Teaching While Black

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Jason Johnson: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Most American public school students are kids of color, but a small minority of teachers are. And the latest data shows that fewer than 10% of American teachers are black. So what’s driving the black teacher shortage and what’s at stake for the nation’s kids?

Speaker 2: All the disruptions, the challenges, virtual learning challenges for kids and families because of covid’s economic impact, health impact on families. All of that took a toll on teachers.

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Jason Johnson: Solving the black teacher shortage. Coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. This month, as students settle back into school. We’re focusing on issues important to education. Today, we’re talking about the shortage of black teachers. Students of color have made up the majority of those in American public schools for close to a decade. But only about 20% of teachers are non-white and fewer than 10% are black.

Jason Johnson: Research suggests that better representation among teachers benefits black students by helping close the achievement gap, encouraging more equitable school discipline and lower dropout rates. So how do we get more promising black professionals into teaching? And how do we keep more veteran black teachers in schools? Joining us to talk about this is John King. He’s the president of the Education Trust, an education policy nonprofit and the former U.S. secretary of education, John King. Welcome to a word.

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Speaker 2: Thanks for the opportunity to join you.

Jason Johnson: So I’m going to start with this because I don’t know that this is something that everybody even knows is a problem. We are two and a half years into an ongoing pandemic. We hear about shortages in drivers. We hear about retention and turnover issues all over the place. Why is the teacher shortage in general of importance? Why does that matter to how America functions?

Speaker 2: Well, look, our kids education is at the foundation of the health of our economy and our democracy. And when classrooms are without teachers, kids can’t learn. When kids are disproportionately taught by novice teachers, teachers who are new to the profession, they’re less likely to make progress. And we’ve got real equity gaps in this country. Those were true before COVID. COVID has exacerbated those. And in many of our highest need, schools, schools serving low income students disproportionately, school serving students of color. Teacher turnover is higher, and that’s been made worse by COVID.

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Jason Johnson: I want to get into that because I was looking up these numbers in preparation for today’s conversation, the average turnover, and this includes people who retire, people who quit and people who switch jobs for teachers is about 16% from what I’ve seen. That’s actually higher than police officers. What are some of the factors that lead to high turnover amongst teachers, which of course, is part of the overall teaching crisis?

Speaker 2: Well, there are a number of factors. Certainly salary is one, and this varies from state to state. But there are states where the gap for college educated employees is very wide. For teachers, they’re making much less than people with similar education. That’s a problem to keep folks and then their working conditions issues. If you’re in a school that, for example, in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live every year and the late spring and early fall schools will shut down because the air conditioning isn’t working. It’s too hot to be in the building. If those are your working conditions, it’s going to be hard to keep you in the school if you are in a underresourced urban or rural school where let’s say you have one school counselor for 600, 700 families. That means kids are struggling with social emotional issues and you as a teacher have no one to send them to. That’s a working conditions issue that’s going to cause you to want to leave the profession. And so there is a burnout factor.

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Speaker 2: And of course, with COVID, all the disruptions, the challenges, virtual learning challenges for kids and families because of covid’s economic impact, health impact on families, all of that took a toll on teachers. And it’s harder in this moment to get teachers to stay and to recruit new teachers.

Jason Johnson: You’ve spoken for years about the lack of black teachers as a pipeline problem. So what’s happening or not happening in the college graduate school to public school pipeline that’s keeping black people from becoming teachers or once they become teachers, resulting in them leaving very quickly.

Speaker 2: Yeah, we definitely have both a pipeline and a retention problem on the pipeline side. It starts with all the opportunity gaps that hamper the educational success of kids of color. Black and Latino students are less likely to graduate from high school than white students, less likely to go on to college, less likely to graduate from college, less likely to major in education, less likely to graduate with an education degree and a teaching credential. So we’ve got problems throughout the pipeline.

