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Black Teachers Feeling Tolerated, Not Celebrated.

Where are all the black teachers?

This is a question I’ve asked myself and others for the last few years now. But it wasn’t until recently that the answer to this burning question finally came to me.  

Education Trust recently released a moving and qualitative report called Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers. The report summarizes the unfiltered perspectives of black educators from all across the country. After reading the report in its entirety, I had to wonder if I’d been asking the right question. I had wrongly assumed that the teacher stress I was seeing and feeling was related to changes that came after Hurricane Katrina. But this wasn’t a NOLA report. It turns out, teachers from coast to coast are feeling plagued.  

Rather than asking where are all the black teachers, it may be more worthwhile to ask this:

Do our black teachers feel empowered and supported enough by their white leaders and peers to remain within their roles?

The report left me feeling grateful and sad. While it validates my own feelings and shows me I’m not alone, it also hurts me to know that so many black educators, like me, are struggling.

And reading about their personal experiences really hit home for me. It had me thinking about the veteran teachers feeling burnt out as well as the totally green college graduates who will enter the field as excited new teachers and inevitably develop some of the same negative feelings described in the report.

This is their reality.  These are their voices.  We need to listen.

EdTrust’s report also deals in numbers and reveals that teachers of color represent only 18 percent of the teaching population in the United States; black teachers make up 7 percent. Is it any surprise that so many black teachers feel alone in their buildings?

Bringing it closer to home, I thought it made perfect sense for me to work within the New Orleans school system as a black professional. Black students dominate the city’s public schools, yet white educators dominate most teaching staffs. I thought I could be an advocate for what our kids need.  

I think it’s fair to say that white folks aren’t the only ones who are guilty of having a savior complex.  Blacks do too. Or at least some form of one. I for sure had–and still have–ideas of somehow, some way, “saving” our kids.

But since entering the school system, I must admit, more than ever, I feel significant pressure to be perfect, to stand out. But I am also fearful that my efforts will be in vain because, at the end of the day, I am black. And being black means most often means being overlooked. History has certainly shown that.

Perhaps it’s my own self-defeating and oppressive thoughts, but being a black professional within the school system probably leaves me with feelings similar to those the students have when they enter the school building and don’t see many (or any) teachers that look like anything like them. Maybe that’s why I totally ‘get them’.

Inferiority. Anxiety. Little room for error. Pressure to be perfect and be more in line with the culture of the majority. And in my case as an adult, fear that expressing disagreement or opposition will lead folks to doubt my “professionalism”.

I have spoken with several local black teachers about this topic.  Some have taught for 15+ years, others for less than five.  But nonetheless, the same sentiment exists.  All share the feeling of being undervalued.  

The report summarizes,

“The dismissal of Black teachers as experts and professionals (beyond discipline) led Black teachers to feel they were passed over for advancement opportunities, despite being just as — or more — qualified than their colleagues.”

The ability to connect with black students, manage classrooms, and deliver content are hugely important skills and they are being overlooked as valuable skills. That is a problem.

Rather than be acknowledged for hard work that is wrongly perceived as “easy” or “natural” for black educators, we are overlooked. And on the contrary, white teachers are praised when they make an effort to tackle racial barriers and reach their black students.

Because that takes work right?  That takes intense planning, thinking and reflection to figure out how to help black kids see past race right?

The assumption that working with black children doesn’t require work or reflection for black educators is a dangerous and false assumption.

And I can attest that simply being in an environment that leaves you in constant thought about who you are and why you are there is work.

Through Our Eyes goes on to summarize,

“The need to work harder in order to be seen as adequate and professional also made Black teachers feel pressured to police their own behavior so they could be seen as more professional. Assumptions about their demeanor — that they were too loud or too harsh, for instance — often required teachers to “code switch,” or regulate their behavior based on context in order to fit into their school. By trying not to fulfill other’s stereotypes of them, teachers hoped that meeting a particular standard of professionalism would remove any distracting idiosyncrasies and allow them to be recognized for their work.”

It’s a defeating to feel tolerated rather than celebrated.  To watch the fleeting glimpse of praise and growth pass you each year and instead falsely smile at the progress of your white counterparts.

All the reasons I wanted to work within the school system are all the reasons that make being an employee within the school system so very hard.  

This is the hardest job I’ve ever had.  

 Most black educators go into schools thinking they’ll be an asset, but much like the teachers featured in Education Trust’s piece, there are times I have felt unsure that I will be able to stay long enough to even believe I’m good enough at my job. To feel like I’m having enough of an impact. To feel recognized for the important skill set that I bring to the work.

Having said all that, I’m not giving up.

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