The Research Files Episode 88: Attracting and retaining a diverse teacher workforce

This podcast from Teacher is supported by MacKillop Seasons, whose Seasons for Life project supports schools with loss and grief following a suicide and other loss event.

Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher. I’m Dominique Russell.

Thinking about your own school, would you say your team of staff is diverse and representative of the students you teach? We know that diversity in any community is a strength, and when it comes to schools, diversity and a culture of inclusion has a positive impact on student outcomes.

In today’s episode I’m joined by Associate Professor Suzanne Rice from the University of Melbourne, whose research interests centre around attracting and retaining teachers. She’s the lead author of a new report which looks at the current state of diversity in Australia’s schools and explores initiatives and strategies schools and policymakers can put in place to increase diversity.

Let’s jump straight in.

Suzanne Rice: My name’s Suzanne Rice and I'm an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Melbourne University. And my research interests tend to be around attracting and retaining teachers and also around equity; how do we get good teachers into our toughest schools and solve some of the staffing problems that schools in those areas face?

Dominique Russell: And today we're discussing your paper titled Seeing ourselves at school: Increasing the diversity of the teaching workforce, which you co-authored with Dr Alice Garner and Professor Lorraine Graham. Can you tell me a little bit about what was involved in this research?

SR: Essentially the research was funded by the Jack Keating Foundation. Jack was a professor at the faculty, a lovely man and something of a mentor to me. And he had an ongoing passion for social justice in education. And the focus of the funding is to improve the outcomes of disadvantaged groups in education. And so we put up a proposal last year to receive funding and we were essentially trying to look at, trying to deal with 2 wicked problems. One is underachievement amongst certain groups, and I mean there are a number of groups, but the 4 that we selected were: students in regional and remote settings; students in low SES settings or from low SES backgrounds; students with disability; and Indigenous students.

So we were interested in how we could raise the achievement of those groups, but also this wicked problem of how do we staff hard-to-staff schools? And typically schools with high numbers of those students are also the schools that are difficult to staff – our schools with large numbers of poor children, large numbers of Indigenous kids, or set in a rural or remote setting.

So that was the aim of the funding, and we were successful in our funding application. And what we were looking at doing was, what would be the impact if we could increase the number of teachers from these groups? What did the research say? How might this be done effectively? And what might the lessons be learned for policymakers out of that?

So this was all actually desktop research, so we didn't go out and interview people and so on. Essentially what we were looking at was we looked at a policy scan of initiatives of what's been tried overseas and what evidence there might be for their effectiveness. And then we had a look at, okay, if you get a diverse teacher workforce in, what does the research and any evaluation out there say about what might support systems in keeping those teachers in schools?

So they were the 2 key things that we were looking at. And yeah, we spent quite a bit of time both in the research literature and also quite a bit of time on Department of Education websites looking for initiatives and any evaluations that they'd done.

DR: And so can you talk me through what the diversity of Australia's teacher workforce looks like currently? And also how that compares to the diversity of the workforce population, and also then the general population?

SR: So it's not as good as we'd like it to be. Teaching has, in the past, it used to be quite a pathway for working class kids who were able and capable academically to move up into a more middle-class profession. It now tends to be sort of more solidly middle class. We're not getting as many young people coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds coming through.

So for example, with low socioeconomic background, the OECD estimates about 32% of the population, but only 22% of those entering our initial teacher education courses; people with disability, we've got about 17.7% in the population, but 10% in the working population, and only 6% in the teaching workforce; not born in Australia is 33% of our working population, but only 17% – big gap there – in terms of our teacher workforce; Indigenous is about 3% of the population, but 2% of the teacher workforce. We are low on men, as I think most people know; 49% of the population, but 24% of our teaching workforce. LGBTIQ, we don't actually have the figures on what the representation is in the teaching workforce. The estimates are somewhere between 3 and 5% of the population. So yeah, it could be somewhat better.

The teaching population doesn't really adequately reflect the population it's serving, and in some of those areas, of course, the population of students is even more diverse. So because we have migrants from other countries who are often coming with kids, the school population can be even more diverse than, in fact, the current working population, or the current Australian population is generally.

DR: And so why is it important to really look at addressing the disparity between the diversity of the teacher workforce compared to the general population? You've given us a little bit of an indication there, but can you talk to me a little bit more about what some of the positive impacts of a diverse teacher workforce can have on student outcomes?

SR: Okay, so there's been quite a lot of work in the United States on this where there's been long standing initiatives to raise the number of black teachers in the teaching population and there are number of theoretical models proposed that are now finding some backup in empirical research.

So, for example – I mean a key finding is that it does improve learning, most particularly for the ‘outgroup’, whatever that particular outgroup is, if we can refer to them that way. But also, interestingly, there's recent research suggesting it does for members not of the outgroup, so that a more diverse teaching workforce can help support raised outcomes across the board.

The sorts of mechanisms through which this occurs – teachers from an underrepresented group tend to have higher expectations, so there's considerable evidence now in the United States, for example, that black teachers are more likely to refer a black student to a gifted program; that they're less likely to punish them for behavioural infringements. So there are higher expectations there. There's obviously the role model effect that students are seeing someone at the front of the classroom who's like them. There's a clear message that academic excellence is able to be achieved by people in my group.

