Teaching Profession

Black Teachers Feel Pigeonholed, Hindered as Professionals, Report Says

By Madeline Will — November 03, 2016 3 min read
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Many black teachers feel “called” to be in the classroom and have a unique set of qualities, but those perceived strengths are often hindering their professional growth, a new report says.

The report, released today by The Education Trust, tells the stories of black teachers who felt like they have been pigeonholed by their colleagues, administrators, and parents into specific roles, 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. The majority (90 percent) taught in cities, and participating teachers spanned grade levels and experience levels. The sample was representative of black teachers in the United States.

“I think one of the big takeaways is the power of collective voice—the power of letting black voices be heard,” said Ashley Griffin, the co-author of the report and the interim director of K-12 research at The Education Trust, in an interview.

Only 18 percent of public school teachers are nonwhite, and just 7 percent are black (and black male teachers only represent 2 percent of the teacher workforce). And while districts and states have made strides in recruiting more teachers of color, nonwhite teachers are exiting the profession at higher rates. Griffin said that while researchers didn’t ask participating teachers about leaving the profession, the challenges mentioned in conversation likely contribute to the low retention rates among teachers of color.

Black teachers felt like they were able to connect with black students particularly well, due to perceived cultural and experiential similarities. They told researchers that they could empathize with students of color, and inspire the students to succeed, in different ways than white teachers could. One teacher said: “We can share the challenges ... with students of color: ‘This is what you’re going to have to deal with, but look at us. You can be successful. This is the focus you have to have.’”

However, this strength came with professional drawbacks. Black teachers said they felt burdened by an expectation to relate to every black child—even ones who came from different socioeconomic backgrounds or cultures. Black teachers also said that while they might be particularly adept at managing their classrooms, they felt slotted into a disciplinarian role for the school building—an extra responsibility that took away from their planning and instructional time.

Black teachers also said they rarely got an opportunity to teach gifted and talented students, or honors or Advanced Placement classes. “If I’m doing the ABCs every day, I never really get to do anything of a higher caliber,” one teacher said. “I think a lot of times, as African American teachers, we get stuck in a certain group, because you do it well.”

Black teachers told researchers that they felt like they were shoehorned into only teaching black students—a population they were committed to, but they also wanted to be seen as professionals who could teach all students.

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

Black teachers also told researchers that they felt overworked and underappreciated, saying that they felt dismissed in staff meetings.

Griffin said the report deliberately does not provide recommendations for districts or other stakeholders because black teachers’ experiences are so nuanced and unique. Instead, she said, districts should look at their teacher retention data—and then form focus groups to listen to the experiences of their black teachers.

The Education Trust also spoke to Latino teachers, and the findings of those conversations will be released later this winter.

Source: Image by Flickr user cybrarian77, licensed under Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.