on this issue specifically?

As a historian, I’m not apt to say anything is the first time, so the short answer is no. But for us as a board, we’re talking about different ways we can be as transparent as possible and get out of [district headquarters] and get in communities. 

While recruiting more teachers of color is important, how does retaining the ones already in Chicago come into play?

Retention is something the district is deeply interested in as well as part of the five-year mission. I think, for now, the focus on recruitment and the pipeline side of things is really the first swing we’re taking to introduce both the committee and the topic that people are already deeply invested in. But we can’t talk about recruitment and not think about retention, and I can certainly imagine a future public meeting of this committee to have retention as a topic. This first meeting is a jumping-off point.

Are there any cities or school districts Chicago might look to as a model?

I don’t think there’s anywhere that has figured it all out, but I’m very interested in looking at what’s going on in other places. Challenges are being shared across the country, and it’s not by happenstance that lots of districts are trying to have teachers of color relative to the racial demographics of students across the United States. Pennsylvania passed a state law recently, and there are initiatives specifically around this issue in Minnesota. But context also matters — the specific history of black and Latinx teachers in the City of Chicago is distinct from other cities that have a different history.

As someone who has studied this complex issue quite extensively, what steps would you like to see taken?

A major and important shift is talking about the pipeline. Instead of thinking about recruitment and how we siphon off more folks in an existing pool of applicants, how can we target people who want to be teachers? How can we think about our students as future teachers, and what would that do to reimagine a pipeline? This is not just my idea; community folks have been working on this for years, and the district is very open and excited about it. 

Shifting the nature of that question around the pipeline provides opportunities to think more broadly about different partners that would have to be involved. I work at universities and colleges that have a really important role to play in this work, a role that we in higher education are not always doing what we need to do in those areas. This is a problem that manifests in the district, but it’s not confined to the district. We all need to get together to have these conversations.