A third aspect is that there’s some evidence that, for students from underrepresented groups, some of the cultures and structures in courses and in schools can sometimes feel very foreign, and teachers from an outgroup can assist students to, if you like, navigate those structures. Even something that might seem quite simple, like for example a university entrance; filling in the paperwork for university entrance and so on can feel foreign and difficult for someone who doesn't have that sort of background in their family.

So those types of things. We also know that they tend to build bridges to the community; that Indigenous teachers in schools will be likely to have a better chance of building strong bridges to the Indigenous community, which feels like it has someone there who understands where they're coming from.

And of course a final thing is that they can build staff knowledge across the school of different groups. It's very easy not to recognise our own frameworks and the limitations we're working within. And a diverse staff can help build staff knowledge about what it's like for different groups of students.

DR: And in your paper, you discuss strategies that work to attract a more diverse teaching workforce. Can you give me a brief overview of what those strategies are?

SR: OK, there's a range. I'll focus in on a couple of them, but probably the most promising one in terms of having substantial evidence that it does work is something called Grow Your Own. And Grow Your Own strategies are where you set up a program for people who are already working in schools in, say, rural areas or in disadvantaged areas. And they might be teachers aids, administrative assistants and so on. The thinking behind it is that they've already shown some sort of interest in education because they've chosen to work in a school, and secondly, these people have knowledge of the local area, they're often committed to it, drawn from it in terms of living there and so on. And you provide support for those people to complete a teaching qualification and go back and teach in that setting and to be earning while they're doing that so that they're not – you know, often these are older people who’ve got family commitments and so on.

They do go on a range, Grow Your Own, from just a program that says, ‘Okay, we're going to offer you some training and we'll pay for it’, to co-constructed, co-designed Grow Your Own programs where the people who are being trained are seen as having valuable knowledge about things like the local community and ways of doing things and so on. And it's actually seen as enriching the teacher education program. And so there’s a sort of a co-shaping element to it and that sort of valuing of the local knowledge and they tend to be the most effective programs from the current research we've got on that. So they’re Grow Your Own, and as I've said, the research evidence suggests that they're likely to be effective in attracting and retaining people into particular areas.

High school academies are another one where you set up opportunities for secondary students who are interested in teaching to do, say, a local work placement at maybe a primary school in the area, take a small group of kids for reading, and also simultaneously perhaps doing some sort of pre-university study that for which they can get credit, which you know gives them the chance to be seriously working towards teaching.

It also is excellent in the sense that it prevents somebody from losing time and money if they do discover that, well, actually, ‘No, I'm not suited to teaching, this is really not for me.’ They've discovered that without having invested themselves in a year or 2 of university. So high school academies have also been used in a number of places in the States.

Another one that can be useful and is in evidence in a couple of places in Australia, is building bridges between vocational education and higher education. So for example, Victoria University has some diplomas of education that you can then use to build towards a teaching qualification. And these can be useful because vocational education is, sometimes physically more closely/easily available for students, say in a rural area, and sometimes it's culturally less of a gap than higher education is for kids from underrepresented groups. So those were a couple of the strategies.

We also looked at things like student debt forgiveness, providing housing, those sorts of things. But yeah, those are some of the things that policymakers can look at to try and increase the diversity of the teaching workforce.

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DR: And of course, the other really important area is retention of diverse staff. Your researchers identified some initiatives around retaining a diverse teacher workforce, and one of those is a well-designed, comprehensive induction program. Can you talk me through what that is?

SR: Obviously any sort of good teacher induction program, regardless of the incoming teacher, involves providing support and providing some time for people to find their feet and so on. In the case of more diverse teachers, I think there needs to be that element of co-design where again, it's this question of – and something we've tried to emphasise in the report – looking at diversity as a strength, so that people from diverse groups are seen as having knowledge and qualities that will strengthen a school setting and so on. So that element of learning from one another. And I think, too, it also needs to include cultural as well as practical learning so that sometimes school cultures can feel foreign to people for whom that's not, if you like, the natural background of the family.

So, enabling an understanding of some of the cultural issues, both more broadly in education and also at that particular school, as to how it operates. So not assuming and helping people navigate various structures.

DR: Another strategy is culturally responsive mentoring and support networks. Can you describe what that is?

SR: Obviously you want to have mentoring where somebody has both an interest in mentoring, but also some insight, that capacity to recognise that there's not just one way of doing things and the way that I view things isn't the only way. And again, to take it from that viewpoint of there are things to learn. It can sometimes be having someone from the same particular group.

In terms of support networks, for example, in the United States, they've got black teacher networks that are where black teachers get together, talk – and that might be online, but it can be face-to-face – and provide some support and discuss issues and all those sorts of things.

And Victoria, I know we've got a network for teachers with disability. And both in Australia and the UK we've got, unions run support groups, for example, for LGBTIQ+ teachers, and again, it's about enabling people to have a safe space to discuss some of the issues that they encounter and talk about ways that they’ve dealt with these different problems that might come up and so on. So those are the sorts of things that can be really helpful for teachers who are coming from an underrepresented group.

