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Teaching Profession

‘No One Else Is Going to Step Up': In a Time of Racial Reckoning, Teachers of Color Feel the Pressure

By Madeline Will — July 21, 2020 9 min read
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Many teachers of color are used to being in a room full of white coworkers. They’re used to being looked at in staff meetings when issues of race are brought up. And they’re used to feeling like it’s their responsibility to lead schools toward anti-racist education.

It can all be exhausting, teachers of color say. And these responsibilities might be amplified in the fall as schools resume, in some capacity, amidst a national reckoning on race spurred by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black men and women.

Grassroot groups have emphasized the importance of self-care for teachers of color. To do the sometimes-grueling work of leading on racial justice, experts say, minority teachers need to take time for themselves to recharge and refuel. And a big part of that is finding a community with others from similar backgrounds—whether that’s within teachers’ own schools or on a national level.

After all, teachers of color make up just about 20 percent of the national teaching force. Nine percent of teachers are Hispanic, about 6 percent are Black, and about 2 percent are Asian, according to federal data. Less than 1 percent of teachers are American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. While there have been many state and local efforts to hire a more diverse teacher workforce to teach an increasingly diverse student population, those numbers have remained mostly unchanged for the past decade. That’s largely because teachers of color leave the profession at higher rates than their white peers.

“I think in general, on a day-to-day basis, it can be a little isolating to be a teacher of color,” said Michael Espinoza, a Chicano high school English teacher in San Jose, Calif. “Whether it’s the curriculum I teach, or my own background, oftentimes it’s not in connection with the other teachers. Even as a new teacher, making friends can be a little more difficult.”

Espinoza went into teaching in 2017 knowing that he wanted to fight for social justice. He joined as many committees as he could—most of which was unpaid work—and volunteered to help redesign the school’s Advanced Placement Literature curriculum to make it more culturally relevant. But by year two, he felt depleted.

“I noticed myself crashing, burning out already,” he said. “[I would think], ‘I don’t know how long I can do this. I don’t know if this is the right choice for me.’”

Espinoza’s mentors told him to take a step back and focus on himself and his students. He started saying ‘no’ more. Having more free time and fewer commitments has helped his mental state, he said—but he sometimes worries that he should be doing more.

“The balance between this burden [of being one of the few teachers of color in a school building] and well-being has been on my mind a lot, and trying to figure out the right amount of pushing for social change and fighting for what’s right and not trying to burn out,” he said. “I feel like sometimes if I don’t do it, no one else is going to do it. No one else is going to step up and do the things that I feel are necessary to do.”

In interviews, teachers of color echoed the difficulties of this balancing act: It’s taxing to constantly be in a room surrounded by white people and asked to lead conversations about race and racism. But at the same time, many feel a sense of responsibility to themselves, their students, and their communities to take charge of this work.

“I feel on one hand, … we shouldn’t be the only ones. The burden shouldn’t be on us,” Espinoza said. “On the other hand, I feel like, ‘Who better to do that work?’ I would want it to be done right, I want it to be done in a way that’s coming from an authentic place. I do feel like we have to be on the front lines of doing this work, but at the same time, it has to be done at our own pace. There are times when it can be overwhelming.”

‘Unending’ Racial Stress

Scholars say there’s an “invisible tax” on teachers of color, in which they’re asked to take on unpaid roles that are outside the job they were hired to do, such as translating for parents who speak other languages, acting as school disciplinarians, or serving as mentors for students from their backgrounds.

At the same time, teachers of color are often questioned in their pedagogy, undermined or ignored when they have suggestions, and overlooked for formal leadership positions, said Rita Kohli, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, who has studied the struggles, assets, and possibilities of teachers of color.

“There is this exhausting, unending engagement of racial stress,” said Kohli, who is South Asian. “Teachers of color start to feel anxiety, they start to feel like they are hyper-visible or they’re invisible. It starts to affect their engagement, their drive. Sometimes they feel like they have to be a superhero. ... Feeling undervalued, invisible, and under-mentored has led to teachers leaving that school or the profession.”

Those feelings are amplified when teachers feel like they can’t do the work they set out to do, said Doris Santoro, a white professor of education at Bowdoin College who studies teacher dissatisfaction and resistance.

“If you go into teaching saying, ‘OK, at least I’m going to do what I can to make school a place that is safe, engaging, and meaningful for students of color,’ and then you have to witness ongoing examples of racial bias and racism in your work—both in terms of choices of policy, but also in terms of the ways it’s expressed by your colleagues, especially white colleagues—that is a form of secondary trauma that can lead to demoralization,” she said.

