When the school shutdowns started in March 2020, I had an abundance of faith that we would return before the end of the academic year. My peers didn’t feel as confident, but perhaps, as a veteran middle school math teacher in New York City my own sense of hope took over my intuition.
As the number of cases and deaths grew exponentially from the time COVID-19 made it to America’s shores, local and federal governments prepared for mass school shutdowns in the service of keeping students and adult-facing children safe.
In New York City, we were given the dubious task of turning the nation’s largest public school district into the nation’s largest virtual school district. Proponents of school reopening kept reiterating that schools were closed.
But in reality, although the school buildings and all their in-house functions were shut, the relationships between educators and students persisted. We were physically distant but socially connected. I was redistributing my lessons over video, doing one-to-one live sessions with students who needed the most help, grading until all times of night, and calling parents to check in on their socioemotional and academic well-being.
The stress of teaching during a pandemic was compounded by the racial uprisings of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. I took personal responsibility to at least serve as an ear to my students who needed someone with whom they could compartmentalize the events before school was over.
In the middle of this, I also found myself wading in a deep depression about the state of the world. Watching my son plod through virtual lessons and my wife, who works as an administrator, keep a school together from her laptop felt laborious enough.
As a Black teacher, I knew our advocacy prior to the pandemic centered the lived experiences of our students who were racially and economically pushed aside, from the curriculum and learning they did in class to the economic underinvestment in counselors and social workers and dilapidated school buildings with crumbling infrastructure. I also knew that, contrary to our society’s anti-Black notions of our students, my students had enough “grit” to make it to the school door from impoverished homes and communities.
With a global pandemic ravaging through family members, many of whom had to work while their middle and upper-class counterparts had remote working options, educators knew that COVID-19 would exacerbate the inequities.
Now, two years after those initial shutdowns, our society has decided that we must live with COVID-19 without addressing the societal conditions to remedy the inequity that allowed for inequitable learning conditions for Black children. And, as usual, the responsibility for students’ academic and socioemotional learning landed on the laps of teachers closest to the source of the pain. This dynamic probably has much to do with why the RAND Corporation found that nearly 50% of Black teachers reported that they were likely to leave the profession.
The issue is rarely the students themselves. Informally, I’ll say that many of us who go into schools with predominantly Black students already “know what it is,” to use common parlance. We recognize that there are implicit inequities within our schools. Many of us may have a social justice orientation when coming into the profession but we are met with levels of systemic and institutional policies that simply do not cater to the education of Black students.
While proponents of school choice will quip that this only means we need to create other options for Black students, we also recognize that charter schools do not achieve any better or worse student outcomes than their public-school counterparts, probably because functionally, the core dynamic of the classroom is not too different in terms of pedagogy and assessment.
According to research from Richard Ingersoll, teachers of color are being recruited into the profession at some of the highest rates that have ever been recorded but are also leaving at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. While teachers of color generally aren’t leaving because of the teaching itself, there is a significant difference in their responses to school working conditions and organizational decisions.
As such, while many education advocates have advocated for the recruitment and retention of Black teachers, we rarely see efforts to address working conditions or relational tensions between Black teachers and their peers or bosses.
As the executive director of EduColor, an organization dedicated to race and social justice issues, we have also advocated for the recruitment and retention of Black teachers. As educators who believe in the role of unions, including the historical role of local and national Black teachers unions of the past, we also see a role we must play in advocating for student resources, addressing pedagogical concerns, and rethinking curriculum to become more culturally relevant and sustaining.
According to our WeBuildEDU report, a collaboration between the Center for American Progress and EduColor, we surveyed over 2,000 educators of color with the help of the National Education Association and found what many of us knew all along: that teachers of color saw a much clearer inequity with their students of color and immediately sought ways to address them, however difficult.
In order to ensure that Black teachers stay, we must provide more institutional and interpersonal reasons for them to do so. Rather than working from a deficit or scarcity mindset, we should find ways to create more seats.
According to researcher Travis Bristol, Black male teachers who had other Black male teachers in the same school were less likely to report desires to leave than Black male teachers who were the only ones. While teacher alternative certification programs boast a commitment to racial diversity, works from scholars such as Terrenda White suggest we need to better align this commitment with policies that ensure Black teacher retention.
EduColor has also found in this digital age that more educators are using social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, to quickly find community, professional development, and other resources on justice-centered initiatives and socioemotional learning — resources they may be lacking in their immediate professional setting. While it remains to be seen whether the plethora of initiatives in America can make a definitive impact on the profession for Black teachers, we also understand that the responsibility of improving schools ultimately falls on our society.
Unfortunately, notions of anti-Blackness and injustice more generally are pervasive in our schools. As society continues to leave much of its social safety to schools, Black teachers continue to take on informal roles and functions above and beyond the explicit tasks of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. The current antagonism towards Black teachers includes anti-truth movements sweeping local legislative bodies across the country — we don’t have to imagine that Black educators are first on the chopping block at the mere whiff of discussing race in classrooms.
Historically, much has been made about the historical precedent that Brown vs. Board of Education had on the Black educator force, but the emphasis ought to be on white supremacy — specifically how white district superintendents sought to preserve white people in educator jobs after the Supreme Court forced schools across the South to desegregate their schools.
This has more contemporary considerations as well. According to the Albert Shanker Institute, from 2002 to 2012, the number of Black teachers decreased, sometimes quite dramatically, in some of the nation’s largest school systems. Not coincidentally, Black teachers often taught where Black students learned, thereby adding another layer to the phrase “Student learning conditions are teacher working conditions.”
I not only recommend that our advocacy include strong components related to student learning conditions, but I also believe we must more deeply interrogate relationships between Black teachers and other key stakeholders. As we learned during the pandemic, even when the school building is closed, the ties remain.
Now that school buildings across the country are open, we must further the advocacy and push for substantive societal change. We must wean ourselves from the notion that schools can serve as a catch-all for society’s ills, given how conditions due to the racial and economic composition of our students serve as a multiplier for the deep opportunity debt owed to them.
Now, more than ever, we’ve put more on Black teachers and asked them to get stronger shoulders when we can simply ask for more shoulders and less weight on the burden. If teachers serve as interlocutors for America as a nation, teachers simply deserve better, but Black teachers deserve that and then some, especially in truth and reconciliation.