From low wages to being caught in the political crossfire over book bans, to challenges with student mental health and behavior, teachers are going through it.
And, since the pandemic virtual learning years, we’ve seen a mass exodus from the profession, leading to ongoing teacher shortages, especially in schools attended predominantly by students of color.
But despite ongoing challenges like low pay and lack of support, Black teachers remain motivated by their passion for empowering and believing in students — and the positive impact they make on Black students is undeniable.
The fact remains, though, that public school teachers in the United States are far less diverse than the student body, according to Pew Research Center findings.
Using the most recent data available, which was taken between 2017-2019, about 79% of public school teachers were white, while only 47% of students were white. And there were about twice as many Black students as Black teachers, at 15% and 7%, respectively.
But the biggest gaps in the student-teacher ratio were among Hispanic and AAPI people, where it was about a 3-to-1 ratio of students to teachers.
Tre’Shawn Terry spent the summer in Philadelphia working with the Center for Black Educator Development’s Freedom School Literacy Academy, which offers training and experience to prospective teachers. He says a recurring fear that came up among young teaching apprentices was “feeling inadequate, and feeling like they’re able to show up as themselves in education, particularly among the young Black men.”
Terry says if we want to boost student achievement, districts need teachers of color to show up “as their full selves.”
And sending the message to teachers of color that districts are “wanting their culture, wanting their language, wanting their speech or their brilliance and all the ways in which you could show up in the classroom” could help with recruitment and retention.
But, despite all of the challenges, what is still drawing people to the profession? Word In Black spoke with four early-career teachers about why they were motivated to enter the classroom. The teachers are:
- Tyler Cook, 24, Philadelphia, second-year eighth-grade math teacher
- Shadae Hamilton, 28, Philadelphia, sixth-year Algebra I teacher
- Tre’Shawn Terry, 27, Las Vegas, first-year eighth-grade English/Language Arts teacher
- Chaquevia Dumas, 30, New York City, first-year sixth-grade science teacher
Here’s what they had to say.
WORD IN BLACK: Have you always wanted to be a teacher?
COOK: No, I did not always want to be a teacher. I always was on the medical track, not sure what I wanted to do — be a doctor or a nurse or a scientist, anything like that — but I knew I had a passion for medicine. All throughout high school, I did internships at three different hospitals in Philadelphia. I probably changed my major five times in college, and three of those majors were definitely in the STEM fields. What really did it for me was, my junior year of college, I had a professor who was a very powerful professor in her presence and her knowledge. She was the first Black English professor that I had at the school. The way I felt in her classroom — how safe I felt, how I wanted to be there, how I wanted to learn, the relationship that we built in the classroom with her — I knew.
HAMILTON: Ever since I was younger, I did. My mom had gotten me a whiteboard, and I used to come home and teach whatever I’d learned that day. But, growing up, I got deferred from that a little bit. I’m from an immigrant background, my family’s from the Caribbean, so they always say, ‘Oh, teachers don’t make no money.’ So I explored around. They wanted me to be the typical doctor, lawyer, those things. But I remember being in college, and it was my last semester, and I remember feeling stressed out. I’m like, ‘What is this one job that I know I can work in the next six months to a year that I will feel satisfied?’ And I remembered teaching was always something that I wanted to do. I was a part of Teach For America for two years, and I fell in love with it.
TERRY: No, not necessarily. I played basketball. What success looked like for me was going to be playing basketball in some type of fashion or form. And I didn’t put much thought into anything beyond that. But I was exposed to two elementary, Black women teachers, who really exposed to me some of the greatest qualities of masterful teaching. At Virginia State University, I met incredible professors. I was in awe of the fact that I was able to speak to and chop it up with people who were part of the Black Power Movement, and who are organizing in this way and still committed to Black folks and their liberation and freedom. It was 2016 when I really started doing community organizing, and the [two professors] poured into me, ‘We love what you’re doing in communities, and we need you to teach because your dedication, your determination, and your appreciation and love for Black folks needs to be in the classroom.’ So they really gave me the green light.
DUMAS: No, no, no, no, no. My mom’s always said that I should be a teacher, but I haven’t always wanted to be a teacher. I was exploring, trying to figure out what I wanted, who I was, and then what I wanted to do with what I found. I had gotten accepted and declined the offer to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design because it didn’t feel right. And when I was laying in bed, and I was like, ‘Okay, well, what am I gonna do now?’ And it was what Oprah would call an ‘aha moment.’ That sounds so cheesy, but it really was. It was like, why don’t you teach? And I’m like, that just makes so much sense, so much peace to my soul.
WIB: Why are you still motivated despite the public challenges in the profession?
COOK: It’s so funny. I came in as an assistant dean, and [the dean] looked at it as the opportunity to take a break to write her dissertation. So I ended up being the full-time dean. And I appreciated the opportunity. It was amazing. I got to work with so many different kids. But that three-month window, I knew that I wanted to transfer into a classroom. I have a personality that’s all about joy and humor and fun and learning, and deans can be all of those things, but when it comes down to it, they have to deal with the discipline and the structure. And that can take a toll on your mental, and I knew that being a teacher would create more of a safe haven for me.
