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Multiple Pathways to Recruit and Retain a Strong, Diverse Science Teaching Workforce

By Felicia Moore Mensah

Posted on 2022-02-24

We at Teachers College, Columbia University welcome the Call to Action for Science Education (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2021) report to advance science education programs and instruction in K–12 and postsecondary institutions. It presents five major priorities, and one of them is developing and supporting a strong, diverse science teaching workforce. When we talk about developing a strong, diverse science teaching workforce, we have to ask ourselves: What do we mean by a diverse teaching workforce, and what do we mean by developing and supporting? I address these two questions.

First, let’s consider diversity in the science teaching workforce. In my elementary science education methods course, on the first day of class, I ask preK6 teacher candidates to answer four questions that require a yes or no response. In addition, my postdoctoral fellows of color administer the poll based on their identities when they teach the course. I am an African American woman, and their identities are Black Jamaican and Asian American females. The four questions are (1) Have you had an African American teacher during your K12 education? (2) Am I your first African American college professor? (3) Am I your first African American science teacher/professor? (4) Am I your first African American female science teacher/professor?

The responses of our teacher candidates to these four questions have been yes. The consistent responses of yes over the years leave me both sad and curious why teacher candidates, who are mostly White and female, reach college or graduate school never having been taught by an African American, Black, or Asian American female science teacher or professor. Therefore, when we speak about developing and supporting a strong, diverse science teaching workforce, we have a great deal of work to do to diversify the teacher workforce so students from early childhood to higher education have the pleasure of being instructed by teachers of color without having to wait until undergraduate or graduate education. Many students will complete grades preK12 and postsecondary education never having been taught by a teacher of color.

Research indicates that not only do students of color in preK12 settings benefit academically from having teachers of color and teachers who look like them, but White students also benefit from the pedagogical practices and rich cultural backgrounds of teachers of color (Gershenson et al. 2018).

Though the pool of teachers of color is increasing, change has been slow: only from 12% to 30% over the past three decades. The pool of Native American or Indigenous and Black teachers is declining (Carver-Thomas 2018). Furthermore, only 2% of teachers of color are Black males (Dizon et al. 2019).

Now let’s address developing and supporting a strong, diverse science teaching workforce. Both traditional and alternative pathways lead to the teaching profession. We can consider diversifying these multiple pathways as options to address recruitment and retention, which must work in concert to achieve a strong, diverse teaching workforce. For example, we can start with high school students and offer support along a science teaching career trajectory for teachers of color:

  1. Encourage and create career pathways for high school Indigenous students and students of color to consider science teaching, support them from college to career, and provide incentives for them to return to their communities as science teachers.
  2. Offer and support Indigenous teacher candidates and teacher candidates of color with scholarships, grants, and loan forgiveness for teaching science in especially hard-to-staff school districts.
  3. Invest in early career Indigenous teachers and teachers of color by providing professional development opportunities, including funding to attend conferences and obtain other credentials and certificates, and offer chances for career advancement from early career through retirement.
  4. Develop consistent community-oriented experiences, or affinity spaces, in which Indigenous teachers and teachers of color can gather to offer emotional, pedagogical, and professional support to one another and provide mentorship along the career trajectory for leadership roles at local, state, and national levels.
  5. Focus on intentional pathways and programs that are established to work with local community members, paraprofessionals, and volunteers who may become substitute teachers, and provide opportunities for them to earn full-time teaching credentials.

The first step to establishing a strong and diverse science teaching workforce involves appreciating diversity and respecting the multiple identities—including racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other identities—of Indigenous teachers and teachers of color who have experiences, talents, and worldviews to share in the science classroom. We want a diverse teaching workforce that more equitably represents what our world looks like and reflects the multiple identities of students in our classrooms. Second, developing and supporting a strong, diverse teaching workforce goes beyond getting these teachers into the classroom. It entails offering ongoing professional development, resources, and support that will allow Indigenous teachers and teachers of color to thrive and advance within the profession for the duration of their careers.


Carver-Thomas, D. 2018. Diversifying the teaching profession: How to recruit and retain teachers of color. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Dixon, R.D., A.R. Griffin, and M.B. Teoh. 2019. If you listen, we will stay: Why teachers of color leave and how to disrupt teacher turnover. Washington, DC: The Education Trust and Teach Plus.

Gershenson, S., C. Hart, J. Hyman, C. Lindsay, and N.W. Papageorge. 2018. The long-run impacts of same-race teachers. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. w25254.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Call to action for science education: Building opportunity for the future. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Felicia Moore Mensah

Felicia Moore Mensah, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology and professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University (New York City). She has published extensively in the areas of diversity, equity, and identity in science education. Her most recent research uses critical race theory and intersectionality to transform teacher education research and practice. Her work to prepare future teacher educators and teacher educators of color for racial literacy combines years of K12 classroom and postsecondary teaching, mentoring, and outreach. 

Mensah received the 2017 Outstanding Science Teacher Educator of the Year award from the Association for Science Teacher Education and ​the 2012 ​Early Career Award, Division K, Teaching and Teacher Education, from the American Educational Research Association​, and was named an Equity and Ethics Scholar in 2005 by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. She worked for Proctor & Gamble and in a hospital laboratory before entering teaching as a second career.

Note: This article is featured in the February 2022 issue of Next Gen Navigator, an e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators focusing on the themes highlighted in Call to Action for Science Education and on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator.

The mission of NSTA is to transform science education to benefit all through professional learning, partnerships, and advocacy.


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