Teaching Profession

Teachers of Color Pay an ‘Invisible Tax’ That Leads to Burnout, Ed. Sec. Writes

By Madeline Will — May 18, 2016 3 min read
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One way to increase teacher diversity: alleviate the type of burnout that is specific to teachers of color.

Teachers of color, particularly black male teachers, pay an “invisible tax” in schools, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post earlier this week. The tax, he wrote, takes a toll on their time and emotions, often leading to burnout. Research has found that teachers of color are leaving the profession more quickly than white teachers.

Some examples of the “invisible tax” include:

  • When black male teachers are expected to be the ones to discipline African-American boys with behavior issues;
  • When teachers of color feel they must prepare their students for racism and teach them how to “code switch,” at outside-of-school events or on college tours; and
  • When teachers of color are seen as the experts on all issues and questions related to cultural diversity.

Only 18 percent of public school teachers are individuals of color, and only 2 percent of teachers are black men.

Earlier this year, my colleague Corey Mitchell wrote about the experiences of black male teachers. Some researchers, he reported, have found that teachers who are the only black man in a school feel voiceless and disconnected. Their colleagues would seek their help with student discipline issues, but rarely when it came to actual teaching—leaving black male teachers feeling as if they were viewed primarily as behavioral managers.

King, who is black and a former teacher, has been vocal in his short time as Education Secretary about the need for a more diverse national teaching corps, which he says leads to better student outcomes.

“I encourage school and district leaders to work with their teachers and other staff members to develop a vision for how to make their campuses more inclusive by adopting proactive hiring processes, providing professional support, using a multicultural curriculum and offering cultural competence workshops for everyone,” King wrote. “The burden to end this tax shouldn’t fall only to the people already paying it.”

It’s worth noting that a new study by Indiana and Vanderbilt Universities found that black children are three times more likely to be placed in gifted-education programs if they have a black teacher rather than a white teacher. The study concludes that black students are typically under-represented in gifted programs, but black teachers are more likely than white teachers to see the black students as gifted.

In his Washington Post op-ed, King highlighted The Fellowship, a Philadelphia-based group that aims to support current and aspiring black male educators. The Fellowship’s goal is to recruit and retain 1,000 black male teachers in Philadelphia public schools by 2020, through professional development and networking sessions, advocacy, and expanding the high school to career pipeline.

Sharif El-Mekki, the founder of the group, was quoted as saying that black teachers he speaks with appreciate the importance of the extra duties, but feel overwhelmed.

“They feel honored and appreciated that they are asked, but when so many different people are asking them for help, it becomes a burden,” El-Mekki told King, adding that teachers of color often want to be a resource for white colleagues to learn how to better support students of color. “If everyone was asked to improve their relationships with these students ... it would feel empowering.”

In an Education Department blog post posted Tuesday, William Hayes, an educator and founding member of The Fellowship, echoed that sentiment. “The pressure of being the lone black or brown male educator in a school, while simultaneously charged with being the main mentor, disciplinarian, and relationship guru for all students who share similar backgrounds, can be overwhelming,” Hayes wrote.

Source: Image of John B. King Jr. by Flickr user US Department of Education, licensed under Creative Commons

More on Teacher Diversity:

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