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Speaker 2: We also know that for black college graduates who are leaving with more debt, they are very focused on will they be able to earn enough to pay back their debt. And when they look at teaching versus other professions, they make the choice. Sometimes, even though they may want to become a teacher, to choose a profession that has a better salary because they think that will help them manage their debt. So if we want to tackle those pipeline issues, we’ve really got to invest directly in students and the institutions that serve large numbers of students of color, like historically black colleges and universities.

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Speaker 2: But then we’ve got a retention problem. Black teachers are more likely to leave. Part of that is that black teachers are disproportionately concentrated in the schools that are underresourced. So that causes all the working conditions issues we’ve talked about. But there’s also something I call an invisible tax on teachers of color where, you know, if you were one black teacher in a school, oftentimes people will expect you to be the disciplinarian. They’ll send you kids of color who are struggling, particularly boys of color who are struggling. Or if you’re the one Latino teacher in a school, you’re expected to be the translator for families so that attacks on teachers of color takes a real toll. And then if you’re not given opportunities for professional development and advancement, that makes it harder for you to make the choice to stay.

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Jason Johnson: We’ve talked. Civilly on a word about debt and how debt affects people generically. People know, okay, I’m going to go to law school. It’s going to cost me, you know, $200,000 worth of debt if I go to medical school to $300,000 worth of debt. How does the debt that you would go into to become a teacher compare to a lot of other professions? Are they leaving with 30 or $40,000 worth of debt early, leaving $100,000 with a debt? What’s the debt burden? To become a public teacher today?

Speaker 2: Well, it varies quite a bit depending on the institution, of course, the length of training, usually it’s a one year master’s program as well as the four years of college rather than for a lawyer. Four years of college for three years of law school. So it’s less than lawyers and doctors, but you’re still talking about a situation where folks may have 30, 40, $50,000 in debt after college and graduate school. And then they are also not able to rely as frequently on their parents and others because of the racial wealth gap.

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Speaker 2: You know, we’ve got the consequences of generational, systemic racism that have caused us to have this 10 to 1 racial wealth gap in the country. So black students are less likely to get money from family to cover school. And in fact, black college graduates are more likely than their white peers to be contributing money to family members who need help and support. That’s why the debt crisis is so severe for black students. We’ve written a lot about that at the Education Trust, the civil rights organization I. Talking about what we call the Jim Crow debt crisis because the racial wealth gap and our student loan model have conspired to create this burden on black borrowers.

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Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on the black teacher shortage with former Education Secretary John King. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned.

Jason Johnson: You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with former Education Secretary John King about the black teacher shortage. So the other part of the black teacher shortage is about those who are leaving the profession right now. Lots of teachers have talked about burning out in recent years. Are black teachers leaving the profession at the same rate as white teachers? What do we know demographically? And sort of like the postscript when they walk off the job, what do we know about why black teachers are leaving the profession?

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Speaker 2: FORTUNE We don’t have great, accurate national data on this, but we have some indications. We know that before COVID, the rate of black teachers leaving their profession was slightly higher than for white teachers. Not dramatically so. But we have reason to believe that the COVID crisis and the challenge of this moment where you’ve got all these attacks on public education, attacks on teachers, teaching the truth about our history, attacks on teaching diverse authors, we’ve a lot of reason to believe that’s causing a lot more black teachers to consider leaving the profession.

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Speaker 2: A recent survey from a group called Educators for Excellence, where they oversample teachers of color to get a good sense of where teachers of color work show that 85% or so of all teachers said they plan to stay in the profession long term. But the number for teachers of color drop to the low to mid fifties. So that’s scary. We don’t know how quickly that will translate into departures, but it’s a real reason to be worried and to be focused on improving retention.

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Speaker 2: And that means improving the climate for teachers of color, getting rid of that invisible tax, where teachers of color are asked to do more than their peers because of assumptions about their ability to deal with discipline or to be the translator means making sure that black teachers aren’t subjected to endless microaggressions where they’re questioned about their credentials, or they’re doubted about their ability to contribute as leaders in their school building or school district.

