Emily Su Ni Thoman: What is Needed to Support Young People of Color to Achieve a Career in Education

Three research fellows from Rennie’s Future Education Leaders Network reflect on ways to support young people of color interested in working in the education space. Their blog posts focus on the push and pull young people of color face in their pathways to education, highlighting research on financial, social, and emotional barriers to educators entering and remaining in the field. The fellows also shed light on their own personal experiences and share their reflections from having gone through the education workforce pipeline themselves. Read Emily Su Ni Thoman's reflections below or read more about this project and other fellows' reflections.


Emily Su Ni Thoman is a third-year Social Policy PhD student in the Economic and Racial Equity concentration at Brandeis University. She received her MS in Criminal Justice with a sub-concentration in Strategic Management and her BA in Political Science and History with a minor in Education, both from Boston University. Prior to her doctoral studies, Emily worked as a college advisor with College Advising Corps at Charlestown High School in Charlestown, Massachusetts. She currently works as a Project Manager for the Second Chance Act Grant with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services and as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity. Read on to hear Emily’s reflections on the reality of the financial toll people of color disproportionately face in becoming–and remaining–a teacher in the United States.

In 2018, data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) revealed that just under 50 percent of public elementary and secondary school students in the United States identified as students of color (Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native). In contrast, only 19 percent of teachers identified as teachers of color. Although the disparity between students of color and teachers of color (TOCs) varies district to district, the underrepresentation of TOCs remains a relevant problem. Representation in the classroom has positive effects on student achievement like fewer disciplinary infractions, higher academic expectations, and an increased likelihood of graduating high school and pursuing higher education, and the consequences of schools not providing that for students can be life-altering–for the worse.

In addition to the disparity between teachers and students of color, TOCs move schools or leave the profession entirely at higher annual rates than white teachers (19 percent and 15 percent, respectively). One of the factors driving this attrition is likely the level of compensation teachers receive. Teachers of color, specifically Black and Latinx teachers, are not only more likely than white teachers to borrow federal student loans to pay for college, but they are also more likely to graduate owing more debt than their white counterparts. Furthermore, a 2019 report by the Center for American Progress found that, on average, Black teachers earned $2,700 less than their white peers. The financial motivations for TOCs to leave the field are embedded at every level of the teaching profession.

In my career working in educational non-profits that engage in close partnerships with schools, I have seen firsthand how there are barriers for people of color not just in the classroom, but throughout the education field as a whole. Some of the same financial factors that push TOCs out of the teaching profession can also be present in educational non-profits. Though my experience is anecdotal, it can also help illustrate some of the real-life challenges of retaining educators and staff of color.

One of the educational non-profits I worked at had an explicit commitment to ensuring that the racial and ethnic demographics of their staff were representative of the students they served. In their model, employees signed up to serve for a minimum of a year, with the option to extend service to a second year. When it came time for us to let them know whether or not we were going to stay on, the vast majority of employees, especially employees of color, left.

My cohort had our own discussion about why people were leaving, and most of the responses were about pay. While my colleagues were passionate about the work, the pay was simply not enough for those who had student loans and rent to pay in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Many also had to support family members, which added to their expenses. I recognize that the organization faced its own constraints (including limited power to address salary concerns because of its AmeriCorps affiliation), but this experience made me question the ideal of representation in a model where existing systems of inequity are not adequately addressed. Outside of increasing pay and guaranteeing healthcare and retirement benefits, one way that schools and nonprofits can help can address these inequities is offering to pay student loans (or a portion of student loans) for their employees. Another is providing financial support for their employees seeking to pursue academic studies or other professional development, whether that be through tuition remission, tuition reimbursement, or a stipend. Ultimately, the policy solutions to maintain and increase the number of TOCs in schools are well documented – it is time employers moved beyond listening and started acting.