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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Profession Opinion

Teachers of Color Face Unique Challenges. Here Are Some of Them

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 14, 2023 16 min read
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Plenty of studies have shown that both students of color and white students benefit from having teachers of color. However, there really aren’t near enough teachers of color in the classroom, and attrition rates for them are high.

This multipart series will explore the challenges teachers of color face in their school districts and what districts are, or are not, doing to support them.

Today’s contributors were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

‘Invisible Taxes’

Keisha Rembert is a lifelong learner, equity advocate, and award-winning educator. She is the author of The Antiracist English Language Arts Classroom, a doctoral student, and an assistant professor/DEI coordinator for teacher preparation at National Louis University. Prior to entering teacher education, Keisha spent more than 15 years teaching middle school English and U.S. history:

I was one of only four racialized teachers of the global majority in a school comprising nearly 50 staff members. As a Black woman teaching in an affluent, predominantly white suburban community, I constantly felt the need to validate my abilities.

Whether it involved engaging students in anti-racist, anti-oppressive teaching methods, educating a colleague who made ignorant comments about one of the few racially marginalized students we had, dealing with a parent who addressed me inappropriately, or reacting to a principal who viewed my assertiveness and questioning as a threat, there was always an additional layer of complexity added to my already demanding day.

In that school district, racialized teachers of the global majority carried the weight of assuming extra responsibilities to meet the needs of racially marginalized students. Alongside these responsibilities, we also had to prioritize self-care to maintain our well-being. These “invisible taxes” require teachers of color to be a catchall in an attempt to level the playing field for students of color.

These invisible and often unpaid tasks took various forms. For instance:

  • Black male educators taking on roles as disciplinarians
  • Latinx educators acting as language translators
  • Creating and curating culturally responsive, anti-racist and socially just curricular materials
  • Serving on equity committees and taking leadership positions
  • Mentoring racially marginalized students
  • Bridging the cultural gap as culture translators and mediators

In addition to the burden of these invisible taxes, there was also the issue of invisibility and hypervisibility that racialized teachers of the global majority had to face. We were frequently overlooked (invisible) when it came to leadership opportunities. I personally know an educator who repeatedly applied for administrative positions within the district, only to witness less competent and qualified individuals being selected. Our voices often went unheard until someone else repeated our ideas.

Conversely, we were hypervisible. If I made a comment about race or questioned a particular approach, the entire school seemed to buzz with discussion. When racialized teachers of the global majority were recognized or promoted, questions would often follow about how they obtained those positions or what they had not accomplished. This invisibility and hypervisibility underscored the lack of support and care we were provided.

There were very few spaces where I could connect with other racialized teachers of the global majority to discuss issues of erasure in the curriculum or the micro and macro aggressions we faced. Overall, there was a lack of safety—a dearth of spaces where we could be our authentic selves. Instead, we were expected to code-switch and codify whiteness.

Since my departure for some of the reasons outlined, the district has taken a step forward by establishing affinity spaces for racialized teachers of the global majority. There appears to be an effort to interview and recruit more racialized administrators of the global majority, but the hiring of teachers still falls short. The district continues to lack the necessary racial literacy to alleviate the burden of invisible taxes experienced by racialized teachers of the global majority, highlighting the ongoing need for systemic change.

asablackwoman

‘My Feelings Were Often Disregarded’

Laleh Ghotbi is a 4th grade teacher in Utah. She is also a member of Hope Street Group, a Utah Teacher Fellow, and was of the four finalists for her district’s Teacher of the Year 2023-2024:

While all teachers encounter daily challenges as they navigate their roles in the classroom and work environment, educators of color face a distinct set of challenges in their personal and professional experiences, which can be both unique to their circumstances and common across different districts.

In 2017, after completing my master of arts in teaching, I expected to secure a teaching position easily. Despite having prior teaching experience and two master’s degrees, I was puzzled by the lack of interview calls, especially when my peers from the same cohort were offered multiple opportunities.

Finally, I contacted the district’s equity center to express my concern. I was relieved to know that my feelings were acknowledged, but instead of directly addressing the issue, the response I received consisted of excuses and justifications. They suggested that I may have made errors in my application or failed to meet the necessary qualifications.

