“If not me, then who?” Black educators open up about the pressure to help black students succeed

Non-white students now make up the majority of public school kids in the U.S., but teachers remain overwhelmingly white. (Photo Illustration: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Lifestyle)
Non-white students now make up the majority of public school kids in the U.S., but teachers remain overwhelmingly white. (Photo Illustration: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Lifestyle)

The student population in America has never been more diverse — but, in many schools, the diversity ends there. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an estimated 80 percent of public school teachers in America today are white, far eclipsing Hispanic teachers (nine percent) and black teachers (seven percent).

For black students, who make up 16 percent of America’s K-12 student body, this lack of representation can be hugely detrimental — impacting everything from how often they are disciplined to their chances of graduating college.

The Education Trust, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for vulnerable students, has been exploring how the racial diversity of teachers improves black students’ lives. In a new September 25 report provided to Yahoo Lifestyle, the organization shares individual stories of educators — both former and current — who have a unique understanding of the crisis.

The survey is a follow-up to Ed Trust’s major 2016 report titled Through Our Eyes, which uncovered the obstacles black teachers face both in and outside of the classroom. In it, the authors speak with black teachers across seven states who describe a variety of challenges, including connecting with black students, enforcing as opposed to educating, and supporting the whole student. To explore this landscape, Yahoo Lifestyle spoke with both current and former black educators.

“If not me, then who?”

According to a 2018 study from John Hopkins and American University, black students who are taught by at least one black educator by the time they reach third grade have a 13 percent higher chance of going to college, and those who have two black teachers are 32 percent more likely to attend college. The pressure that this puts on black educators is real. In Ed Trust’s 2016 report, many reported feeling “responsible” for every black child — both in terms of their education and their emotional development. In Yahoo Lifestyle’s interviews, black teachers echoed similar sentiments:

“I started off working in ... a neighborhood that is predominantly Black and Brown. I noticed there was not a single male of color working with these kids ... I knew then I needed [and] wanted to fill in the gap … I definitely understood the importance and took my job extra seriously with them in some cases because I am familiar with the struggle that comes along with being young and Black in America.” -Orlando, 37, former high school English teacher in New York (and currently in Georgia)

“Due to systemic oppression, desegregation, gentrification, and the corruption of our school districts, black and brown students are less likely to see teachers of their same race ... We are the real hidden treasures for students sometimes. I felt obligated to my children. If not me, then who? … Some colleagues would set these unspoken expectations that the black teachers have the magic fix to address concerns. Some administrators are not equipped to address some of the trauma our students face, so colleagues would look at you [and] assume that you know how to reach that student.” -Bianca, 29, former middle-school business technology teacher in Florida

“For me, a part of the emotional weight was actually carrying and understanding what my students were experiencing — helping them to navigate that, but then also being a black woman in a world that is racist and sexist and so having to navigate my own childhood trauma, having to navigate my own experiences as a black woman and then going into work and educating my students about that. Part of it was what fueled my passion to continue to teach … [by] infusing a lot of social justice and a lot of human rights and anti-racist work into my classroom. But it is really difficult to teach about something and try to mitigate something while you are living it.” -Jamilah Pitts, former English teacher in New York, now an administrator at a charter school

I went into teaching because I never saw an example of someone who looked like me growing up in the classroom until I got into college. Once I graduated college, I started to more deeply understand how inequitable our school systems were and I wanted to change that … I certainly feel a sense of obligation for black and brown students mainly because I was the student that I currently educate. I wouldn't say it is ‘easier’ to connect, but I will say that because of our shared experiences, I carry a level of empathy and understanding that many people do not. I think it is unfair for people to believe that just because you look like your kids that it is easy to connect with them — this is a myth. It is because my disposition, challenging upbringing, and deep passion for education as to the reasons why I connect with my students” -Sean, 31, former teacher, now working as a principal in New Jersey

While 16 percent of public school students are black, the teaching field remains overwhelmingly white. Black educators open up about the pressure this places on them each day. (Photo Illustration: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Lifestyle)
While 16 percent of public school students are black, the teaching field remains overwhelmingly white. Black educators open up about the pressure this places on them each day. (Photo Illustration: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Lifestyle)

We are more than classroom management”

In the 2016 report, black teachers expressed that being able to understand where a child comes from has helped them to manage otherwise “difficult” classrooms but sometimes, this hindered their own teaching process, leading their colleagues to see them as more of a universal disciplinarian instead of an educator. “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,” the report reads.

