Teaching Profession

Educators of Color: Schools Need to Better Support Racial Justice Efforts

By Madeline Will — July 23, 2021 5 min read
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Most educators of color say they lacked any sort of professional development on how to support students after the high-profile police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, the protests for racial justice that followed, and the wave of violence against Asian Americans.

Yet 70 percent said they did their own research to better understand racial justice and equity in education. And 45 percent said they made changes to “incorporate issues of racial justice in [their] work at school” following these events.

That’s according to a new survey by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank; EduColor, a grassroots group that began as a Twitter chat and now provides professional development on equity and justice; and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. (CAP and EduColor have a joint campaign called #WeBuildEDU to amplify the voices of educators of color.) The survey of about 2,100 NEA members of color—educators who were defined as anybody who works in schools with students—was conducted online June 2 to 13 by GBAO Strategies, a Democratic polling firm.

The leaders of those groups said hearing from educators of color is particularly important now, as legislators in more than half of states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom. Teachers say they feel as if these restrictions—which will soon be in effect in 11 states—will prohibit them from teaching the truth about the racism in both America’s past and present. And experts say they worry the backlash against teaching about race will push educators of color out of the profession or deter others from entering.

“I will not last in the profession if I perpetually feel like I have to defend myself,” said Julia Torres, a teacher-librarian in Denver, adding that incorporating racial justice in education benefits all students, including those who are white.

The survey found that two-thirds of educators of color—and 78 percent of Black educators—believe that students of color receive fewer educational opportunities than white students. And the pandemic exacerbated the gaps, respondents said.

Most respondents pointed to inequities in terms of which students could fully participate in remote learning, including uneven access to technology and internet. More than half of educators said their students’ emotional or mental health during the pandemic was a major challenge, with 42 percent saying the same of their own emotional or mental health.

Those results are in line with past research on teachers during the pandemic, including from the EdWeek Research Center. Surveys of exclusively educators of color, however, are rare. The teaching corps is about 80 percent white. Nine percent of teachers are Hispanic, fewer than 7 percent are Black, 2 percent are Asian, and just a half a percent are Native American.

“Educators of color generally should be, and ought to be, at the forefront of conversations around education policy,” said José Vilson, the executive director of EduColor and a former New York City math teacher, in an interview. “We have too often been left out, except when there needs to be a story that shows [teachers of color] as saviors.”

Teachers of color leave the profession at higher rates than their white counterparts. Experts say that’s in part because of an “invisible tax"—teachers of color are often asked to take on additional, unpaid responsibilities, such as acting as school disciplinarians or translating for parents who speak other languages. Also, teachers of color tend to work in high-poverty schools with tough working conditions.

Yet research shows that all students benefit from having teachers of color. Students of color in particular have better academic performance, improved graduation rates, and are more likely to attend college when they’re taught by teachers of color.

Teachers of color want more support from schools

Educators of color said in the survey’s open-ended responses that they thought schools needed to offer more support, training, and curricula on racial justice issues—only one-fifth of respondents said they received such professional development. Many teachers of color have said they often feel a responsibility to be the ones to lead conversations about race and racism, which can be exhausting, especially when surrounded by mostly white peers.

Other research from the RAND Corporation shows that teachers of color are more likely than white teachers to bring up civics issues that are considered controversial.

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Getty and Vanessa Solis/Education Week

A quarter of educators of color said some of their students needed help coping with the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests. At the time, some teachers told Education Week that many of their students, especially those who are Black, were feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and upset. Some were participating in the protests for racial justice.

But 38 percent of educators of color said they weren’t sure if their students needed help. In open-ended responses, some educators said these conversations about racism were not addressed on a school level and were difficult to have remotely. It’s hard to have a sensitive conversation about racial inequities “when you’re talking to rectangles instead of actual people,” Vilson said.

Many students around the country opted to keep their web cameras off during remote lessons throughout the pandemic, and teachers said they struggled to engage their students. The most common pandemic challenge that educators of color named in this survey was inconsistent student participation.

Indeed, Michael Espinoza, a high school English teacher in San Jose, Calif., who was not involved in the survey, wrote in an email that the biggest challenge he experienced last school year was connecting with students when they were learning remotely. He tried to reach them through messaging apps, emails, and even calls on the weekend, but he wasn’t able to build the same relationships that he does in person. More than half of the students at his school are students of color.

“This ties into racial justice, because helping all students, and in particular students of color, know that they belong in your classroom is essential in supporting them and ensuring their success, and there’s no better way to do this than to put their social and physical needs before their academic needs,” Espinoza said.

Educators said they’re expecting that students will need additional social and emotional support when they return to classrooms this fall, with many grappling with the trauma caused by the pandemic. Tens of thousands of children have lost a parent to COVID-19, and children of color have been disproportionately affected.

Torres said she hopes schools prioritize the mental health and wellness of students.

“If we try to go back in the fall and do business as usual, we’re going to perpetuate the harm” done to children of color, she said. “Only it’ll be worse.”


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