It’s been a tumultuous couple of years for teachers, but things are finally looking up.
In its recently released annual State of the Teacher report, RAND found that, in 2023, well-being was overall better for teachers, even returning to pre-pandemic levels.
This can be attributed to some of the things we learned during the pandemic, says Kimberly Christian Johnson, a 25-year educator and 2022 Alabama State Teacher of the Year. For example, people are paying more attention to the industry and its challenges, like creating grow-your-own programs, expanding mentorship opportunities, and supporting mental health needs.
“Those are conversations that people are having, so I do think it is better for all of us,” Johnson says.
And specifically for Black teachers, relationships with students’ relationships are at an “all-time high,” says Kurt Russell, a high school history teacher in Ohio and the 2022 National Teacher of the Year.
“Black teachers are going into education really loving students,” Russell says, “and I think students are providing Black teachers with hope.”
But in that well-being, there continue to be disparities across the board. The 2023 report also found that Black teachers were still suffering in key areas: Burnout, low salaries as a job-related stress, and high intentions of leaving the profession.
“As good as it is to see that, overall, teachers are feeling less stress now than they did during the height of the pandemic,” Dr. Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a statement to Word In Black, “it’s cold comfort knowing that Black teachers are still battling unique work issues that have yet to be fully addressed.”
More Than Half of Black Teachers Report Burnout
Black teachers reported significantly higher rates of burnout than white teachers — 63% compared to 55%, according to the 2023 State of the Teacher report.
Though the 2023 report says that overall well-being has improved, rates of burnout increased for Black teachers (up from 60%) while decreasing for white teachers (down from 59%) since the 2022 report.
One cause is that Black teachers serve multiple roles in a school, not just doing daily tasks like watching the hallway between classes or chaperoning after-school events. Instead, Black teachers overwhelmingly serve as disciplinarians, especially for Black and Brown students, or they’re responsible for making connections between Black families and the school community.
“It is always turned to the Black and Brown teachers because of the relationship that they have with the children of that particular school,” Russell says. “That is really stressful when you are teaching: being a disciplinarian, being a guidance counselor, as well.”
And, whether it’s entering the field as a first-generation college student or due to feeling cultural responsibility, many Black teachers are just trying to give back, Johnson says.
“We are like, ‘OK, education is the key,’” Johnson says. “We want to be educators, we want to help, we want to inspire students, we want to support students.”
This often leads to Black teachers going into hard-to-teach areas, Title 1 schools, and buildings that are underfunded and lacking resources.
“We go to schools that need transformational leaders, and they need teachers who are energetic and creative and innovative and trying to reach the students,” Johnson says. “That takes a toll on you emotionally and mentally.”
Black Teachers Want a Livable Salary
Though it wasn’t the top-rated job-related stress for Black teachers, they were the most likely to say that their low salary was a source of stress.
The State of the Teacher report found that 35% of Black teachers cite this as a source of job-related stress, compared to 26% of white teachers and 28% of all teachers. This, too, is higher than it was in 2022, when only 31% of Black teachers cited this as a source of job-related stress.
However, 38% of Black teachers cited both managing student behavior and supporting students’ academic learning because they lost instructional time during COVID-19 as sources of job-related stress.
“Black and Brown teachers really just want a salary that is competitive, and a salary where they could actually live on,” Russell says, “not just make it, not just be in existence, but to actually live, to really provide stability within their families.”
While people don’t balk at how much doctors and lawyers are paid, Johnson views teaching as a profession with the same value to society — it just takes longer to see the results.
“When a doctor helps you, it is immediate. So you’re like, ‘Oh, that doctor was so good,’” Johnson says. “But, oftentimes, it takes an adult to reflect back on what a teacher has done to affect their trajectory in life. You just don’t see the immediate results.”
Continuing High Intent to Leave
After high rates of burnout and salary-related stress, it isn’t a surprise that Black teachers report the highest rates of intent to leave.
The report found that intent to leave by the end of the 2022-2023 school year was more than 10 percentage points higher for Black teachers than their peers. While 35% of Black teachers said they intended to leave by the end of the school year, only 22% of white teachers did, compared to 23% of all teachers surveyed.
“It ties into the simple fact where I still believe that Black teachers are not respected in terms of their expertise in the classroom,” Russell says.
While Russell is in a relatively unique position to teach a high school course around race and gender, which allows him to bring more culturally relevant teaching into the classroom, that isn’t accepted in many school districts around the country.
“That’s why a lot of Black teachers are saying, ‘Enough is enough. It’s difficult for me to really express myself in the schools,’” Russell says.
And Black teachers, especially early-career teachers, often work in schools with high poverty rates and lower academic performance. This means there’s more “work and time and effort and commitment,” Johnson says. And teachers take that home with them.
“You worry about not only their education but their wellbeing,” Johnson says. “We worry quite often about our students and what we can be doing better and how we can help.”
And students are still experiencing lingering effects from the pandemic, like high truancy and absenteeism, along with struggling to stay motivated. Challenges like this might require more interaction with parents or even a trip home because “it’s not just about reading, writing, and arithmetic,” Johnson says, “it’s about the whole child and their well-being.”
It’s a lot of work that happens outside of school hours.
“It’s all interconnected,” Johnson says. “This job requires so many things. I can go into corporate America, I can go somewhere and train in HR, I can do this and not take all the things home with me.”
Tackling big problems starts with small changes.
Before teachers even enter the classroom, preparatory programs and school districts need to highlight “the truth within the schools and not this facade of the truth,” Russell says.
For example, schools need to be honest with Black and Brown teachers that they will be in the minority among the teaching staff, and the preparatory programs need to prepare them to cope with that.
And, while mental health became a focus during the pandemic, Johnson says it should be translated to the school building. Of course there are sick days and PTO, but sometimes teachers need a mental health day to process and decompress.
Another way to help with processing is having support groups that aren’t focused on academics, but where teachers can get together and talk about what’s happening in the classroom and problem solve together.
“You close the classroom door, and we’re by ourselves,” Johnson says. “We try to provide a safe space for children. I think the districts can provide safe spaces for teachers to be used to be able to process together all of the mental and emotional and social-emotional toll that it takes on us.”
And, of course, there’s higher salaries. Many teachers work two jobs, Johnson says, which leads to more stress. But if you’re able to have one profession that pays you well, it makes a difference — especially in terms of who’s coming into the profession.
“If I’m really good at math, do I want to be a math teacher or an engineer? It can easily be that, if money’s one of my top priorities, I’m going to be an engineer, even though I might enjoy working with young people,” Johnson says. “It’s just not going to pay off in the long run.”
Though they’re only starting points, better compensation, along with student debt relief, are crucial remedies for Black teachers, Ingram wrote. And they need the professional courtesy to shape their own careers instead of being recruited into roles they didn’t sign up for.
“We must do a better job of listening and working to resolve cultural issues in a profession where Black teachers make up less than 10% of the workforce and often feel isolated and ignored,” Ingram wrote. “Black teachers have consistently been shown to boost graduation rates for all students but are rarely recognized for their unique contributions. It’s time we change that.”
Get Word In Black directly in your inbox. Subscribe today.