Speaker 2: And it means addressing these working conditions, issues that disproportionately affect teachers of color, schools that don’t have adequate air conditioning and heat, schools that don’t have adequate school counselors and mental health services. Schools that are not providing a rich set of opportunities for learning for their kids, which is a frustration for teachers.

Jason Johnson: So we’ve been hearing across the country over the last several years, certainly since the 2020 election, that a lot of conservative politicians have sort of galvanized and highly politicized local school boards. And they’re attacking, you know, a hoax like critical race theory, which we know is not being taught in elementary schools. They’re attacking any discussions of American history that show policy mistakes that this country has made in the past. What impact is the political climate having on African-American teachers? And I ask this for this particular reason. Most of these stories we see seem to be regionally based. Right. It’s happening in Florida. It’s happening in Texas. It’s happening in Oklahoma. So are there sort of policy things or are political things happening that are keeping black folks saying, look, I want to get out of this job or simply not apply? Or is it really just a regional thing as conservative states become more conservative and try to micromanage public schools?

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Speaker 2: You know, it’s shifting the climate and I think that’s affecting teachers all over the country. You know, I was a high school social studies teacher. If I went into the classroom each day worried that if I talked about the history of reconstruction and the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendment and I was going to get a complaint letter from someone that would weigh on me. And what we’re seeing around the country is right wing base of groups attacking teachers, posting about lessons. It’s really a climate on the right. And that’s happening all over the country.

Speaker 2: Now, I’m in Maryland, a blue state, and we’ve got school districts where there are parent groups that are formed that are making complaints about the teaching of history, making complaints about books, suggesting that there are books that should be banned from libraries. So it’s scary this climate, and it takes a toll, a psychological toll on teachers. You know, the governor of Virginia ran ads when he was running for governor. Right. Complaining about the teaching of Toni Morrison. Well, if you’re a black English teacher, how does that feel to you as a teacher in Virginia, knowing that you might be attacked for teaching a Toni Morrison book? So that’s definitely a current crisis.

Speaker 2: There is a long term crisis also that was with us before COVID around student discipline. Black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. We still have 19 states that allow corporal punishment, and that’s used disproportionately with black students. That makes school a hard place to be as a black teacher, as a black parent. And that takes an emotional and mental health toll on folks. It also for kids makes it less likely you’re going to want to be a teacher if you’re in a school in Mississippi where students are beaten with a wooden object as an act of state sanctioned terrorists. I’m against right heads. Right. If that’s happening in your school, how much are you likely to want to become a teacher one day?

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Jason Johnson: I’m intrigued by this because when it comes to sort of professional respect. Right. There was a time in the African-American community where teachers were one of the most respected jobs you could have. Right. If you were the teacher in your small town in Oklahoma, if you were the teacher in Texas, you were basically a step away from the pastor.

Speaker 2: Right.

Jason Johnson: That is not the case today. I wouldn’t say that teachers as a whole are disrespected within the culture, but it certainly doesn’t carry the weight of, quote, unquote, lawyer. Dr.. Oh, my own trucking company. Right.

Jason Johnson: So speaking from a cultural perspective, why do you think that’s happened? Why do you think within the African-American community, within the larger American community, that teaching itself is just less revered as a profession than it was 40 or 50 years ago?

Speaker 2: A couple things going on there. One is sexism and misogyny as a teaching profession has become overwhelmingly female. That has corresponded with a societal diminution in the status of teaching. That’s deeply problematic. We also know that after Brown versus Board of Education, when school districts move towards integration, unfortunately one of the consequences certainly wasn’t intended. But one of the consequences was that many districts, they fired the black teachers. And so you had tens of thousands of black teachers who were lost in the years following school desegregation. And that took a real toll on the group of folks who are career educators in the African-American community.

