In American K-12 and higher education, it is hiring season. Teachers and administrators are moving around, schools are reconfiguring and multiple job openings are happening. In colleges and universities, faculty positions are mostly set for the fall, but student services and athletic department staffs will continue to shift through the summer.

I believe this annual phenomenon creates significant opportunity to diversify our teaching and administrative staffs at both levels. That is so important, particularly in places like Blount County.

First, let me clarify what is not a compelling argument for diversity hiring. Teachers and administrators of color should not be hired to fill some diversity quota or affirmative action measure. It should not be done as a performative action for bragging rights (“Our school district hired more Black people than your school district.”). Employing more people of color must be a priority for school district and colleges because it makes sound educational sense for our students and for our community. Here’s why.

Regardless of the current racial makeup of Blount County, today’s students will work and live their lives in an increasingly multiracial society. In the next 30-40 years, the percentage of Black, Brown and Asian people in East Tennessee undoubtedly will approach a third to a half. White children who generally are blissfully unaware of their own racial identity — because they don’t have to think about it on a daily basis — will be living and working beside people who look different and who have had very different life experiences.

As a society, we offer a decade or more of formal education to help our youth learn about and develop skills to function within the future we anticipate. Classroom teachers, school administrators, college faculty and staff provide that instruction, often by just showing up and being who they are. When they are people of color, their students learn a different, broader perspective that better prepares them for future workplaces and communities.

Of course this benefits students of color within our classrooms. Imagine what it means for a Black child to have a teacher or a principal who looks like him or her. Imagine the ways that child can dream differently about his or her future with fewer limits and more possibilities.

But make no mistake: This is also beneficial to White students, staff and teachers who will at last have colleagues and friends who see and experience their same world differently. When this happens, the school’s environment changes, the conversations and priorities broaden, and the learning experiences expand.

Yes, I know just how difficult this can be for educational leaders responsible for hiring. As a college administrator and a Blount County high school principal, I know there are very few applicants of color, even though they are in demand. Why? For one thing, education is not a burgeoning career choice for any demographic group right now, so the market is lean. Further, it is fair to assume that Blount County may not be the most inviting or welcoming community for a teacher or faculty member of color searching for an ideal place to settle, work and have a family. In fact, our schools themselves may not be friendly destinations either, so increasing the diversity of the application pool around here is tough.

Please note that I, too, missed opportunities through the years to recruit, hire and retain qualified personnel of color because it simply was not a priority for me at the time. I deeply regret those failures on my part, and I believe that in order to change the trajectory of racial understanding in our society, those who can do something about this now, must.

Here are four suggestions for educational leaders on how to move forward:

• Focus first on creating a welcoming environment by valuing diversity and acting against bullying. Start by creating a building level leadership group of people — faculty, staff, students, administrators — who care about combating racism and will collaborate to learn about and promote interracial understanding and cultural competence within the school or campus. This group can help faculty, staff and students recognize and value the rich cultural difference and perspectives that come when an all-white environment changes to a more diverse one.

• Explore and use curricular materials, texts and resources that inform teachers and students about cultures and histories other than their own.

• Learn how to recruit educators of color in our region. Connect with career services at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Secure the assistance of career consultants to help start the trend. Let the larger community know this matters in your college, district and school by reaching out to minority communities for help and advice.

• Don’t be afraid and don’t hesitate. There will be critics. (I am sure I will hear from some reacting to this piece.) The criticism will come from people who fear change and who worry that this approach will punish or disadvantage White applicants. Let me be clear: It is the responsibility of administrators to secure the most qualified personnel possible in our schools and colleges. I am merely proposing that a greater effort be made to be sure that highly qualified teachers and staff of color are recruited and welcomed into the applicant pool as well.

Think about it.

Vandy Kemp is a Maryville resident, member of the Blount County Board of Education, retired educator, member of the American Association of University Women and is lead consultant with Prosper & Partners, a consulting firm that works across the U.S. and beyond on matters related to equity and opportunity.

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