For six years, I taught social studies in both high school and middle school; the bulk of my time was spent working with high school students. Working with those students, students who look like me and reminded me of myself, was a privilege and a joy.
Sadly, the joy began to fade away as my job became more about managing behavior vs. teaching young people.
I taught courses where we ditched whitewashed textbooks. My students and I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima, and Africa’s Gift to America by J.A. Rogers. We discussed how history has played a role in shaping their circumstances, and how to use the skills they acquire in school to address those circumstances both at home and in the community.
But as the only Black male teacher almost everywhere I worked, I was the go-to person to encourage student compliance and be the de facto disciplinarian. I went from teaching the resistance of Black people to demanding the compliance of Black children.
That reality drove me from the classroom. It’s a similar story for many Black teachers.
Nationally, Black teachers only make up roughly 7% of all teachers; 1.6% of all teachers are Black men. The reason isn’t simply because Black teachers aren’t being hired. They’re also not being retained. Black teachers have one of the highest rates of turnover, and Black male teachers are leaving the teaching profession at a higher rate than their peers.
It’s because of the invisible tax on Black teachers. Black teachers are expected to be disciplinarians of Black children, have talks about the need to code-switch, and be experts on all things racism and diversity for Black students and white teachers.
In addition, districts often fail to offer adequate in-district support for Black teachers, and Black teachers are more likely to receive lower scores on their evaluations.
Thankfully, the efforts of institutions like the Center of Black Educator Development in Philadelphia and Rowan University’s Project Impact in Southern New Jersey are helping to both increase awareness of the need for Black teachers and increase the number of Black teachers in classrooms themselves. But what happens when Black teachers arrive to the classroom?
Will they be supported, or will they be taxed and leave, like I did?
Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, and while a dress-down day and a pretzel is nice, showing appreciation to Black teachers involves school district leaders actively listening to them.
Black teachers want to be educators, not enforcers. Black teachers are content experts; they shouldn’t be assigned only to Black children or children deemed low performing. Black teachers should be allowed to work with all students at all performance levels, especially when the data says Black teachers are preferred, along with Latino teachers, by all races of students.
But the evidence shows that having a Black teacher makes a particular difference for Black students: Black students are more likely to be enrolled in gifted courses, graduate from high school, and attend college with having at least one Black teacher. Black students are also less likely to drop out of school and be disciplined disproportionately with having at least one Black teacher.
All of this is because Black teachers are much more likely than white teachers to think Black students will complete high school and earn a college degree.
Because Black teachers are keenly aware of the racism in society, they work to equip their students to persevere despite it. However, the racism Black teachers experience daily makes it difficult to be effective and to persevere themselves.
School districts mustn’t only appreciate what Black teachers bring to the table. They must also acknowledge the need for Black teachers at the table.
Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in Southern New Jersey. His Urban Education Mixtape blog supports urban educators and parents of children attending urban schools. You can find the blog at urbanedmixtape.com. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