The nonprofit advocacy and research group Education Trust released the report “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflection From Black Teachers,” which chronicles and narrates the nuance of the black teaching experience in ways numbers can’t.
This qualitative study addresses teacher-retention issues in a progressive fashion and positions black voices directly in the ears of white institutions for the benefit of all teachers and students. It continues the slow grind of dismantling white supremacy in our education spaces, where it often does the most damage.
Most have seen the numerical need for black and brown teachers. The report cites the following data: Teachers of color represent only 18 percent of the teaching population in the U.S.; black teachers are 7 percent, even though students of color make up the majority of our public school population. Recruitment of black and brown teachers has not kept pace with the changing demographics of schools and attrition due to retirements and other departures.
The scarcity of black teachers is heightened by research that demonstrates the high value of black teachers, especially for black youths. Black teachers have higher expectations of students. They suspend and expel youths at lower rates, and they are more likely to serve in districts with low-income students of color.
In other words, evidence suggests that all teachers should learn from black educators. Moreover, black students aren’t the only group that stands to gain from more black teachers. White students need black teachers, too.
Recognizing the need to recruit and retain more teachers of color is a baby step toward securing better schools. While baby steps are often the most critical, actually moving toward the direction of black and brown teachers represents a jog. We’ll get to real education reform when black teachers’ voices are valued in the marathon for real educational equity.
"Through Our Eyes" provides a glimpse into why black teachers are more effective despite the obstacles they face.
Black teachers in the study expressed that “they connect with students, especially black students, easier than their peers.” This unique relationship is a well-documented source of strength, but it can be a burden. Black teachers understand black students’ awareness of the apparent cultural dissonance or even outright bias and discrimination that occurs when nonblack teachers are entrusted with educating black students. Consequently, students feel safer and are more open to learning with black teachers.
But there’s a trade-off.
The report shares ways in which black teachers establish bonds in and out of school. In particular, black teachers’ social-emotional awareness encompasses an array of competencies that all teachers should have, but many don’t.
In response, white colleagues can misunderstand or subtly exploit black teachers’ connection with black students. The study explains that white teachers expect black teachers to be relatable, which may or not be the case. Black teachers’ skin doesn’t magically give them classroom-management skills. Those skills are learned after a rapport is established.
As one respondent said, “You can pull a student out of a classroom, and I’ve not encountered the student, but as soon as they step out and see my face, as opposed to the other teacher or instructor, they feel comfortable enough to share some things that they might not have with the teacher of a different ethnicity.”
“Where I’m at, sometimes there are Caucasian teachers that don’t even have the patience with the kids. Or the kids will do one thing wrong, and they’re ready to nail them to the cross,” said another participant.
Prior research on effectiveness indicates that black teachers ostensibly learn skills beyond establishing a rapport, so white teachers can, too. Unfortunately—though not unexpectedly—in my experience as a school leader, white leaders and colleagues often de-emphasize the teacher-child relationship as a critical aspect of teaching. Instead of viewing this area as a deficit that needs increased capacity, relationship building becomes black labor.
Though forging deeper relationships with black students is both a privilege and a responsibility, it can also be a discriminatory burden that too many black teachers take home with them at night. It is the “black tax” that white educators—white teachers who willfully refuse to do their jobs—insidiously levy on black educators. This weight leads to higher levels of attrition.
Make no mistake: Relationship building is as important a feature of teaching as dispensing knowledge. Compartmentalizing and dismissing it as solely black labor hurts and devalues black teachers but also has consequences for white teachers and students. This is why black teachers’ voices need to be heard.
Black teachers’ ability to connect, sympathize and empathize with students gives them a higher capacity to redirect behaviors, an ability that pigeonholes black teachers and reduces them to being competent disciplinarians. The study conveys the phenomenon of others seeing black teachers as “enforcers rather than educators—a reductive stereotype.” Again, instead of learning from black teachers, others encumber them.
The most important contribution of this study is that it empowers black teachers. “There is a desire among black teachers to share their experiences beyond the teacher workroom, beyond private conversations,” said Ashley Griffin, lead author of the report.
Griffin told me that she witnessed an intense camaraderie develop among teachers as they spoke in the focus groups. Clear themes emerged among the numerous focus groups that validated black teachers’ experiences.
Responding to the needs of black and brown educators has the potential not only to create an equitable, sustainable and more effective workforce but also to address America’s core institutional problem: not believing or acting upon the strengths and burdens of marginalized groups, including teachers of color.
Be clear—students see the lack of respect afforded to black teachers. They get to the heart of the teacher-pipeline problem, and they begin to understand that black voices aren’t heard in one of society's most critical professions.
From the district to the principals to teachers, when black educators gain the respect they deserve, the profession will be attractive to the most robust pool of candidates: the students.