Equity & Diversity

Black Teachers Feel Pigeonholed, Report Finds

By Madeline Will — November 15, 2016 4 min read
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When Randy R. Miller first stepped into the classroom as a teacher, he fell in love with teaching. But six years later, he has left the classroom and doesn’t think he’ll ever go back.

Miller, an African-American man who taught middle and high school social studies in New Jersey charter schools, left teaching because he was frustrated with an increasing number of demands and a limited amount of support. But some challenges, he told Education Week, felt particular to his race. For example, he said he was looked at as the de facto disciplinarian because he was the only black male teacher.

It was a source of tension, said Miller, who is now the director of a school district’s after-school program. He was skilled at classroom management; he could call on his shared experiences with his students of color to relate to them. But he didn’t want to be viewed as a disciplinarian—he wanted to be respected as a teacher.

Miller’s experiences are echoed by others in a new report from the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for better schooling for students of color and low-income students. The report tells the stories of black teachers who feel as if they have been pigeonholed into specific roles by their colleagues, administrators, and parents, hurting their opportunities to advance in their careers.

The researchers spoke to 150 black teachers in regular public schools and public charter schools in seven states. Eighty percent of them were women. The sample was representative of black teachers in the United States by region and experience level.

Only 7 percent of public school teachers are black—and just 2 percent are black men.

While many districts and state initiatives have focused on recruiting more teachers of color, nonwhite teachers are still exiting the profession at higher rates than their white counterparts. Ashley Griffin, the co-author of the report and the interim director of K-12 research at the Education Trust, said the challenges described in the report likely contribute to those low retention rates.

A ‘Draining’ Responsibility

Black teachers told researchers they felt they could connect with black students particularly well because of perceived cultural and experiential similarities. They said they could empathize with students of color and inspire the students to succeed in different ways from white teachers.

In fact, new research has found that black teachers are less likely to suspend, expel, or give detention to black students, who are disproportionately given exclusionary discipline. Another recent study found that students of all races prefer teachers of color, possibly because they are adept at translating their experiences to build rapport with students of different backgrounds.

But that skill set can come with professional drawbacks. Black teachers told researchers they often feel restricted to teaching only black students, despite wanting to be seen as capable of teaching all populations. Teachers expressed frustration about being shoehorned into a disciplinarian or counselor role, which took away from their planning and instructional time.

In Miller’s case, the extra roles and expectations that came from administrators, colleagues, parents, and students became overwhelming: “You’re not just a teacher—you’re a disciplinarian, you’re a mentor, you’re a counselor, you’re all of these things,” he said. “It can be very draining... . You look at your white counterparts, and they don’t feel the same drain.

“It’s a pressure that can really weigh on you as a black teacher.”

And teachers in the Education Trust report said they felt burdened by an expectation to relate to every black child, even those from different socioeconomic backgrounds or cultures.

One former teacher, a black woman who now provides professional development for teachers in Texas and who asked to remain anonymous so she could speak candidly, said she grew up in a rural area. When she taught in an urban district, she didn’t feel an instant connection to her students of color.

“Some of the black students I had in my class were night and day from how I grew up,” she said. “I tried to relate to them the best I could. ... I don’t think that can be generalized.”

Black teachers in the report said they rarely got the chance to teach honors or Advanced Placement classes. They told Education Trust researchers they felt administrators believed they could only teach lower-performing classes. Black teachers, Griffin said, are often found in the highest-needs schools and don’t always receive the same professional development opportunities, hindering their professional growth.

“Teachers feel an obligation to their black students, but they also feel an obligation to themselves as a professional to grow,” Griffin said.

‘Illuminating’ Findings

African-American teachers told researchers they felt their expertise and professional contributions were dismissed or went unnoticed. They said they felt they had to police their own behavior to be seen as more professional and had to work twice as hard as their white colleagues.

Black teachers often felt alienated and devalued, the report concludes.

Christopher Emdin, an associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied race and education, said the report’s narratives have so far been largely absent from the discourse on teacher diversity.

“It’s not shocking, but it’s illuminating,” he said. “It’s the thing that jars you to be more mindful in your practice.”

The Education Trust’s Griffin said the report did not provide recommendations because black teachers’ experiences are unique. Instead, she said, districts should look at their teacher-retention data—and then form their own focus groups to listen to the experiences of their black teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Black Teachers Feel Pigeonholed on the Job, Report Says

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