By Aswad Walker
The 2021 Rand Corporation’s State of the U.S. Teacher Survey reported that roughly 50% of Black teachers stated they planned to leave their jobs by the end of the school year—a rate higher than other races. And according to testimonies by many Black teachers, many of whom have quit before the end of the 2021 – 22 school year, that projection seems to be on point.
One of those former teachers, Christyna Ferrell, an educator with 37 years in education, did not return to her classroom after spring break. The Tennessee native did, however, speak with the Defender about her decision to walk away.
DEFENDER: What are some of the schools at which you’ve taught in the Houston area?
CHRISTYNA FERRELL: I taught at YES Prep North Forest, and left there and went straight to KIPP Peace where I taught second grade. I was there for a year and left there and went to Yellowstone Academy in Third Ward, teaching there for four years—two years in second grade, and then two years in middle school, teaching science and social studies. I left there in this past school year and went to an all-white private school.
DEFENDER: I keep hearing reports that there are all these teachers, specifically Black teachers, leaving the classroom. Have you seen this?
FERRELL: Absolutely. What I have found, especially since it has been a very tough year, not just for the students, but for teachers as well, that coming back into the classroom this year, students literally missed a whole year of education. I don’t care what anyone says. A lot of kids were left out because of the lack of computers, etc., but also the lack of parents’ involvement. Teachers can only do so much. And you ask the question, “Why are we leaving”? Because we are asked to do so much work, and the work that they’re putting on teachers, we don’t have time to do. You’re taking work home. So, that’s taking away from your family time. Then, you’re exhausted. And then you say, “Hey, I’ve got to start this all over again tomorrow. Add to that, the lack of appreciation from school administrators. But what I found out this year is lack of appreciation from parents.
DEFENDER: I’ve been told by other teachers that COVID has been a monster in so many different ways for students, but especially for teachers. School administrations expected teachers to do the normal teaching, plus hybrid teaching, plus learning new virtual education systems, plus managing classrooms, plus doing so while teachers also have to deal with their own families and children and COVID issues. But I also heard that there was a whole, different attitude coming from the parents. Can you speak to that?
FERRELL: For me, the experience I had last year and this year, dealing with two different demographics and cultures of children, I’ve noticed that all the parents were the same. And within what I’ve noticed, they wanted the teachers to create these miracles for their students, while they were not helping us help their student. What we ended up having to do as teachers, we had to do our curriculum, the regular routine. Then on top of that, we’re calling parents every morning: “Hey, your child has a Zoom class at 9a.m. Please make sure they’re on the Zoom class.” Or, “Listen, homework is due. Please make sure it’s in Google classroom.” It’s constant communication. Well, after week number three, parents stopped answering their phones because they already know our phone numbers. Then, they started blocking our calls. So, they’re not communicating.
DEFENDER: When you did hear from parents, were there any common themes from those communications?
FERRELL: Because we were virtual for so long, most students did not grow in terms of social skills on the pace that they normally did before the pandemic. In fact, I think they lost a lot of their social skills. As a result, parents had no clue what to do with their children at home. What I kept hearing from parents was, “Ms. Ferrell, I don’t see how you do it every day. How do you do it (teach a classroom full of students) every day?” And I said, “Well, it takes discipline, and this is why we need a village.” We stopped being a village. The village stopped being a village because parents didn’t want us to be a village anymore. Parents would often take the position, “Hey, I got my child. Don’t worry about it.” But then when it comes down to making sure their child succeeds, we teachers are still in there pushing and pulling like, “Hey, we really want your child to succeed, but it seems like you don’t,” because we did not have the cooperation from parents. That’s not what they want this year. What I noticed with my students this year, my parents wanted me to babysit them. They wanted their social and emotional needs met, not their academics. I’m a teacher. I can teach. I can give you support. I can love all over you’re your student, but I can also teach your student in the midst of all of that. That was the main challenge I heard from parents: “As long as my child in having fun, I’m good.”
DEFENDER: Are you still teaching, and if not, when did you stop? And what was the specific reason why?
