Not only do we need more Black teachers, but we’ve got to support the Black teachers that we have.“Nobody’s beating down the door” to join the profession. (Photograph by Katerina Holmes/Pexels)

By Maya Pottiger,
Word in Black

Even though school has been out for a few weeks, Monise Seward is still tired. Though she’s working night hours at a part-time job to keep an income through the summer, she attributes her continued exhaustion to her full-time gig: teaching.

In fact, she views the night shift as a “reprieve” from her regular job.

Seward, a middle school math teacher in Metro Indianapolis, says she — and other Black educators — are tired of constantly being questioned and not trusted as experts. But with several weeks between her and the school building, she still says just thinking about microaggressions is exhausting.

“I’m on summer break, but I’m still tired. I’m exhausted. And I don’t think people who don’t share similar lived experiences — who are not Black women — they don’t understand that,” Seward said. “You go to work and be at the top of your game, and somebody’s going to question why you did what you do. I don’t want to do that anymore.”

Though Seward will likely return to the classroom in the fall, she’s noticing an influx of K-12 teachers, including many Black colleagues, searching around for new jobs. 

“It’s getting closer to either they have a deadline for when they can no longer get out of their contracts. So a lot of people are in a tight situation,” Seward says. “They don’t want to go back. There are some people who have resigned to, ‘OK, well, I’m gonna do this one more year, but I don’t want to do it one more year.’”

Survey: Little Has Changed in Terms of Well-Being

While reviewing findings from RAND’s latest State of the American Teacher and State of the American Principal surveys, Elizabeth Steiner was surprised that “little has changed in terms of how teachers report indicators of their well-being in January 2021 compared to January 2022.”

Since March 2020, between 25 percent to nearly 50 percent of teachers and principals have reported that they are considering leaving their jobs within the next year, according to the report.

“We found very few changes in the percentage of teachers who said they were experiencing frequent job-related stress, burnout, symptoms of depression, and who weren’t coping well with their job-related stress,” said Steiner, a policy researcher at RAND and an author of the survey.

“The reports of poor well-being are very nearly universal among teachers of all different backgrounds, of all different school contexts, among different identity characteristics,” Steiner said. However, what may come as a surprise to some is that Black teachers are significantly less likely to report experiencing frequent job-related stress.

Though Black teachers often work in high-poverty schools or are placed in “challenging communities where they are absolutely needed,” those environments also need more empathy and patience, said Dr. Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers.

“They find themselves being the people who are culturally relevant in those spaces, a lot of times,” Ingram said. “Then they take on the onus of ensuring that we have equity in our schools with our Black students, and white students and Hispanic students and Asian students, for that matter.”

The RAND report says that the stressful working conditions teachers are reporting could keep people from pursuing or joining the profession. Compared to other working adults, more teachers report burnout, and about half as many reported feeling resilient to stressful events.

Seward says, with the current state of the industry, she can’t convince anybody to go into the field right now.

“Nobody’s beating down the door to go work as a teacher,” Seward said. “I love what I do. I don’t love the condition in which I’m expected to do what I do. Those two things can’t exist at the same time.”

When Black educators who told RAND they were likely to leave their jobs were asked what might get them to stay, 74 percent ranked more pay among their top three choices, and 42 percent ranked spending less time on non-teaching duties. These are the top two most commonly selected reasons given to RAND researchers.

Addressing Job Dissatisfaction and Working Conditions

Educators were unhappy with many aspects of their jobs — a lack of bathroom breaks, inadequate resources, low wages — but the pandemic seems to have been the breaking point. 

Describing the lack of respect she feels in the building, Seward shared the juxtaposition of being unable to eat a peanut butter cup in her empty classroom on her lunch break because of the school’s sensitivity to peanut allergies. Yet, the school dropped its mask policy, leaving very few people choosing to mask up against COVID-19 and putting teachers at greater risk of catching the virus.

“They say a microaggression is like a paper cut,” Seward said. “One one doesn’t hurt. But if you get one after the other, eventually, it’s going to add up. And it’s already added up.”

Part of the job dissatisfaction comes from how many people have their hands in the classrooms who aren’t the teacher, Ingram says, and that teachers want to impact their own working conditions. 

So, how do we fix this potential mass exodus of educators? We can start by lowering class sizes, reducing paperwork, increasing planning time and collaboration opportunities, and treating teachers like the experts they are.

“It needs to be a bigger presence and a bigger voice from the people who actually do the work with these children,” Ingram said, not politicians and policymakers who aren’t in the classroom for eight hours per day.

“They try to surround our schools with nonsensical ideas about what to do, when to do, and how to do it. And that’s not fair to those people who are on the ground working with kids every day.”

In its report, RAND found that educators who said they were “actively involved” in making decisions at the school or district level were “significantly less likely to report poor well-being and intentions to leave their jobs.” Similarly, and expectedly, access to employer-provided mental health support also improved well-being. About 65 percent of teachers surveyed reported having access to these services, leaving about a third not having any. 

“It struck me that that was a relatively large percentage of teachers who either didn’t have access to such services or weren’t aware that they had access to them,” Steiner said. “In light of the challenges to well-being teachers are reporting, I think that is an important thing for districts to be aware of.”

Despite this, about two-thirds of teachers experiencing frequent job-related stress said they’re coping well with the stress.

“It seems like there are people who are able to seek the support they need to manage the stress in their jobs,” Steiner said. “And still find a lot of joy in their work, even in these very, very challenging times.”

What Happens in the Fall?

With her Twitter following of 17,000, Seward hears from teachers around the country. Sometimes they reach out to her via direct messages, and Seward serves as an ear for people to share complaints and stories they don’t feel comfortable expressing publicly.

Given the state of this community, Seward worries about the number of people staying in education simply because they haven’t found anything else to do.

“I’m not trying to label those people, but it’s essentially going to become a field for a lot of people who don’t know what else to do,” Seward said. “We’re not doing this as a calling. We’re finding other ways to fill our call.”

Though RAND’s report said, “Improving the reputation of the teaching and principal professions might be an important lever for attracting a diverse group of future educators,” Ingram argues the reputation of teachers is intact.

“People trust teachers,” Ingram says. “People know what kind of impact you make in the country and in your community and in a family.”

Black teachers are “Critically important to the infrastructure of public education,” Ingram said. They often take on more responsibilities, not only with students, but having hard conversations with colleagues, teaching history, and ensuring equity among all students.

“Black teachers stand head and shoulders in front of the line to ensure that we are focusing on getting all students what they need so that they can matriculate and have the best possibility of becoming their best selves,” Ingram said. “Not only do we need more Black teachers, but we’ve got to support the Black teachers that we have.”

There’s a short game and a long game to ensure a pipeline of Black teachers. The short game, Ingram says, is retaining current teachers through compensation, support, and the promise of better days ahead. The long game is having a decades-long plan to introduce young students to the profession, and helping them understand it’s a noble profession where you will be valued and respected.

“If we do those things, support our colleges and universities, work on the long game, retain who we have,” Ingram said. “Hopefully we can start to fill in the gaps and move forward in the teaching profession.”

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