Shortly after, I received a couple of interview calls and eagerly participated in them. Following one initial interview, an administrator left me a voicemail expressing their excitement and inviting me for a second interview involving teaching in a classroom setting.

Prepared and enthusiastic, I introduced myself to the students and began a math lesson. However, halfway through, both the teacher and administrator abruptly interrupted, claiming that the time was up. Confused and somewhat embarrassed, I left the interview and anxiously awaited a follow-up call that never came. Seeking guidance, I reached out to one of my college professors and shared the incident. The professor contacted the principal, only to discover that a candidate had already been chosen for the position, but they were obligated to conduct the interview. Unfortunately, this was just one of many similar experiences.

With the support of the president of the teachers’ union, who I met at a conference, I secured a part-time position as an upper-elementary science teacher just a few days before the new school year began, However, this marked the beginning rather than the end of the challenges I faced as an educator from a diverse background. The journey continued with ongoing obstacles such as micromanagement, confronting stereotypes, constant scrutiny of my qualifications, and having my judgment questioned.

Last year, I joined a BIPOC educator group after learning about it through a colleague at the district office. The group consisted of educators from diverse backgrounds in two school districts. When I expressed mistreatment and occasional discrimination in other settings, my feelings were often disregarded. However, within the BIPOC educator group, I found a sense of belonging. It was a safe space where I could share my experiences, and to my relief, I realized that other participants had encountered similar situations. The group members not only acknowledged but also empathized with my experiences, providing a refreshing and validating support system.

During our ongoing sessions, several common barriers and challenges have been consistently highlighted. For example:

  • Encountering bias and being subjected to negative judgments or treatment due to having an accent or different physical appearances is a recurring struggle.
  • Experiencing the weight of being a representative of our cultural backgrounds.
  • Not feeling safe to talk about difficulties we are facing at the workplace.
  • Facing stereotypes and biases based on our race or ethnicity, which can affect our interactions with colleagues, students, and parents.
  • Microaggressions such as comments, gestures, or actions that undermine our competences or marginalize our experiences.
  • Being expected to assume the role of a translator when the school is short-staffed, without any compensation.
  • Facing a lack of equal support, often justified under the guise of equity, despite evidence that contradicts such claims.
  • Being deprived of comparable opportunities for career advancement or recognition for excellence in teaching, regardless of one’s qualifications, is a discouraging reality.

Recognizing and addressing the challenges that educators of color encounter is essential because as our student population becomes increasingly diverse, it is crucial to have educators who represent that diversity. To increase the recruitment and retention of educators of color, we must confront systemic inequities, promote inclusive practices, and establish a supportive environment that empowers educators of color.

recognizingghotbi

‘Create an Inclusive and Equitable Environment’

Janice Wyatt-Ross is currently the principal of an alternative education program providing virtual education for students in grades 6-12 and on-campus service for students who are overage and undercredited. She has more than 30 years of experience in education:

Many, but not all, Black teachers find that they are the only or one of the few Black teachers in a school building or in some cases in a school district. Black teachers are often underrepresented in the schools and districts in which they work when compared to the student population they serve. This lack of representation can cause Black teachers to feel isolated and as if they do not belong.

Black teachers can be made to feel as if their voices and concerns are irrelevant as it pertains to the school at large. The proverbial squeaky wheel getting the oil does not bode well for Black teachers because there are not enough of them to really bring attention to an issue or concern. When the lone Black teacher speaks up, they are viewed as a troublemaker and labeled as divisive to the culture of the environment. Colleagues will shun or ostracize those who they feel will jeopardize their own reputations.

Black teachers may face challenges when promoting content from diverse backgrounds when working and planning with their colleagues. Instructional materials selected by school leadership may overlook materials for diverse student populations because they lack the knowledge of the material and automatically think it is not rigorous enough because it is not promoted by the edu-celebrities whose publications and resources fill the research databases and publishers’ marketing flyers. This lack of diversity makes it difficult for teachers to connect with their students.

Because of the constant threat of nonrenewal or pink slips at the end of the year, Black teachers can face uncomfortable situations when addressing sensitive topics or incidents in the school.