FERRELL: I walked away from the classroom with a mutual understanding. Because the parents, from day one, and I was the first African American at the private school, treated me unkindly and unfairly the entire school year. And it was from week one up until the week after Spring Break, to the point where it was physically affecting my health. It was mentally affecting my health. And socially, it was affecting my health. By that I mean, I would come home and I’d be so exhausted that I’d literally have to take a nap just to get up and start to cook and take a shower and start the day over for the next day. And you go in and you give 110% to the students and parents. Then, the parents are constantly saying this and that. Now, I understood it was going to be an adjustment, a transition. I’ve worked in environments in Nashville where I’ve had all-white clientele, but never had those experiences like I had at the all-white private school here in Houston before. This was such a culture shock to me. And then coming off of virtual learning, and these were very sheltered children, they didn’t really want to be in the classroom. And when they did, they just wanted to play. So, it was hard making that transition to: “Hey, we have to buckle down. We need to learn this. We need to learn this skill.” And what I noticed, the more I tried to teach, the more negative feedback I received from parents. Then it got to the point that I did not love my job anymore. I did not love teaching. So, when I walked away, I said I would never go back into another classroom.
DEFENDER: So, it was just the lack of support from parents that led to your decision?
FERRELL: Also, treatment from school administrators. Not necessarily the last administration I came from—the private school—but the previous school. I was upset at how they treated the teachers. At the end of the, our first COVID year, they literally told all the teachers in an email containing a YouTube video, “You’re fired, and if you want to remain on staff, you will have to reapply for your job.” Who does that in the middle of a pandemic?
DEFENDER: It sounds like the added weight and pressure of COVID and all that came with it, plus your new school environment and the mistreatment is what led to your decision to walk away from teaching. Is that correct?
FERRELL: That is correct. These school admins have changed curriculums and they’ve added tutoring and these PDs (professional development courses), and they’re saying, “Hey, we’re not going to reimburse you for theses. You have to do these things on own time.” As teachers with no time, where do you find the time?
DEFENDER: You have come through some serious health challenges, as well. Would you mind sharing what those challenges were?
FERRELL: That’s another reason why I decided that education is no longer my passion. Right at the beginning of COVID, actually May 11, 2020, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, stage two going into stage three. So, it was like very aggressive. At this point, I’m grade level chair for seventh grade, teaching social studies, science, just having a great time. And as the cancer progressed, I got sicker and had to take FMLA. This is when I started seeing the real regarding how you’re valued as teachers. Admin, at the beginning of the school year were like, “Hey, we’re all family. We’re here for each other.” But, as soon as you need someone, then it’s like, “Where you at?” And as my health declined my school started to not be supportive in helping in my recovery, making sure that I can come back to work.
There were several stipulations that my doctor had given in order for me to come back to work. The only one that they honored was that I was working remotely, from home. But, everything else that my doctor put in writing, they did not follow. And because they didn’t follow, I got sicker. Towards the end of the school year, I thought about the almost five years I put in at the school and how I brought up grade levels, benchmarks, testing, and going to work every day, only to be pushed aside like I didn’t matter. It was to the point that the principal at the school told the other admin not to communicate at all. So, there was no communication from January up until we got out of school in May. They would not return my phone calls it. I knew some things were going on, but I didn’t have any confirmation about it until after the school year, one of the admins left and she shared it with me. But to know that, when you put your blood, sweat in tears in a job, and like, I would literally be on Zoom, sick. Like, I just had treatments and go to Zoom and teach my class. And as soon as I get through my class, I’m crawling into the bed until my next class, two hours later. They didn’t see that dedication. They didn’t care. And because they didn’t care, why should I stay at a job where you’re not valued? What’s that old saying, “You better take your rest today because they’ll replace you tomorrow”? That’s true.
DEFENDER: So, what are you doing now? Are you retired? Are you looking for something else?
FERRELL: Education is still in my blood right now. I’m working. I’m an executive board meeting for LIT Schools, where we are trying to bring educational literature to different demographic schools here in Houston and surrounding areas. And not just in Texas, either. We’ve got out-of-town teachers who are participating. So, I’m a part of that. I’m trying to help build that up. That excites me. So, I’m still a part of education, but just not in the classroom.
DEFENDER: Last question. What do schools and school administrators need to do a better job of in order to keep teachers from leaving the classroom?
FERRELL: Treat us like human beings. That’s the bottom line. Sometimes we feel like we’re work horses. The bottom line is we all need to work because we have to live. That’s the bottom line. And in education, we know you’re not going to get rich. So, you have to be there because you love what you do. So, appreciate us. And I’m not just talking about buying us lunch every now and then. Like, really appreciate us. Come into our classroom and say, “You know what, you’re doing a great job. Thank you.” And be supportive when those parents are being judgmental, when they’re being very, um, I don’t know the word. I could use some good adjectives <laughs>. But, it’s like school administrators are scared of the parents. It’s like, whatever the parents want the parents get. It doesn’t matter about the teachers. Behind closed doors, administrators will say, “We’re here to support you.” But when those doors are open, it’s all about supporting those parents; whatever those parents want. And when parents talk, then you’re walking out that door.