Honoring the Work

As school districts are now planning anti-racist trainings in the wake of mass protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, school leaders must make sure the work is thoughtful and ongoing, Kohli said—because that hasn’t always been the case.

Teachers of color are thinking, “I want to use this moment and engage with the work I want to do, but it’s hard to trust this,” she said. “The performative nature of it can be taxing and exhausting for teachers of color.”

Teachers of color, Kohli said, should be invited to share their expertise and lead this work—and they should be compensated for their labor. Otherwise, educators say they feel like they’re pigeonholed into an unpaid, unacknowledged role.

Takeru Nagayoshi, an Advanced Placement English teacher in New Bedford, Mass., was once in a professional-development session on race that was led by an older white woman. He felt like her talking points were outdated, and then a teacher raised her hand and asked if it was OK to call Asian people “Oriental.” Nagayoshi felt like the facilitator didn’t go far enough in explaining the term is offensive.

“If we’re not in these spaces, these are the folks who are leading conversations on race, so we feel frustrated and like we need to step up,” said Nagayoshi, who is Japanese American and the 2020 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. “But if we do, we feel like that’s all we’re validated for. I felt a little reluctant to be dismissed as the teacher who only talks about race and diversity because he is a person of color. It’s kind of a can’t-win situation.”

As Frank Mata, a Filipino high school English teacher in Riverside, Calif., put it: “You’re totally seen as ‘that guy,’ and no one wants to have ‘that guy’ around,” he said.

This fall, teachers of color might want to opt out of some of the initial conversations on race and let white teachers confront their own biases alone, Santoro said, adding that leaving the room can be a form of self-care.

“I think that’s a very strategic choice—to not have to ... listen to forms of ignorance that are dehumanizing and demoralizing to you,” she said. “Our teachers of color don’t need to be sitting in a room where we’re saying, ‘OK, racism—it’s a thing.’”

And who’s leading the trainings matters, too. Gemayel Hazard, a Black 6th grade social studies teacher in Fairfax County, Va., has stopped going to districtwide equity trainings altogether because they are almost always led by white women.

“Who is this for?” he said, adding that these trainings center whiteness. “This is clearly not to make my life better; this is to make other people comfortable with their BS.”

Other teachers will tell him that they want to hear his voice in these meetings, but he feels as if those trainings are not authentic, especially because there are such systemic issues with race in the district. There are just a handful of Black principals in the 196-school district, and Hazard said he has been passed over time and again for leadership positions.

“I’ve had my administration degree and license for [more than] 10 years, and I watch as people who I have more experience than, am more qualified than, and have more training than get opportunities that I don’t even get interviews for,” he said. “It makes me feel like, ‘Why even try anymore?’ You feel like you can do more, you know you can, but you just don’t get the shot.”

Finding a Community

Those systematic barriers can take a toll on mental health and the desire to stay in the classroom, teachers of color say. That’s why Kohli co-founded the Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice, an annual three-day professional-development conference. The national gathering is meant to foster a sense of community and support that is lacking in many minority teachers’ workplaces.

“I consider one of the most important ingredients for self-care, self-preservation to be finding a critical community,” said Dara Nix-Stevenson, a Black middle school teacher in Greensboro, N.C. “ITOC is my critical community that I go to for mental nourishment, spiritual nourishment, check-ins.”

Said Espinoza, the San Jose teacher: “It’s really rejuvenating to be yourself, to be completely your authentic self and talk freely and not have to watch what you say because you might hurt someone.”

Other spaces created for and by teachers of color exist on local and state levels. In the Austin area, for example, Coral Zayas, a 6th grade teacher in the Leander Independent school district, recently launched an affinity group for teachers of color across the area as part of her fellowship for Teach Plus, a nonprofit group that supports teacher leadership. Zayas, who is Latina, said she wanted to build a community where teachers can find mentorship and support among people who can relate to what they’ve experienced in schools.

“This kind of space has never existed for me, and I’ve been in public schools for seven-plus years,” she said. “I think it is critical for us to be able to express our emotions and be able to talk about that in a safe space. … Otherwise, we’re internalizing it, and stress builds up.”

And having a safe space to process their own experiences in school can refuel their commitment to fighting for their students of color, teachers say.

“I didn’t choose to be the messenger, but because I have the message to share, I’m not going to keep it to my chest,” Nix-Stevenson said.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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