Black teachers face implicit biases and stereotyping from colleagues, students, parents, and even other administrators. These biases manifest as lack of trust in their abilities to teach the content correctly, lack of trust in leading a staff, or microaggressions, such as being told “you really are a good teacher or you speak so well.”

Black teachers are often relegated to serve in roles that manage or control the behaviors of Black children, or they are “rewarded” with an excessive number of challenging students in their classrooms because of their ability to successfully connect and manage the environment of students.

Black teachers find it difficult to move past the application stage because of their “lack of experience.” Hiring managers are always looking for someone who has experience in the area. Employment candidates with experience have the upper hand in their job search and can move from school to school, job to job, and even to central-office administration because they always have the most experience.

Being the only Black teacher can hinder professional growth and limits opportunities for career advancement. There are few if any mentors who can and are willing to share their experiences and give guidance to those coming after them in similar situations.

I would like to see the establishment of formal mentoring programs that pair new Black teachers with experienced Black teachers who can provide guidance and support. Mentorship can help new teachers navigate the challenges they may face and promote professional growth.

Districts can support and promote affinity groups where Black teachers/administrators can share experiences, learn from one another, and collaborate when addressing specific challenges. I have participated in one such affinity group, and it was very refreshing to have others to connect with and share similar solutions.

My own district has sought partnerships with our local historically Black colleges and universities and has helped organize job fairs specifically recruiting from underrepresented communities. It is also good to advertise in publications and online platforms that reach diverse audiences.

The goal should be to create an inclusive and equitable environment that supports the success and well-being of Black teachers and students. Also providing ongoing professional development, mentorship programs, and creating supportive networks can help Black teachers overcome work- environment obstacles and thrive in their roles as educators.

whenthelone

‘Feeling Isolated’

Rachel Edoho-Eket is the principal of a top-ranked elementary school in Maryland. She is the author of The Principal’s Journey: Navigating the Path to School Leadership:

Teachers of color may face a variety of challenges in their careers, some of which are similar to those faced by all teachers, while others are unique to their experiences as people of color in predominantly white schools and districts.

One challenge that a teacher of color may face is feeling isolated and a general lack of support. Teachers of color may feel isolated and unsupported in schools that do not have other teachers of color on staff and may struggle to find mentorship and professional development opportunities that reflect their experiences and culture.

In addition, teachers of color may face implicit bias and microaggressions from colleagues, administrators, and even students, which can impact their overall job satisfaction and effectiveness in the classroom.

Finally, teachers of color may be underrepresented in various leadership positions, such as department chairs, school administration, and district-level positions, which may limit opportunities for advancement and impede their ability to impact educational policy and practices on a systemic level.

To help combat some of the challenges that teachers of color may face, school districts can take several steps to recruit and retain teachers of color. As a proactive measure, districts should actively recruit high-quality teachers of color by partnering with organizations that serve communities of color, hosting job fairs in diverse communities, and actively seeking out teacher-candidates from historically black colleges and universities and other institutions with a strong commitment to diversity.

Once hired at the school level, principals should create a structured plan to connect trusted teacher mentors with any new educators of color to foster belongingness and inclusion throughout the school community.

Additionally, the principal should initiate several formal and informal check-ins with teachers of color to promote meaningful relationship building. To help influence systemic-level equity practices, districts can implement cultural competency training for all employees, including teachers, administrators, and support staff. This training can help to raise awareness of unconscious biases, microaggressions, and other issues that can negatively impact the experiences of teachers of color in the workplace.

Finally, school systems can provide districtwide professional learning opportunities for teachers of color that are culturally responsive and reflect diverse experiences. This may include opportunities to attend conferences and workshops, as well as providing targeted leadership mentorship programs that connect teachers of color with experienced educators in their field with the goal of increasing their representation in positions of influence and impact.

Recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers of color continues to pose challenges for districts across the country. It is important for school systems to approach these efforts with an ongoing commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion and to regularly assess their effectiveness. Teachers of color are valuable assets to school communities, and districts must provide the support and resources they need to be successful in their careers.

teachersofcolor

Thanks to Keisha, Laleh, Janice, and Rachel for contributing their thoughts.

The new question of the week is:

What challenges do teachers of color face in your district, and what does your district/your school do to recruit teachers of color and support them?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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