There is a crisis in Black achievement, and one of the solutions is Black teachers. But the latest report from Education Trust, “Through Our Eyes; Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers“, which actually asked them about their experiences raises some troubling issues about the conditions they teach in, and what we need to do to improve them.
The call to serve
Most of us Black folks know the “call” to serve and the sense of responsibility we feel to our children—the sense that we see ourselves in the eyes of these little ones, flaws and all. This isn’t only applicable to Black folks, but I am speaking from my own experience. And these teacher narratives resonated,
“Well, I don’t think I can separate being a parent from my job as a teacher. Because I’m teaching my own children. I look at the children that I serve as an extension of me. I want them to go out and be their very best, because they represent me.”
Double duty from the call
This sense of service, brings another set of expectations though, which aren’t all good.
From the report,
Academically, Black teachers spoke about feeling a burden to serve Black students well because another teacher may not. Black teachers shared a fear that if they did not teach, Black children would not be held to high expectations or encouraged to reach academic success.
“I felt it was my obligation to teach my students, I mean my race. I knew that they will put them in a corner somewhere and just leave them there, and I felt it was my — you know, it was my — as a
teacher, I felt I had to. I had to.”….“I feel like I have an obligation as a woman of color, who’s a teacher, to provide the best type of example of a model — what my students should do, like as a person, you know, as they’re character-building, and just how they carry themselves. And I do think that differs from White teachers. I don’t know if they [White teachers] are coming into the role and thinking, ‘I want to make sure these students of color, I don’t know, have good hygiene, you know, [are] performing at their best,’ and all of that.”
The double edged sword of cultural competence
Balanced with this sense of duty to serve our children was a deeply challenging work environment, where expectations are higher, scrutiny is more critical, voices are muffled, and folks are often stereotyped into roles that have a Black ceiling.
Because we are good at working with more “challenging” students we are often siloed into disciplinary roles, and not receiving the type of development that might elevate their career. Think about how many Brothers are serving (and often stuck) as deans of culture, or other midlevel disciplinary positions.
From the report,
The same qualities that they (and others) perceived as strengths, however, often hindered their professional growth. We listened to teachers who had a penchant for teaching and serving Black students well, but found themselves restricted to only teaching Black students; teachers who were limited to acting as disciplinarians instead of being respected for their ability to manage their classrooms; teachers who put in extra time and effort, but still weren’t heard in staff meetings; and teachers who related well to students, but had to “tone down” their personalities to be seen as professionals.
They reported being pigeonholed by peers, parents, and administrators into specific roles based on these strengths, thereby limiting and diminishing their capabilities. Without the acknowledgment of (or the chance to build) the pedagogical and subject matter expertise essential to their profession, they felt they lacked opportunities for advancement and were undervalued and unappreciated.
Peer perceptions and the burden of race
While many Black teachers are inspired by their work, there are specific burdens they bear. And often beyond just teaching, they have a complex set of relationships to manage; both those with students, and also with peers, who present their own biases.
From the voices of teachers,
“I mean, and most of the time you can, but even when you can’t, it’s assumed that you are supposed to touch every African American child that crosses your path.” “We become the representative for every child of color, I mean, whether we relate to them, whether our culture is the same or not. We become the representative for all of those children.”
“‘You do it so well, let’s just keep you here.’ If I’m doing the ABCs every day, I never really get to do anything of a higher caliber. I think a lot of times, as African American teachers, we get stuck in a certain group, because you do it well.”
Fixed mindsets and double standards
In their words,
“I think it’s just stereotypes that are there, that exist of people of color that we are not as educated or knowledgeable as our counter[parts]. I think that mindset is still there, that fixed mindset that’s there. And so I think it creates the challenge of seeing me as someone who is informed and educated and can contribute just as well as anyone else sitting at the table. And so you have to get beyond that mindset, first of all, in order to even offer me a position or feel like I’m qualified for an advancement.”
“I’ve put in a lot of work, and there are a lot of things that I’ve implemented and have shared with other people and other teachers, and then they get the credit. And I told one of my co-workers — it’s been recently, and she is a White coworker, and she recognized it, too — and I told her, ‘It’s starting to piss me off, because I’m putting in this work, and someone else is getting recognized for something that they really didn’t do, or someone else is looking to be more qualified with less years and less time in the position.’”
The need to work harder in order to be seen as adequate and professional also made Black teachers feel pressured to police their own behavior so they could be seen as more professional. Assumptions about their demeanor — that they were too loud or too harsh, for instance — often required teachers to “code switch,” or regulate their behavior based on context in order to fit into their school. By trying not to fulfill other’s stereotypes of them, teachers hoped that meeting a particular standard of professionalism would remove any distracting idiosyncrasies and allow them to be recognized for their work.
A path forward
Most of us have to wear “the mask” in at least some professional settings. Worrying about how we act and how it will be interpreted. It’s particularly ironic though for Black teachers.
On one hand, because you are Black, there are a whole set of assumptions around your ability to serve the range of Black children, so Blackness is a plus. On the other hand, because (let’s face it) things are still basically racist, if mostly on implicit bias, that same Blackness is something that will limit your professional growth and professional reputation.
Sunshine will help to disinfect, and a good first step is actually listening to the first-hand accounts of teachers. I hope that this is a report that non-Black folks read, and think about. There is a crisis in Black education, Black teachers are a part of the solution, and we need to improve their working conditions.
But in the end Black teachers can’t be THE solution. As a system we need to think harder about how we design the system to meet the needs of Black students and also better align it to support and develop Black teachers. A good first step is listening.