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“What does it mean to a student when all the black and brown people in the building are the help? They are the janitors, the cafeteria workers, but not the teachers.”

That question, posed by principal of Baltimore County Public Schools, Kirk Sykes, pretty much says it all. As an ECE professional, you’re likely aware of the alarming diversity gap that plagues all levels of education, but perhaps none more so than the world of early learning.

Since early childhood education is often linked with future income earnings, higher-education diplomas and other adult indicators of success, this is no trivial matter.

And there’s no time like the present to do something about it, starting with who you hire.

Step 1: Uncover your implicit bias

As uncomfortable as it may seem, turning inward is the first, most crucial step in closing the teacher diversity gap.

Start by questioning your own unconscious stereotypes and asking your employees to do the same. It may feel counterproductive to verbalize and acknowledge our biases, but research shows this is actually the sign of a healthy model of inclusivity.

“Fact is, none of us are as objective as we think we are. One Yale study found that perceiving yourself as objective is actually correlated with showing more bias,” says Darren Bounds, the founder and CEO of Breezy HR.

Ask your staff to conduct its own implicit bias audit, and then reflect as a team. The simple (and courageous) act of starting the conversation is often the most powerful catalyst toward true culture shift.

Strategy 2: Recruit with intention

Once you’ve started the conversation, it’s time to adjust your recruitment practices so that they become intentional avenues of diversity.

Here are some ideas to help you widen your talent pool:

  • Tap into your state’s ‘Grow Your Own’ program – Or make a version of your own. These programs incentivize volunteers, classroom aides, or interns to become credentialed and teach in your organization. In many states, these programs have proven to be an effective pipeline for diverse teaching staff.
  • Partner with local high schools and colleges – Choose schools that have populations that mirror the demographics of your classroom. In the beginning, aim to recruit volunteers and interns. Exposure to the field can often lead to a natural flow of future employees who are likely to stay with you longer.
  • Change your language 67% of job seekers say diversity statistics are important when considering a position. Make sure your job ads are optimized with a clear and compelling EEO statement. And while you’re at it, why not make sure your ads also have a balance of feminine and masculine-themed words?

Step 3: Respect and retain

Recruitment is only the first step in building a diverse workforce. And some would argue, the easiest. Once you have staff you need, the hard work begins—after all, you need to make sure they stay.

As the leader of your org, the task of building an inclusive working environment falls squarely on your shoulders.

Luckily, there are some proven tips that can help:

  • Make it your mission. Write and revisit mission statements that focus on diversity and inclusion. As author and college instructor Margie Carter says, “Teachers can sense when directors are moving their program forward toward a bigger dream, even as they are thwarted by the crisis of the week.” Show them you’re committed to building equality in ECE environments, come rain, sleet or snow.
  • Create a culture of reflection and feedback. Listen to your employees’ needs, frustrations and ideas. Dr. Robin DiAngelo works with teams to develop a sense of inclusiveness in the workplace. She says the best results come from environments that embrace open communication: “What would it be like if [people of color] could just tell us when we stepped in it and had us receive that feedback with grace, reflect and seek to change the behavior?”
  • Cultivate a spirit of advancement. According to research by Mercer, 78% of employees would stay with their current company if they knew there was a clear career path for advancement. Let your team know you care about their future by establishing a clear, attainable growth path.

Start small, dream big

Like any new initiative or goal, the process of recruiting and retaining a diverse staff is best done one step at a time. Most importantly, remember that the purpose behind this shift in culture lies at the heart of what you do best: serving our society’s most vulnerable population.

As Michel Vandenbroeck, PhD writes, “For many children, their enrollment in an early childhood service represents a first step into society. It presents them with a mirror reflecting how society looks at them and thus how they should look at themselves… In this public mirror, every child is confronted with a critical existential question: Who am I? And is it OK to be who I am?”

Presenting children with voices, stories and faces that mirror their own is the best way to answer that question with a firm and unwavering yes.

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