Black Teachers Are Leaving the Profession — Some Told Us Why

  • Black teachers told Insider their responsibilities increased more than their peers during the pandemic.
  • More are turning to therapy as their safety and other concerns fall on deaf ears, they said.
  • Advocacy groups said they want a federal mandate to alleviate the burden on Black teachers.

Circling the school hallways, reminding students throughout the day to raise their masks over their nose and mouth, has become Xavier McDougald’s new normal.

The San Francisco teacher told Insider that every time he walks into the school he teaches at, he’s on patrol duty as the mask enforcer.

His health and his student’s health are critical, he told Insider. That’s why he doesn’t understand why there is a national debate — during the most infectious point of the pandemic so far — on whether students and teachers should be ushered back into the classroom.

“I feel like a lot of administration is choosing not to see it from a teacher perspective,” McDougald, who teaches English and history at the Town School, told Insider. “People are still getting COVID. It was hard teaching online, but I just think it’s more worth it to stay online.”

While politicians and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged schools to stay open, arguing that the benefit of masked, vaccinated in-person learning outweighs the risk of COVID-19 spread, many teachers across the US disagree. Earlier this month, the Chicago teachers’ union staged a hold out over in person learning and California Bay Area teachers hosted demonstrations, protesting a lack of COVID-19 protections for teachers.

Insider spoke to Black teachers who said the last two years have been the hardest of their careers. They’ve become the mask enforcers, juggled heated discussions on education curriculum, and become the on-the-job racial sensitivity educators after the murder of George Floyd.

“When this pandemic first hit, I was actually as the union rep having weekly meetings with teachers to ask ‘how are you doing’ because it was so overwhelming to some people,” Nikita Gibbs-Nolen, a representative of the Oakland Education Association and teacher at Markham Elementary told Insider. “Some people were considering quitting. Some people were fearful of going back.”

McDougald and Gibbs-Nolen said their schools don’t require their students to be fully vaccinated yet but faculty are vaccinated. The Town School and Markham Elementary School didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comment for this story.

“I’ve been feeling really expendable,” McDougald said.

school teacher protest

 

Oakland teachers drive past the Oakland Unified School District office along Broadway Avenue in downtown Oakland Oakland, California, on Jan. 7, 2022 as part of a sickout and car caravan demonstration.

Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

 

During the pandemic, Black teachers have reported increased microaggressions on the job

McDougald said from microaggressions triggered by supervisors to clogs in career advancements simply because of how they run their classroom, for Black teachers, it has always been difficult.

And now with the pandemic, teachers told Insider, it’s worse.

Jose Vilson, executive director of EduColor.org, an education equity advocacy organization, told Insider that he’s routinely heard from Black teachers concerned about the lack of ventilation in their classroom or larger than average class sizes because of teacher shortages.

“We’re continuing to insist that teachers operate as if the pandemic isn’t happening. That there wasn’t a racial uprising that happened last year,” Vilson said. “That we don’t have these so-called critical race theory laws trying to nudge people back toward kids not seeing themselves in curriculum and instruction.”

The shallow pipeline of teachers of color has been been a concern for years. Roughly 7% of public school teachers are Black, although Black students make up 15% of public school populations, according to a Pew Research report.

A study published in February surveyed 325 Black math teachers, revealing that more than 97% of respondents said they faced microaggressions on the job.

In the study, Black teachers said administrators didn’t acknowledge their contributions, and peers questioned their intelligence and curriculum choices or viewed their assertiveness as anger.

McDougald said in his experience after Floyd’s murder, he spent a lot of time educating the predominately white staff at his school on cultural competency — but they didn’t put the information into practice.

“I felt like it’s been mostly my responsibility to fill in the gaps,” McDougald said. “I also feel like it’s an extra burden to be a disciplinarian as a Black male that teaches. I’m tall, and I have a deeper voice. I do try to use it to my advantage.”

Then-Education Secretary John King wrote in a 2016 Washington Post op-ed that the additional responsibility Black teachers have to take on, especially when they’re the only educators of color in the school, is an “invisible tax.”

Another study of 5,500 Chicago public school teachers published in 2020 found that teachers could be great at their jobs, but that’s often not how they’re scored.

The researchers concluded that this systemically targets Black teachers for “dismissal, relative to their white peers.”

a teacher holds a sign that says "STOP COVID SPREAD IN SCHOOLS" at a NYC protest over COVID-19 in schools

 

A New York City public school teacher holds a sign at a rally demanding increased COVID-19 safety measures and a remote learning option on January 10, 2022 in New York City.

Scott Heins/Getty Images

‘Every day I feel anxiety’

As the pandemic weighs on, Vilson said he’s heard of lower-income students without materials like Wi-Fi and paper to complete their homework. So that’s another issue put on the teacher’s plate.

Gibbs-Nolen, a fourth-grade teacher, said she had students completing their homework on paper towels, so she set up a school drive.

She said the school offered no support other than telling her and her colleagues to practice self-care.

“What does that self-care look like, because you’re not modeling it for us. Or giving us additional prep time to process some of the emotions were are going through. We are in a high-stress situation,” Gibbs-Nolen said.

Vilson said the additional stress is a shared feeling he hears from Black teachers.

“So many of our teachers don’t necessarily know where to turn to,” Vilson said. “Therapy has obviously become more invoked as a society, but even that conversation has become harder and harder for some people because maybe they didn’t think they needed to do that before. But now self-care and mutual-care have become more prominent throughout the pandemic.”

McDougald said he’s embraced therapy to manage his anxiety brought on by the increased responsibilities at work. He said he is meeting with his supervisor this week to discuss compensation for his additional tasks.

“Every day, I feel anxiety,” McDougald said. “My anxiety every day feels like it’s going up a wall.”

‘I could see why people are leaving the profession’

After the last two years of the pandemic, many Black teachers have begun to run for the exits.

Teachers who spoke to Insider said they could see how managing microaggressions on the job, lack of support, lower pay, and enforcing COVID-19 guidelines is too much.

“For Black teachers, we are usually the backbone of the school,” McDougald said. “So with the pandemic happening and being leaned on for support, as usual, I feel like we should be getting compensated for these things. Because we’re not, I could see why people are leaving the profession.”

Vilson said EduColor.org and the Center for American Progress are working together to amplify the experiences of teachers of color to get a schooling mandate — that encompasses concerns about COVID-19 — on the books.

He said he’s hoping the mandate includes mandatory testing, masking for everyone, and ventilation requirements for all schools.

“Teachers being the vanguards that they are, it is so much more important for all of us together to say we stand united in creating a country for everyone,” Vilson said. “We will teach truth wherever possible.”

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