Despite black educators being cast as disciplinarians, research shows that black students are actually less likely to face exclusionary disciplinary actions (i.e. detention, expulsion) when their teacher is of the same race. Recent data from Education Next found that 16 percent of black students were subjected to exclusionary discipline when they had a white woman as a teacher, but when their teacher was black, that number dropped to 14 percent. Black girls were similarly less likely to get sent to detention, suspended or expelled when they were taught by black women.

The black educators own experiences reflect this reality:

“My role is to teach and mentor, not to discipline ...The problem starts to form when administrators start using black teachers to give a student a ‘good talking to.’ Once you assist with one student, it creates an expectation that you will [do] this for each child ... Last school year, a teacher told my student, ‘You are going to drop out of school and sell drugs. You are worthless in my class.’ Nothing happened to that teacher until the end of the school year. It bothers me when some colleagues kill the dreams of black and brown children. I’ll never forget the day a white colleague asked me and I quote, ‘How do you handle them?’ Children should not be ‘handled.’ They are human beings with goals and dreams.” -Bianca

“Yes [I was often seen as a disciplinarian] and every time I felt this way I made it very known to colleagues and whoever else needed to be educated that black educators are so much more than that. I can go on and on about this topic, but I became a principal at the age of 24 to prove that we are more than classroom management. Sometimes as black educators we allow ourselves to be seen in that light and take on the heavy burden for being that in our school without supporting the training and building the skills of others to do what we can do, which sometimes seems innate.” -Sean

Black educators open up to Yahoo Lifestyle about the challenges of being in an overwhelmingly white teaching force.
Black educators open up to Yahoo Lifestyle about the challenges of being in an overwhelmingly white teaching force.

“I often referred to them as ‘my children’”

Many black teachers say they’ve experienced white colleagues discouraging and underestimating black students, leaving them to pick up the pieces and build their confidence back up. A 2016 study from Johns Hopkins University explored this phenomenon, finding that white teachers often have lower expectations than black teachers for the same black students.

The result is a profession that many black educators feel called to, but ultimately too overburdened to sustain. A 2017 study in the Academy of Management Journal found that they’re not alone, suggesting that those who pursue careers out of a “sense of obligation or moral duty” have a high rate of burnout.

John B. King Jr., the chief executive officer of The Education Trust says this is due to the “invisible tax” that teachers of color have to endure. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, King says, “The tax takes a toll on teachers’ time. Building and maintaining relationships with students across an entire school adds to their already busy schedules as teachers. It also takes an emotional toll. Often, the students whom black male teachers are expected to help have serious needs beyond what any individual teacher can remedy. That leads to burnout.”

Many teachers who spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle had experiences that aligned:

“It’s overload because you want to build relationships with students — it’s bigger than just the classroom. You have to be involved in other activities like after-school, I play basketball with students during gym ... buy them gifts for their birthdays, give away clothes that I don’t use anymore and stay back to help struggling students in the classroom.” -Roger, 28, current math teacher in New York

“We are educators and that's exactly what our role is. Quite honestly, we all need to understand and enter the work with the mindset that we are going to be the father-figure, the social worker, the janitor, the big sister, the coach, the disciplinarian, the teacher, and so many other roles that impact the success of our kids. It certainly is heavy — but that is the gift we receive as being educators in the most important work on the face of the planet.” -Sean

"‘Role overload’? Absolutely! As a teacher, especially a Black male teacher in an urban environment, you're never JUST a teacher; you're many things to those students including a parent at times.”-Orlando

“I often referred to them as ‘my children’ because I wanted them to receive the same education that I would want for my own biological child. There were times that I went over and beyond to help them and their families [such as] providing gently used clothing for parents that wanted to go on job interviews. I paid the storage bill for the mother of one of my students so that she could get her furniture out. The entire family had been sleeping on the floor. I also brought snacks to go home with kids that I thought went without enough food at home ... As a black woman, I felt a great level of responsibility. ” - Shani, 35, former reading, math, science, and social studies teacher in Atlanta

If you’re a teacher who wants to share your story, send an email to teachersincrisis@yahoo.com

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