“Mr. Ford is having a really hard time with his class. I’m not saying that he’s not intelligent. I’m just wondering where he went to school.”
Toya Frank was disheartened by a conversation she was having with a parent about a math teacher—a Black math teacher—at her school. It was her responsibility as the chair of the math department to listen to parents and focus on what was best for the students. But did that include addressing whether the Black math teachers were as qualified as their White colleagues?
As a Black math teacher herself, Frank recognized the subtle microaggressions, the slights and insults, that teachers of color experienced on a regular basis. She was used to the brief look of disbelief when she let parents know that she was the math department chair, as if to say, “You’re the chair? I expected someone else.”
Now a professor of mathematics education at George Mason University, Frank studies the recruitment and retention of Black math teachers. In a new study published in Educational Researcher, she found that compared with other factors, like salary, the level of support provided by school leadership, or a lack of resources, Black teachers’ experiences of racism played a major role in why they wanted to leave the profession.
Frank and her colleagues surveyed 325 Black math teachers across the nation, asking a series of questions related to their feelings of isolation at their schools because of their race, how much support they received from their school leaders, and whether they had thoughts about leaving the profession. After analyzing the results, they discovered that while personal factors such as salary, sex, and age accounted for 10 percent of teachers’ thoughts of leaving the profession, their experiences of microaggressions were nearly twice as impactful, at 17 percent.
“Ultimately, what we found was that even when we account for salary, age, gender—all of those other things that people have accounted for before in previous studies—racist microaggressions had a lot of explanatory power in our model,” said Frank. “And it was statistically significant. It was one of those things that really weighed on teachers and their thoughts of leaving.”
The Toll That Microaggressions Take
When experienced once or twice, microaggressions may seem inconsequential, but over the course of years—or even a lifetime—they exact a toll on a teacher’s psychological well-being.
“Microaggressions aren’t always about race; sometimes they’re by gender, by nationality, or linguistic,” said Frank. “They’re small interpersonal slights between and among people.” For example, Black teachers often feel that their contributions aren’t acknowledged, their competence is unfairly questioned, or their assertiveness is perceived as aggression or anger. Ultimately, experiencing microaggressions on a regular basis can make teachers feel like second-class citizens in the school community.
It’s not an infrequent occurrence; in fact, it’s astonishingly common. “About 97 percent of all the teachers who were surveyed said that they experienced some form of racial microaggression on a regular basis,” said Toya, highlighting the routine nature of microaggressions for Black teachers.
Jenice View, a coauthor of the study and professor emerita of education at George Mason University, isn’t surprised by the regularity that Black teachers—including herself—experience racism. “I was team teaching in this program, and my colleagues were White,” recalled View. “And there was a colleague who invited us to present to his class. And he said, ‘This is Dr. So-and-so, and this is Dr. So-and-so, and then he just sort of looked at me and said, ‘And this is Jenice.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s Dr. View.’ He knew damn good and well that that was true. But it seemed important to him to present me as less-than. That was maybe, in the academy, one of the most in-my-face expressions of ‘You don’t belong.’ But, you know, there are countless others.”
Is Math Racist?
Math is often falsely characterized as culture free, Frank and View emphasize, yet despite the appearance of neutrality, math instruction is couched within a system that sends subtle signals that math and science are the domain of White men.
“Invariably, the mathematics and science teachers would say, ‘But 2 plus 2 equals 4 all over the world, in all cultures. Why do we have to include culture and race?’” said View. “But mathematics is a living, breathing, human endeavor. So there is culture that’s infused there.”
“Who gets credited with math knowledge?” added Frank. “We can talk about the Fibonacci sequence and we can give credit to Fibonacci, or we can think about how people were developing similar ideas in India or Asia. I teach an algebra class, and it’s very important to me that my students know that algebra comes out of the Middle East.”
