Black teachers speak on mass teacher exodus from schools
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When she gets home from work, it takes Monise Seward two or three hours to decompress from the day. She sits there — just sits — to feel the stress leave her body.

By Maya Pottiger & Aswad Walker for Word in Black

Seward is a middle school math teacher in Metro Indianapolis. She’s worked in schools for the last nine years — previously as a special education teacher in Atlanta — but has been in the field of education for a long time, including homeschooling her children.

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And, thanks to her Twitter following of 17,000, she has a front row seat to the industry’s changing landscape. Through her (now private) account, Seward cultivates conversations and amplifies issues facing school staff across the country. She even serves as a private confidant, getting direct messages from people who worry about backlash if they make their thoughts public.

“There’s layers to what teachers were experiencing before the pandemic,” Seward says. “And now it’s just been magnified; it’s worse.”

Through her online community, Seward has seen teachers quitting throughout the school year, even posting that they are resigning a month before the end of the academic year.

“People are leaving left and right in the middle of the school year. I saw people post online three weeks ago that they left,” Seward says. “Now, if you leave that close to the end of the school year, you have exceeded your wit’s end.”

WHAT’S THE STATE OF BLACK TEACHERS?

In its 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey, RAND Corporation researchers found that about half of Black teachers reported they were “likely” to leave their jobs by the end of the school year, which was higher than other races.

“Teachers need to be well, teachers need to be whole, teachers need to be healthy for themselves and for the students they teach,” says Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at RAND and an author of the survey. “Everything that was going on during the pandemic, and is still going on, raised the issue to a more urgent level than perhaps it seemed to be before.”

As with so many aspects of life, Black adults serve multiple roles in schools — and not all of them are visible. Children of color are, widely, more academically successful when they have a Black principal, and that success continues down the ladder. Black students who learned from a Black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college — 13% more likely if they had one Black teacher, and more than double that at 32% if they had at least two. 

So a decline in Black teachers would really have far reaching effects on students. 

“The Black kids won’t have any representation except for the few of us who grin and bear it and take whatever comes their way,” Seward says. “By being silent, we’re not doing anything for the kids who are coming after us if we continue to work in these conditions, and we continue to essentially beg people to see us as human beings, to see us as professionals.”

Not all teachers are witnessing and/or participating in a classroom exodus.

“I’m seeing lots of transfers, but no quitting of teaching all together in my immediate circle,” said decorated teacher, Fernanda Pierre. However, the numbers leaving teaching are real for many schools and school districts, and there are several reasons why.

Award-winning educator Norma Thomas, who founded her own school after leaving local ISDs, when asked why she left the public school system said, “How about I send you my entire dossier on ‘Fighting TEA for My Certification When Leaving My Classroom Became Unavoidable.’”

MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS

Overall, the RAND survey found a lot of job-related stress among teachers. The percentage of teachers who reported “frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression” was much higher than the general adult population. And, the survey found, the main stressors were the mode of instructions and their health. Teachers described experiencing depressive symptoms and burnout.

“Taken together,” the report says, “these results suggest that job-related stress poses immediate and long-term threats to the teacher supply.”

With the challenges of transitioning to remote learning, then hybrid, then asynchronous, plus those who had to deal with childcare, there’s been a lot of stress on teachers both in their jobs and professional lives.

To help address and alleviate those problems, districts and school leaders need to find a way of understanding what teachers want to see in their jobs and what causes them stress, like interacting with parents, not having enough substitutes or the right curriculum.

“Trying to figure those things out and do what they can to address them could be really important,” Steiner says. “Do the things that help teachers focus on their core jobs, which is teaching.”

Not only has the pandemic taken a huge toll on our mental health, but it’s also highlighted the importance of having mental health resources. Yet public schools often don’t have a full staff of counselors, social workers, or mental health professionals. And, Seward points out, mental health doesn’t stop when school lets out at 3:30. On her current salary, she doesn’t make enough to pay for therapy.

