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What will it take to get more black teachers to stay in the classroom?
School administrators will have to explicitly address the racial biases and stereotyping that stifle black educators’ professional growth, argue researchers Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie in a new report from The Education Trust, a national nonprofit advocacy organization.
As the nation’s classrooms become increasingly diverse, with non-white children now making up the majority of public school students, schools have made inroads in recruiting more teachers of color. But those educators tend to leave the profession at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Teachers of color currently represent only 18 percent of the nation’s teaching force and black teachers comprise just 7 percent of that workforce.
Increasing those numbers matters because research suggests students do better in school when exposed to teachers who share similar backgrounds and experiences.
Griffin and Tackie’s report explores why African-American teachers are more prone to abandoning the profession. The researchers used a focus group of 150 black teachers, choosing participants representative of the experience levels and teaching environments of the nation’s black teachers, and found several patterns.
The very reasons schools were eager to hire black educators – that is, their perceived ability to work well with African-American students, particularly black students that other teachers were having trouble reaching – often morphed into career roadblocks. While other educators were allowed to advance and take on more challenging work like teaching Advanced Placement courses, black educators said they were often relegated to teaching low-performing students and taking on disciplinarian roles.
While many educators relished their roles acting as formal and informal mentors for their black students, and even pointed to those relationships as being a key reason for staying in the classroom, they also reported feeling pressure from administrators, fellow teachers and even students, to build and maintain relationships with every student of color.
“We become the representative for every child of color, I mean, whether we relate to them, whether our culture is the same or not,” one teacher told the researchers. “We become the representative for all of those children.”
Many of the teachers reported that because of these relationships, they were often in a unique position to deal with students with behavioral challenges, a fact that often led to them taking on disciplinarian roles.
“[B]eing able to easily discipline students often led others to see them as enforcers rather than educators — a reductive stereotype that we heard throughout the focus groups,” the researchers wrote. “These teachers were assumed to be tough and strict instead of being able to connect to their students and use that connection to establish order and create a classroom environment conducive to learning.”
In fact, a recent study showed that African-American students are less likely to be suspended when they have a black teacher. But African-American educators reported that once they took on disciplinarian roles they were locked out of other opportunities to advance their careers. Instead of spending their free periods mastering new content knowledge or pedagogical techniques, they handle other educators’ discipline issues. Many black educators also told researchers that they were consistently assigned students who struggled academically and weren’t given opportunities to teach more rigorous content.
“‘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,” a teacher reported. “I think a lot of times, as African-American teachers, we get stuck in a certain group, because you do it well.”
In addition to these education-specific challenges, the researchers found that black teachers reported many of the same challenges that face black workers across economic sectors. Black teachers told researchers that superiors, coworkers, and customers – in this case, parents – often viewed them as less competent than their white peers.
“I think one of the challenges I dealt with was convincing parents that our decisions are the right decisions,” a black educator told researchers. “And I say that because a lot of parents would look to the white teachers and whatever they say was golden. There was no questioning them.”
The report ends with a call on administrators to start the often-fraught work of addressing these “deep-seated” career impediments for black educators:“[I]t will take honest and critical examinations of school cultures and systemic processes in order for school and district leaders to develop the trust, support, and collegial working environments needed to recruit and retain teachers of color.”