A Latina principal in Texas shared the details of a recent day with me. It started with a district meeting about school budget cuts that were inevitably coming her way due to decreases in student enrollment. She then returned to her school building to mediate an argument between two parents. When she came across a student who was hanging around outside of class, she took time to talk with them and encouraged them to go back. Later, she attended a teacher retirement party—she was happy for her colleague but concerned about how she would find a strong new teacher amid a growing teacher shortage.
Over the last two years, the challenges and traumas of leading through the pandemic and racial reckoning have left many principals of color exhausted, disappointed, and feeling detached. Layer that with the fact that principals of color are more likely to lead in urban and high-poverty schools, which typically face additional challenges like limited resources. In fact, principals in high-poverty schools typically have shorter tenure and lower retention rates than their colleagues in low-poverty schools.
These factors all point to a looming retention problem for school leaders of color at a time when they are already scarce and desperately needed. Frequent principal turnover in general is not good for a school—it has been found to affect student reading and math achievement, professional relationships among staff, and district budgets.
Principals of Color Have a Substantial Impact
There is a particular urgency to retain school leaders of color right now. Districts are becoming more diverse every year. Currently, Latino students constitute 27 percent of public school students. When students have a teacher and/or principal who looks like them, it results in academic success, their attendance improves, and discipline referrals decrease. Unfortunately, only 20 percent of principals are people of color. Latino leaders make up only 9 percent of principals.
Principal racial and ethnic diversity matters for teacher hiring, retention, and job attitudes. Teachers are significantly less likely to turn over when they and the principal are of the same race or ethnicity. And Black principals are more likely than White principals to hire teachers of color who apply to their schools.
In my research and experience supporting leaders of color, and as a former principal of color, I’ve identified four critical steps that school system leaders can take to better retain Black and Latino leaders of color.
4 Ways to Support Principals of Color
1. Support leaders’ development of teaming skills: Leading is not something to be done alone. As researcher Amy Edmonson has found, leaders, particularly those in challenging working conditions, find success when they use cross-disciplinary collaboration, flattened hierarchies, and continuous innovation. If districts thoughtfully create administrative teams, principals of color might be able to stay in the job longer because they feel supported.
2. Provide mentorship: It’s often hard to be “the first” at something. Many new principals of color today are the first leader of color in their school, or for some, in their district. They would greatly benefit from mentoring by a current or former principal of color. Mentors can offer confidential support and advice and the opportunity to observe other leaders at work. Districts can connect with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and associations such as the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) to find mentors if there aren’t any available within their own districts.
Research shows that access to mentoring and district-sponsored informal social networks may improve career development for Black and Latino educators within school leadership, especially when mentors are also leaders of color. During my first year as a principal, my own mentor became a support not only to me but to my school. I still regularly look to him for guidance and support as I take on new roles as the first leader of color in organizations.
3. Invest in professional development: Principals of color are more likely than White principals to have served as assistant principals before moving into the principal role, but too often, they don’t get the professional learning they need to be ready for the principal role.
District leaders can take note of the learning that their leaders of color need to effectively lead their schools. In one Massachusetts school district, for example, the district equity officer guided a group of leaders of color in a reading of My Grandmother's Hands by Resmaa Menakem, creating opportunities for leaders to better understand how we carry the impact of racism in our bodies, and how to heal from and lead through that trauma.
4. Create networks of support: Provide a support network of principals of color who are there for each other personally and professionally. While professional learning and mentorship are important, leaders of color also need a safe community of colleagues who can relate to their challenges, share stories, and offer support. Professional networking provides the opportunity for individuals to build collegial relationships, create coalitions, and develop a sense of belonging.
Organizations such as the Surge Institute’s Black Principals Network and Men of Color in Educational Leadership offer networks of support. In my role as access and equity officer at the Leadership Academy, I have created a community of care for principals of color by sharing resources, ideas, and guidance. During one recent conversation, participants talked through the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and shared ideas for how to support their school communities through fear and trauma.
I can attest from firsthand experience that being a school leader of color is not easy. But retaining them doesn’t need to be hard. Make these strategic investments—our young people deserve nothing less.