“Who’s going to address our trauma? Who’s going to address our social emotional needs?” Seward says. “We’re supposed to be OK because we’re the adults.”

LONG-STANDING ISSUES ARE THE ROOT OF BLACK TEACHERS’ EXODUS

Though it’s easy to focus on the pandemic and its challenges — new instruction methods, increased worries about personal health — as the root of Black teachers leaving the industry, it was really the breaking point.

On average, Black educators are paid less than their white colleagues —  they’re the racial group least likely to earn more than $15 an hour — and have higher student loan debt. Plus, there’s the workplace culture with discrimination, hostility, and feelings of isolation, or being given more responsibilities as the representatives of their race. A Donors Choose survey found that more than 30% of Black teachers were tasked with disciplining students of color, teaching their school communities about racism, and serving as the liaison between the school and families of color.

In fact, Seward says nothing has changed. “The K-12 system is inherently the exact same way that it was before the pandemic,” she says.

Despite the number of degrees we may have, despite the number of years of experience we may have, some people will never ever see us as experts in what we do, period.

Monise Seward, Metro Indianapolis Teacher

“Some of us are going to work and not being viewed as experts in our area because some white people have this view that we don’t know anything,” Seward says. “Despite the number of degrees we may have, despite the number of years of experience we may have, some people will never ever see us as experts in what we do, period.”

Seward says she doesn’t think most people would believe what a public school looks like on a typical day.

Teachers are still spending their own money on classroom supplies. They’re still working off the clock. Seward has even cut back on her water consumption because, since she can’t leave a classroom unattended, she can’t go to the bathroom when she needs to.

Seward recalled the quote from author Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

“We are guilted into overlooking everything and blaming it on the pandemic instead of people in charge, people who control the purse strings, allocating funds in a way so that we can get some services that we need in our buildings,” Seward says. “I’m not judging anybody who’s left.”

PARENT ISSUES

One of those who made the decision to walk away from the classroom is Christyna Ferrell, She’s been in education for 37 years, most of those in the classroom as an elementary and middle school science and social studies teacher.

Though there were several issues that led to Ferrell’s decision to look elsewhere for employment, one big determinant was what she describes as a negative change in parents and school administrators’ responses to them, in spite of the educational “damage” done to students from lack of instruction.

“What I have found during this pandemic is that it has been a very tough year, not just for the students, but for teachers as well,” said Ferrell. “Coming back into the classroom this year, students literally missed a whole year of education. A lot of kids were left out because lack of computers and lack of parents’ involvement.”

Ferrell asserts a common refrain from teachers during the pandemic: even though they are being asked to do more, teachers can only do so much.

“Teachers are leaving because we are asked to do so much work and the work that they’re putting on teachers, we don’t have time. You’re taking work home. That’s taking away from your family time. Then you’re exhausted. And then you say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to start this all over again tomorrow.”

Ferrell, who moved from teaching at a predominantly Black and Latinx school to a predominantly white campus during the pandemic, asserts that the increased teacher workload has not brought with it an increased appreciation for what they do from school administrators and parents.

“The experience I had last year, and this year dealing with two different demographics of children and different cultures of children, I’ve noticed that all parents were the same. They wanted the teachers to create these miracles for their students, where they were not helping us help their student,” said Ferrell.

Ferrell said teachers were expected to do all the traditional educator duties, including creating a curriculum, executing lesson plans and managing behavior in classrooms, along with a litany of additional duties.

“On top of all our regular duties, we literally would be on the phone all the time. We’re calling parents every morning: ‘Hey, your child has a Zoom class at 9 a.m. Please make sure they’re on the Zoom class.’ ‘Homework is due. Please make sure it’s in Google classroom.’ It’s constant communication. Well, after week number three, parents stop answering their phones because they already know our phone numbers,” said Ferrell.

Ferrell asserts that the village needed to successfully educate students “stopped being a village because parents didn’t want us to be a village anymore.”

