Recently on Twitter, a conversation surfaced around this simple question: “What grade were you in when you had your first Black teacher?” My first Black teacher was Mrs. Payton in kindergarten. I went on to have four more Black teachers before I graduated from high school. Even now at 32, I ask many of my Black friends the same question, and we are all still able to rattle off the names of these educators.
I am now entering my 11th year in the classroom, and I wonder if my students have encountered more Black teachers than I did during my primary and secondary educational journey, or if I am their first one. Black teachers face unique challenges, and supporting us in the classroom is more crucial than ever. Statistics show that Black teachers make up 7 percent of all teachers in this country, while Black students make up 15 percent of our nation’s students. Supporting Black students and disrupting systemic barriers in our schools also means supporting Black teachers.
As protests sparked across our nation due to the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery (among countless others), I began to ponder how this call to justice would infiltrate classrooms. While education is heralded as the great equalizer, the experiences that children have in the classroom are largely shaped by race. Research suggests that Black children perform better academically when they have Black teachers; however, much of the current dialogue on race in schools fails to discuss Black teachers and the ways that racism can shape their experience in education.
Black teachers matter, and a failure to support them can lead many to leave the profession altogether. Black teachers change schools or abandon the profession at higher rates than their White counterparts. Supporting the needs of Black teachers is crucial in the fight for racial justice in our schools. The task of supporting Black educators may seem daunting, but it is one of the many necessary elements needed to begin reform in America’s schools. So, what can be done in your building today? Start by dealing with microaggressions and the burden of emotional labor that many Black educators face.
Dealing With Microaggressions
So what exactly is a microaggression? In an interview with NPR, Kevin Nadal defined microaggression as “the everyday, subtle, intentional—and oftentimes unintentional— interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups. The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination or macroaggressions is that people who commit microaggressions might not even be aware of them.”
During the national protests against police brutality and calls for racial justice, young people in secondary and postsecondary schools began to speak out about the microaggressions they had experienced that made a lasting impact on their psyches and educational careers. This comes as institutions are examining outdated beliefs and practices upheld in many areas of academia. Along with Black students, Black teachers also have dealt with the impact of microaggressions from coworkers, sometimes with lasting consequences.
Microaggressions in schools can look like equating skin color with similar experiences when dealing with students in the classroom. In my dialogue with other Black teachers, I’ve discovered that many, if not all of them, have been mistaken for another Black teacher or repeatedly asked to step into situations solely in a disciplinary capacity. Speaking up in meetings can be seen as arguing and not simply questioning, and fellow colleagues have used questionable language such as “aggressive” to describe behaviors that would be praised when exhibited by our White counterparts.
Many encounters like these can make some Black educators less likely to speak up in meetings, a phenomenon that is mirrored in the world outside of education. Whether intentional or not, these and other microaggressions may stifle the voices of the Black teachers in your building. It also helps for administrators to actively recruit Black candidates to strive for the demographics of teachers to match the demographics of the population they serve. The experiences of Black educators are not a monolith, so everyone benefits when Black teachers are actively recruited and supported in schools.
Black educators are often responsible for teaching students in the classroom about racial injustice, but they should not be expected to guide their White colleagues on the journey to becoming antiracist. That is too heavy an emotional burden to bear and should not be their responsibility. Some Black educators choose to have difficult conversations with their White counterparts, and others do not. Factors such as relationship, climate, and trust should be considered when navigating difficult conversations about race.
There is a delicate balance of listening to your Black colleagues detail their experiences and doing the work of educating yourself through the plethora of books, podcasts, and virtual events dedicated to what individuals need to learn and unlearn on their journey to antiracism (which, by the way, is an ongoing process with no clear ending).
Finally, treat your Black colleagues as the true professionals that they are. Many Black teachers cite lack of autonomy and school influence among reasons for leaving the profession. Are the Black teachers in your building given space to be experts on content, pedagogy, and curriculum, or are they relegated to the role of disciplinarian?
I am fortunate to work in a school where my expertise in my field of study and professional interests are nurtured, and I am able to take on leadership roles in my building and district that truly match my skills and passions. I am hopeful that our commitment to antiracist spaces for our students extends to the teachers that look like them, as their educational outcomes could depend on it.