What really motivated me to become a teacher is that I come from a really big family, and we always support and take care of each other, from the oldest to the youngest. I always looked at how hard it was navigating through my own identity and my own challenges, being a Black queer man in this society. So I always think about how difficult it might be for a child, somebody who doesn’t have that much autonomy or who’s still trying to find their voice, and what they might feel like and what support they might need. Because I got so much support from my family, from my friends, even from teachers growing up, I knew that I had an obligation to give that back when I chose to be a teacher.
HAMILTON: Simply put: My students. No matter how disruptive my day gets, or I’m frustrated about something that got published in the news, or something that happened in our community, my students always keep me grounded. They are my reason why. They could say one thing, do one action, and that reminds me why I’m doing this and able to show up for them in different spaces. Not just in math, because it goes beyond me teaching Algebra I, that’s just the content. But there’s so many other aspects to the relationships that I’m building with them to help them go in whatever direction they want to when they start to explore their career choices.
TERRY: As far as Black folks, we are the reason that public education exists in the way in which it does. It was formerly enslaved Africans who were coming through the Civil War who were like, ‘We need education for our people, and we’ll foot the bill for it.’ So, through my studies and in conversation with my OG educators, they reminded me there’s no greater thing that you can do for yourself and for your community than to teach them, to learn with them, to stay committed to them.
I love learning and learning about young people — how they think, why they think that way, what has them inspired, what are the hard things that they’re going through. I also see it as an opportunity for me to model what it’s like to be intentional about healing as a young Black man. In those classrooms, I get to have a certain privilege to be in there with those young people talking about things that maybe other teachers may not be comfortable talking to them about.
And, on a more personal side, through being the oldest of five brothers, I was able to experience the different ways we had interactions with the school system and how it treated us. One of my brothers passed away back in 2018. He had a tumultuous experience with our local school district. He was a genius, but the school district didn’t know how to honor that. He didn’t have enough teachers who were able to be intentional about, like, ‘I see him hurting. How do I make sure he has the support he needs? To be able to see the fruits of his labor come to fruition?’ So when he when he passed away due to suicide, it really like shook me to my core and reminded me you’ve got to get in this classroom with these young people and you got to do that work.
RELATED: Facing the Black Suicide Crisis
DUMAS: That’s a twofold question. I do absolutely believe in the value of education. But I don’t think I am cut out to be a classroom teacher. I am still going on this journey because I give my all to anything that I put my hand to. But I want this experience because I think it’s kind of like a serving job. It’s that kind of job that I think everyone should do and have an experience in. Because it just brings the best out of you. It’s the best way that serves humanity and your purpose as a global citizen. So I don’t know if teaching long term is for me, but I know that I absolutely want to be in education because I really do value education. I might go into research or policy or something, but I will actually always be in education. It’s necessary.
WIB: What do you think your biggest challenge will be, and how do you plan to navigate it?
COOK: For me, being a teacher and teaching math, truly is to teach it in a way to keep the kids actively engaged. Being such a young teacher, I always thought that I had amazing student engagement because I never really had issues in the classroom. But when I started to think about it, when I started to look at more of the data and the test scores, I realized, do I have student engagement, or do my students just really think I’m cool?
For this school year, I’m going in completely different. I’m still going to be the same fun, positive teacher, but I’m going in with goals in mind, with data trackers, with all these different things to push my students and do it in a way where they want to come into the class and learn the math. I’m currently getting a masters of arts in teaching. This has really helped me get more confident and intentional as a teacher, from learning about consistent routines in the classroom to how to structure my own lessons and set different standards of where students’ different learning goals are. I feel like I need to do more positive narration, not to say that I’m like a mean teacher, but give those micro moments to shout out the little positive things. And then also relying on my assistant principal, when something doesn’t work or when I really need help, not being afraid to say anything. That’s how I’m best gonna be able to serve the students I teach.
HAMILTON: This past year was my hardest. I became a mom. [I was always told] when we started having kids, that’s when it became difficult. I never took a step back to think how many hours I put in, and how much I pushed myself into my career until I had to step back. And now I have this person in front of me who is requiring all of my energy and all of my time. So it was OK if I left work at 7, I’ll just make up for it in different ways. But now I know, when 4 o’clock comes, I have to leave. That was difficult for me.
And providing students with the necessary services. We have a large special education students statistic at our school. So, when students come on board, knowing all of their backgrounds, knowing how to support them. The most difficult part is the background that nobody really knows about. We’re just making sure that these students have all of the tools that they need for their toolbox in order to succeed.
TERRY: My biggest challenge is being intentional about listening to the young people in my classroom and having the courage to ask questions in a genuine and sincere manner as far as not playing into the game of power and roles of authority that you can default to or don’t even recognize because you’re in it. When I first came into education, my challenges were definitely different. I had the insecurities around imposter syndrome and stuff like that, but through the work with CBED, through continuing to reach out to my community of educators, the insecurities around imposter syndrome are few to none. And then also making sure that I am committed to building with young people and their families. It takes a village. I want to have the courage to listen to what is actually going on and to ask the questions.