“What I noticed with my students this year, my parents wanted me to babysit them. They wanted their social and emotional needs met, not their academics. But what I heard from parents was, ‘I want my child to have fun. And as long as they’re having fun, regardless of their academic performance, I’m good.’ That was the main challenge I heard from parents.”

TEACHERS WANT RESPECT

Whether it’s from students, parents, school staff, or policy makers, teachers are looking for one thing: respect. The respect they’re seeking comes in many forms: compensation, public policy, and accountability. 

“People really need to look at the K-12 system and how some of us are going to work and dealing with microaggressions. Some of us are going to work in dealing with systemic racism,” Seward says. “Black people shouldn’t have to fix that. That’s not our mess to fix.”

She also says the task of fixing public education also shouldn’t fall on teachers, who weren’t the ones to break it.

Somebody else has to roll up their sleeves and do something. It can’t be teachers. We’re not accepting any more work at this time.

Monise Seward

“All I’m thinking about is when is somebody going to do something?” Seward says. “Somebody else has to roll up their sleeves and do something. It can’t be teachers. We’re not accepting any more work at this time.”

Dr. Federick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, recalls the dignity of the position, where you ran into a teacher at the grocery store and a light clicked on to students that this was a person “who was out of some kind of spiritual nature.” 

“We want that kind of respect back in the profession,” Ingram says. “Unfortunately, we’ve got to jump over political hurdles.”

Kamau Mason, a former teacher, left the profession before the pandemic, not out of frustration, but from a calling to pursue more personal and professional growth—a growth and respect many teachers who are leaving amid COVID say they did not receive.

“I planned to teach for 10 years,” said Mason. “My master plan was to obtain the master of education in Special Ed and then go to Law School in the evenings. Along the way, I got married and had children. My plan expanded to 17 years in the field with my M. Ed and JD accounted for. I didn’t quit. I planned and then evolved, as all teachers should.”

Mason found the skillsets learned in the field of education invaluable.

“You learn to sell, motivate, speak in front of large groups. Teaching makes you invent. It makes you create. But there are book ends on the field. And the rows for some are greater than for others. I can say that I enjoyed it all. The experiences were great. The money was great. The memories were great. But the evolution was greater. And that career choice equipped me for my present-day work as a lawyer,” said Mason.

But not all former teachers had Mason’s experience. Monica Evans Antonio, like Mason, left the classroom pre-COVID, but because of a toxic work environment that many Black teachers are saying the pandemic has only worsened. But like many former teachers, Evans stayed within the field of education.

“Classroom teaching was my first career, but I never intended for it to be my only career,” said Antonio, who like Mason planned on teaching for a decade. “But I left teaching after seven years. Unfortunately, my last work environment was toxic, with poor leadership. So, I left early to pursue a doctorate in Education Policy. I also spent time teaching prospective and new teachers. Today, I work in an education-adjacent field, workforce development. I’m getting ready to make a switch again.”

Antonio reflects a common theme with now former teachers—remaining in education. Ferrell has done the same, and now works as an educational consultant.

Still, the challenge for many ISDs is keep current teachers in the classroom while also strengthening the pipeline to recruit and employ new teachers.

HBCUS ARE THE KEY TO MORE BLACK TEACHERS

The teacher shortage has been around for the better part of a decade, but it was exacerbated by the pandemic, Ingram says. And it stems from not having enough college graduates who are choosing teaching as a career. The numbers are “abysmally low,” Ingram says, so people can expect to see fewer Black teachers this upcoming school year.

“We simply don’t have enough people to go into our classrooms,” Ingram says.

To help reverse this, Ingram says kids need to start being encouraged to join the profession in middle school, and young African American men and women need to be taught that teaching is still a noble profession.

Half of Black teachers graduate from HBCUs, Ingram says, so those schools need funding for their education programs. This, he thinks, will help boost the number of Black educators.

“Things are still pretty challenging and pretty hard,” Steiner says. “Although, at the same time, you still see and hear a lot of teachers talking about the joy they find in their work and their commitment to their students. So, I don’t want to take everything as totally bleak for everybody despite the challenges of the time.”