To illustrate the point, José Vilson, a veteran middle school math teacher, explained that language operates in a similar way. “One can say that English isn’t racist,” he said. “It’s just a language. But how we use that language to solidify and concretize racist ideologies is really critical to understand here.”
Vilson pointed out that in the United States, math is centered around Whiteness. “I don’t think that math is neutral,” he said. “Whatever axioms have come into play, when it comes to math, came from people. And people come in with their own biases. And this is layered across power. So if America has serious racial issues, especially serious racist issues, then inherently what we’re teaching is going to see manifestations of that racism.”
Discipline—the ‘Invisible Tax’
Black teachers also experience burnout because they’re often expected to take on additional responsibilities due to their perceived connectedness to students of color, wrote former U.S. Education Secretary John King in the Washington Post. This “invisible tax” puts Black teachers at greater risk of leaving the profession, draining time and energy they could otherwise commit to teaching or self-care.
For Vilson, the invisible tax is levied when Black teachers take on challenging work, yet find themselves getting short-changed when it comes to compensation or advancement. “Too often teachers of color are often asked to be the disciplinarians in their settings,” he said. “They’re often asked to take on the worst classes, because they can handle it. In this era, too, they’re often asked to take the lead on equity issues, too, instead of finding a way to distribute that work.”
Vilson pointed to a recent study as an example of how teachers of color are penalized: Researchers analyzed more than 5,500 teacher evaluations in Chicago and found that the race gap was largely a reflection of “differences in the school and classroom settings in which teachers teach, rather than real differences in teacher performance.” Black teachers were therefore “disproportionately (and incorrectly) targeted for remediation and dismissal, relative to their White peers,” the researchers concluded.
“Black teachers are being inundated with fixing discipline,” said Frank. “The number of teachers in interviews who have talked about people marching Black and Brown boys to their classes to fix them and get them straight, that’s a microaggression.”
No One to Lean on
Vilson pointed to Brown v. Board of Education as a historical tipping point—but with unexpected results. When school segregation was declared unconstitutional, schools that served Black students, and that were predominantly staffed by Black teachers, were shut down, and their students were bused to schools with White teachers. In the years following Brown, more than 38,000 Black educators lost their jobs, according to a 2014 study.
This led to a dramatic shift in how Black communities, and Black teachers, viewed the role of instruction in the classroom. “Black teachers of all disciplines, during segregation, understood what they were trying to do,” said View. “And every single disciplinary area, every single content area, was going to be a tool for dismantling institutional racism. Mathematics, of course, became one of those tools.... So that explicit language happened more naturally in schools that were racially segregated, than happen now, where sometimes the teacher—of whatever discipline—is the only Black teacher in the school, or one of a handful.”
Today, Black teachers are acutely underrepresented in the workforce. Although 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black, only 7 percent of all public school teachers are. And despite efforts to diversify the teaching workforce, the percentage of Black teachers has dropped by one percentage point in the last 20 years.
To better understand why Black teachers leave the profession, it’s important to look at how today’s schools are shaped by decades of institutional racism. “Education is about freedom,” said View. “That shows up in the pedagogies of Black teachers.”
Vilson agrees. “When people talk about racism, they dilute it to the interactions that we have between any number of people,” he said. “Whereas we’re not conscientious about how so many of our policies, from when we come in all the way through to when we become veteran educators, all those elements come into play. And we often have to bear the brunt of all those elements.”
The issue is bigger than one teacher can solve. But an important first step is to start having conversations within schools, Vilson suggests, particularly around what Black teachers bring to the table—benefits that are all too often dismissed or taken for granted.
“People think that kids’ brains just open and you just pour information into it, and so the teacher also has to be able to take information from their brain and pour it into other folks’ brains,” said Vilson. But being a good teacher is more than having kids memorize the content.
“My students won’t point to what standard I taught them, but they’re definitely going to point to how I made them feel like they belong, how I made them feel intelligent, how I made them shine,” said Vilson.