WIB: What kind of impact do you want to make?
COOK: I really want to be in a position where I have students that look at what I do and think that they can do it, too. I want to get away from this myth of how teaching is not a good job, and it’s a struggling job. But I think more kids need to be able to see teachers like me, or see teachers that look like them in this role so that they know that they can do it. I tell my students this all the time. Yes, we know doctors and people in health care save lives. But teachers save lives, too. We really shape the future generation. So if I can be in a position as a teacher where I can get one of the students in front of me to want to do what I do, I help shape the next doctors, lawyers, preachers, and teachers. I’m here to do all of those things.
HAMILTON: I want students to leave my classroom and know that the world is out there and they can become anything that they want to, and not what somebody tells them that they have to be — and believing that, as well. I tell them that I love them. Even if I have to reprimand you about something, it’s all out of love. I try to spread that amongst them because they need that. My toughest students, all they want to know is that you love them. And it just looks differently for everybody. It doesn’t have to be touchy feely, it could just be ‘Hey, how are you?’ So I try to just be as positive as possible for them. Even when we have run-ins, I always follow up, and I apologize if I offended them. It’s not a teacher versus student type of thing. We’re a team, and I try to pour that into them. Wherever you want to go, it doesn’t have to be college, whatever you want to do, I am here for you. I just want them to know that I believe in them, and not just about math.
TERRY: It’s funny because, years ago, I would have had a list of things. Now, my teaching philosophy is I am not here to be a voice for the unspoken. My priority is modeling what it’s like for young people to honor yourself, to honor your culture, and to honor your community, to commit to evolving in every way, and continuing to heal and be able to be an example of what it’s like to be healing as a Black person, as a Black man, as a Black man in education, and so on.
DUMAS: Everybody deserves empowerment. But, specifically, I want to empower young Black girls and show them that, if you have options in this world, even though it’s set up against you, you can do anything as long as you never tell yourself no. You are good.
WIB: How do you think districts could do a better job recruiting and retaining Black teachers?
COOK: I’m gonna skip over the funding piece because we already know that we need more funding. But I do think that administrations are so particular on data. And that’s what messes up schools and really is what creates teacher burnout. That data will really make or break you. You can feel like you were the most phenomenal teacher and did your best, but if you get data and it says only 30% of your kids met mastery, what that says for administrators is you didn’t meet expectations. It’s not really a clear cut blueprint. Getting a different group of students who are socially, culturally, cognitively all different all to pass this certain metric is really hard.
If people who were once teachers who are now in administrative roles can remember that feeling of frustration, and if we can have a system that extends a little grace — maybe we need to start going back to the drawing board to simply say what do our students need to know to be functioning, independent human beings in society? We need to start raising those types of questions because teacher burnout comes from teachers having passions, having motivation, and wanting to do their best but feeling like they don’t have the support, don’t have the recognition, and don’t feel like they are valued.
HAMILTON: As far as recruiting, I remember vividly a few Black teachers that I had, and I still communicate with this day. I want to be that person for somebody. Just safe. It doesn’t have to be in the classroom. It could be in the education system. It could be wherever. Just continuing that cycle and hopefully continuing to disrupt these systems.
As far as retaining, value us a little bit more. A lot of times we’re used for disciplinary things, but we’re so much more than that. And providing leadership opportunities for Black educators and hosting different workshops. When I was part of TFA, we went to Memphis and had a Black educator workshop, and I’ve never felt so good in my teaching career. While we have all these Black teachers across the nation, and it’s not just me at my school in my room, you still feel isolated at times. I have to be the strong one on my team, or I have to speak up, and sometimes I don’t feel like speaking up. And it just felt good when I was a part of that workshop to see different Black educators across the nation coming together, and to know that what I’m doing in my classroom is also happening in California, is also happening in Texas. Those are important. It starts the dialogue.
TERRY: There’s a push for districts to actually create space for young people to come into the field of education and want to be there because they’re being acknowledged as who they are. And I definitely think the Center has a proven system right around making sure there’s culturally responsive professional development, maintaining connections with the new teachers, making sure that people have a sufficient wage or salary to sustain themselves within the district and wherever they’re at. And then I think also tapping into young people who are in high school, middle school, having apprenticeships. There’s this cohort of young people who have shown they have some great qualities of a potential educator, how do we nurture that? And what does it look like, as a program, across the district or the nation?
DUMAS: The first thing that came to mind was there has to be a little bit more soul. I don’t like to make generalizations, but I’m going to right now: As Black people, we can spot inauthenticity from a mile away. And I think we have to get away from the performative nature of a lot of our systems and actually do the work. And I think that will attract the Black people and Black men and women — everyone who wants to contribute to the Black youth of our nation, for sure.
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