Speaker 2: And then more broadly, as a society, we are in a moment that is every day anti-science and to. Knowledge anti-intellectual. It’s a scary moment. And when you look at our international peers, the ones who are moving forward much faster than we are, the ones who value the teaching profession and best in teaching in a place like Singapore. You talk to political leaders, military leaders, business leaders say, well, I’ll tell you, the most important profession in Singapore is teacher, because they know that human capital in developing their human capital is a key to their national success. We don’t have that mindset here, unfortunately.

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Jason Johnson: You talk about English teachers, science teachers, math teachers. There are shortages in certain areas more than others, right. There are certain areas where, you know, often cities and states will say, hey, we’re out of math. Teachers will take anybody to be a math teacher. But in addition to there being teacher shortages in particular areas, another problem that is connected to this is the large percentage of teachers being forced to teach things that they’re not trained in. So I studied to be an English teacher. Why am I teaching history? I’m the math teacher. Why do you also have me teaching P.E.? Talk a little bit about how forcing teachers to teach things that they’re not qualified in in order to make up for other teachers who aren’t. There has a specific impact on why black teachers are like, Look, I’m tired of this. I got to go.

Speaker 2: Well, it’s a huge problem for kids and for teachers. For kids, it means they’re getting a classroom experience that is diminished. If you’re getting math from a teacher who wasn’t trained in math, you’re not going to learn as much math. And we know that students of color and low income students disproportionally are assigned to those out of subject teachers. And it contributes to the outcome gaps that we see for low income students and students of color. But for a teacher, if you’re asked to teach something that you didn’t study, if you’re just, you know, a day ahead in the textbook of your students, that’s a miserable experience.

Speaker 2: Teaching is hard. Yes, well, it’s very hard. It’s a science and an art. And if you are put in a situation where you’re be much less likely to be successful, that’s going to wear on you and cause you to leave the profession. And if you’re in a school where maybe you’re teaching in subject, but you know that your students are exposed to lots of teachers who are either brand new teachers or teachers who weren’t trained in the subject they’re teaching. Then you bear the weight of educational opportunities. Your kids are missing. You’re worried about that. You are trying to help your kids stay on track. And that, again, takes a toll and burns people out.

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Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more from former Education Secretary John King about the black teacher shortage. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about the black teacher shortage. John, you’ve said that teachers save lives and you credit teachers with saving your life. Can you share, like your personal story around that? Like, what’s the teacher who saved your life or the teachers who saved your life?

Speaker 2: Well, you know, when I was growing up, both my parents were educators. They’re both New York City public school educators. They both passed away when I was little. My mom and I was eight and my dad when I was 12. And in the period when it was just my dad and me, my dad was struggling with Alzheimer’s. So home was incredibly difficult and scary. And nobody knew outside of our house that he was sick. And I didn’t know why he was acting the way he was, but home was just unstable.

Speaker 2: And the thing that saved me was school. School was the one place in my life that was safe and consistent and nurturing. And I was blessed to have a series of New York City public school teachers who saved my life. You know, I had a teacher, Mr. Oscar Wilde, who was my teacher, and for sixth grade, he moved to the state with our class through those three years. And that was a crucial period in my life. And I remember the things we did in his class like it was yesterday. I read the New York Times every day. We took field trips to the Museum of Natural History and the ballet. We learned the capital and leader of every country in the world. We did productions of a midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare in elementary school. We did a production of Alice in Wonderland. I Was the Rose, a big red salt pedal sticking out of my head.

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Speaker 2: You know, I remember those things so clearly because school was the one place where I felt safe and where I could be a kid when I wasn’t able to be a kid at home. And after my dad passed and moved around, different family members, different schools. But it’s always teachers who gave me a sense of hope and purpose. I struggled as a teenager the way a lot of kids who’ve had trauma struggle actually got kicked out of high school. I’m the first U.S. secretary of education or being kicked out of high school.

Jason Johnson: That’s quite a claim.