DR: Next, there is targeted pathways to leadership positions. So what does that look like? And why is that important?

SR: I think it's important for a number of reasons. There's that old saying of you can't be what you can't see, and it allows, again, it allows teachers to see themselves in leadership positions.

It's also important to recognise that it's so easy for us to overlook people who are not like us. That we all have a tendency to more easily promote people who look or sound or feel like us, and with whom we feel comfortable. And that's quite well documented and has been for years in the research. So it's important to put in place structures and programs that can counteract that.

It's important for the students to see diverse people in leadership, to see someone like themselves running at school. And it's also important because it forms part of a kind of a virtuous circle, so that black principals, for example, have been found to be more likely to hire black teachers. They will see the talent or the potential there and so on perhaps more easily than a non-black teacher might.

And so it then sort of can start that virtual circle of building a stronger and more diverse workforce that does represent the diversity in our population.

DR: Then we've got workplace accommodations, particularly for people living with a disability. So what are some examples of that?

SR: There's a range of different things, and for the moment, teachers with disability would be the group that, from what we could see, were least-researched and where there was least targeting of policy initiatives to recruit them.

But I mean, obviously there are things like physical accommodations that are the fairly obvious ones. If you have someone in a wheelchair that they have to be able to get around the school easily and so on. But it also can be about examining the job and looking at ways in which the job might be done differently. So you might have teachers of some disabilities who simply can't work full time and might need to work part time, might need to job share. For some there might be a need to have some time out at various points and looking at ways in which we can accommodate that in our schools so that they can take on a role.

DR: And the final one is ensuring workplaces are inclusive and culturally safe. So what does that look like?

SR: So it's an awareness of diversity and diversity issues. And also that mindset about seeing diversity as an aspect of quality, so that a diverse workforce is stronger, not weaker. It's not something you're making room for, it’s something that's strengthening your school. It's something that's strengthening your department’s workforce. It's not something you're doing to be correct or anything else.

And it's also about leadership in schools and the staff in schools being aware of that, they are coming from particular perspective, that all of us bring our own frameworks, our own baggage, our own background to what we do and that influences what we see and how we do things and being aware of that's really important.

Diversity training can be really important. There is some evidence that ideally it shouldn't be compulsory. It should be voluntary, because compulsory tends to send out the message that this is a question of compliance, and sometimes that can work in the opposite direction. There's been some research that suggests that where you emphasise compliance, it actually prevents people from selecting more diverse candidate job applicants because they're worried about legal ramifications, so let's go for the, say, safe and steady.

So diversity training, recognition of different and complementary ways of doing things and skills and valuing and asking diverse staff members what their perspectives are and how things might need to change or could be done differently. Promoting and recognising within the community that diverse staff and making sure, of course, obviously that no form of something like racism is ever tolerated or that a blind eye is turned if anything happens in the school.

The other one that we put, which is really important, is this whole question of being conscious of not having ‘outgroup overload’, that's the term we've used for it. And what we mean by that is – and there is research around this – one of our own Indigenous researchers, Melitta Hogarth, has an article where she talked about being in a school as Indigenous teacher and where everything Indigenous got loaded onto her. ‘You can look after NAIDOC week, you can look after talking to these parents, you can look after helping our staff learn about X, Y and Z.’

And it can, for members of an underrepresented group, it can be really overwhelming, and it can be frustrating too if that's not recognised with any time or salary increase. It's just this sort of, ‘Oh you can just do everything to do with that particular group.’ So it's making sure that anything that is done is done in consultation and with an awareness of workload and with an awareness of recognition.

… It's important that we see this as part of having a really high-quality workforce that enables us to work best with our young people and give them the best possible outcomes.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to take a look at the report we discussed in this episode in full, there’ll be a direct hyperlink in the transcript of this podcast, which you can find at our website, under the ‘Podcasts’ tab. I’ll also leave the direct hyperlink to the article by Melitta Hogarth that Suzanne mentioned in this episode. If you’re interested in exploring this topic more, you might want to catch up on Episode 46 in our School Improvement series titled ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ where we speak with the authors of a book titled ‘Becoming a Totally Inclusive School: A Guide for Teachers and School Leaders’. It’s a really insightful discussion that you don’t want to miss, so simply search for ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ in our podcast channel.

And, before I go, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please make sure you follow our podcast channel on your podcast app. It’s a big help to our team.

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Hogarth, M. (2019). Racism, cultural taxation and the role of an Indigenous teacher in rural schools. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 29(1), 45-56.

Rice, S., Garner, A., Graham, L. (2023). Seeing ourselves at school: Increasing the diversity of the teacher workforce. University of Melbourne.

In this episode, Associate Professor Suzanne Rice discusses the role model effect, sharing that a diverse staff means students are seeing someone like them at the front of the classroom, which sends a clear message that academic excellence is able to be achieved.

Think about the students in your classroom. In this school year, did they have the opportunity to be exposed to a role model with a background similar to theirs?