Challenges to the teaching profession right now are numerous. Teachers are coping with the educational and psychological fallout from a pandemic that grinds on. At the same time, state legislatures around the country have restricted what teachers can say in the classroom about important contemporary issues, such as racism, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
For Black teachers, though, those challenges are compounded. In addition to all the duties and concerns that come with any teaching job, schools levy an “invisible tax” on Black teachers. The tax is the mental toll from being charged with disciplining Black students and training them into “respectability” in addition to serving as an expert on race and racism for white colleagues.
As if the tax wasn’t enough, critical race theory has become the target of a conservative campaign to quell demands for Black equity and deny important truths of our nation’s history. Many of those truths were revealed in The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which asserts that no aspect of the nation was left untouched by its years of slavery. In some states and districts, the white pushback has led to policies that have prompted Black parents to fight to keep certain books in libraries and Black educators to be fearful of losing their jobs.
There is much discourse concerning the need for more Black teachers, but the battle fatigue that has followed more than two years of national upheaval over race naturally compels Black teachers, current and prospective alike, to ask whether we’re hired because of what we bring to the table as Black people or simply to fill a quota.
Personally, I’ve asked myself that question on occasion.
I asked myself this when urged to stick to the curriculum on days when the news revealed another Black person was gunned down by a police officer. I asked this when rebuffed concerning student desires for a Black student union. I asked this when expected to hold down a lunch-duty period as my white teacher colleagues were sometimes “allowed” to miss the assignment.
I realized that the answer largely depends on whether one’s Blackness—a concept of self rooted in a collective Black experience taking place in Black spaces of development and a shared Black history—is believed to be vital to a school that serves all children or just a commodity that gives the impression Black children are valued. That is determined by the goals of school and district leaders.
I was never told to check my Blackness at the door. But my Blackness was often utilized by institutions primarily to achieve Black student compliance rather that to assure Black students of their identity and of their humanity.
While there are schools and school districts that exist where Black teachers are not just bodies, schools throughout the country are traditionally white institutional spaces. Since the policies, procedures, and postures of such spaces are determined by whites, Black educators remain subject to white surveillance or “white-adjacent” surveillance (when nonwhite actors do the same surveilling as whites). The surveillance ensures that the goals of the white spaces are met.
In addition to all the duties and concerns that come with any teaching job, schools levy an 'invisible tax' on Black teachers.
So, with all of that, why do we stay?
We stay because we’re vital to the frontline battle to, in the words of Paulo Freire, liberate both ourselves and our oppressor through education. The content we teach then becomes a tool for young people to make communities more equitable and just spaces for all.
I choose to stay because I am committed to my students and their families, who often become extended family. That doesn’t happen because we’re touchy-feely. It happens because in our classroom, given our shared experience and history, we relate to each other very differently from how the rest of society relates to us. I am able to display Black humanity to some and Black possibility to others.
I stay because a Black teacher poured into me. Therefore, it is my turn to pour into someone that they might one day pour into another.
This is no indictment of Black teachers who leave the profession. The truth is that some of those teachers are severely wounded by their school experience and may believe they can have a greater impact outside of the classroom. They haven’t left the battle; they simply engage differently.
But as for those of us who remain in the classrooms, with each lesson we teach, whether about the U.S. Constitution or about the least common denominator, we teach young people the skills they need to both navigate and change the world. I and my colleagues are proud to be part of an intellectual tradition dating back to enslavement, where our ancestors used knowledge to free both body and mind in a country designed for their physical and mental destruction. This tradition continued into the early 20th century where the doctrine of separate but “equal” didn’t prevent Black teachers from empowering future leaders of the civil rights movement through teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Our work is a calling, tied to answering whether the United States, as Martin Luther King Jr. articulated, will be what it said that it is on paper.
There is a reason why we’re preferred by students in general. It’s because we’re content experts while at the same time applying a perspective that both enlightens and empowers young people.
When I see my students masterfully execute a debate, skillfully articulate an argument on paper, or discover a truth about who they are that’s new to them, I wonder if I would have learned more if I had had Black teachers—even though their absence in my education was an important part of my decision to join the profession.
It’s going to take more than an invisible tax to remove us. It’ll take more than policies to deter us. Changes on school boards won’t stop us from teaching truth, and it certainly won’t stop us from being Black. Those challenges notwithstanding, we know that students, particularly Black students, need us. Their success in our classrooms is largely because we see them. It’s because in them, we see ourselves.