Speaker 2: But I was lucky that there were teachers who gave me a second chance, teachers and a school counselor who were willing to see me as more than some of my mistakes. I believe very deeply in the role that educators can play in kids. That’s why I became an educator. And the evidence on black teachers particularly compelling. We know that for elementary school students, black elementary school students, just having one black teacher while in elementary school increases the likelihood of graduating from high school and going on to college. Right. Teachers can be transformative and we as a society should be doing a lot more to increase the supply of black teachers.

Jason Johnson: So I’m glad that you mention that you’re the first secretary of education to be kicked out of school, which you would think there should be more. Right. More. Who’ve had those kinds of experiences. Right. But off the top of my head, I can only think of one member of Congress. Perhaps there are others who came straight out of the teaching profession into Congress. And that’s Johanna Hayes from Connecticut. Mm hmm. You know, there may be others, but that’s not where they came from. That’s not the last job they had before going to Congress. Talk a little bit about how hard it is to implement changes and improvements in education policy, specifically for black teachers when we have so few being represented in politics.

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Speaker 2: That’s right. And so you don’t get the voice of the black teacher experience represented. You know, Johanna Hayes, amazing. So glad she’s in Congress. But we need more folks who can lift up the black teacher experience. It’s true. And Congress has shown state legislatures it’s true on school boards. It’s true in school district leadership. African-Americans are still underrepresented in the ranks of school administrators, principals. So we’ve got to do more to lift up black educators.

Speaker 2: If they have that opportunity, they would talk about these pipeline problems, the retention problems. They would talk about the opportunities like paraprofessionals and coaches and other folks who are working in schools who desperately want to be teachers but need somebody to help make that investment so they can get their teaching credential, so they can get those courses they need to become a teacher. They would talk about the disproportionate role that HBCUs play in the pipeline of teachers in this country and the shameful under-investment in HBCUs for generations. That needs to be corrected.

Jason Johnson: You know, I always like to end the show on sort of a positive note. What are some concrete policy things that can be done or are literally in the pipeline right now, either at a state level or a federal level or things that your organization is doing the Education Trust to sort of improve this issue of a teacher shortage. What can we look forward to in the future in a positive way?

Speaker 2: Yeah. So three things come immediately to mind. One is a number of states and. Districts are launching Grow Your Own programs that are designed to get high school students excited about becoming future teachers. Working with community colleges to get their students excited about becoming teachers and helping them transfer to four year institutions to become teachers. Partnering colleges with K-12 schools that students get exposed to. Working in classrooms as freshmen, get excited about teaching and maybe choose teaching as a career. So those are your own programs.

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Speaker 2: Hugely helpful too, is communities of support that are growing up around the country. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland. We’ve got something called the Bond Project, which is a group of teachers of color shared by black male teachers who wanted to create a community of support for each other. And we’re seeing those kinds of efforts, something called the Fellowship in Philadelphia. These kind of efforts growing up around the country, that’s important so that people feel supported, get access to mentoring, can sometimes just vent about that invisible text that they’re experiencing. That’s really important.

Speaker 2: And third is we are seeing more investment in historically black colleges and universities. I know it’s a priority for the Biden administration. We’re seeing philanthropy folks like Mackenzie Scott making a big investment in HBCUs. That is where we’re going to increase our pipeline. HBCUs and minority serving institutions are Hispanic serving institutions as well, and have a vital role to play here in producing the pipeline of Latino teachers that we need. But that’s encouraging that we’re moving in that direction. We need to move faster. We should get to debt free college as a country because that would be in our long term economic interest. But we are making progress.

Jason Johnson: John King is the president of the Education Trust and the former U.S. secretary of education. Thanks so much for joining us today on a word.

Speaker 2: Thanks so much for that opportunity.

Jason Johnson: And that’s a word for this week.

Jason Johnson: The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jonny Evans. Ben Richardson is Slate’s senior director of operations for podcasts. Alicia montgomery is the vice president of Audio. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for Word.