Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


Why Teachers of Color Quit

There was an interesting piece by Amanda Machado at The Atlantic earlier this week describing some of the dynamics accounting for the large numbers of non-white teachers quitting the workforce.  There are some sharp parallels to other careers within the social services as well.

The following are among the key factors I took from her analysis.  While not necessarily a new analysis, still worth reading and considering as we work to make systems more responsible to our children and families...

  1. Schools don't fully appreciate the deeper stressors teachers face, especially the ones who feel - at a deeper personal level - their relative inadequacy within a larger institutional setting that isn't responsive to (nor does it care to be) the backgrounds, experiences and integrity of the children and communities they serve.
  2.  Teacher preparation programs (Teach for American among others) do an inadequate job preparing new teachers to understand and be responsive to the backgrounds of the students and communities they'll be working in.
  3. Too many education professionals hold very negative perceptions of and perspectives about the children and families they work with, and the communities they are in.
  4. The salaries are too low to raise one's own family on, especially when you have excessive student loans and other financial obligations.

The excerpts below highlight the points about the importance of having teachers who really understand and reflect the backgrounds of the students, as well as the continuing conceptual and structural challenges connected to the development of a more diverse workforce within this nation's education system.

An essay I'd love to read by some of our exemplary teachers is something along the lines of... Why and How We Manage to Stay.  At least one book I know of that begins to get at that question is I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City by Salome Thomas-EL.


The racial identity I shared with my students made me even more sensitive to their struggles, particularly when few other teachers at my school had this same connection. Though 40 percent of students in the American public education system are black and Latino, only 13 percent of teachers nationwide are. In Teach for America specifically, 90 percent of the students corps members teach are black and Latino, while 39 percent of corps members are teachers of color. While this lack of proportional diversity exists in several professions, when your job focuses on leading a mostly black and Latino student population to succeed academically and socially in a predominantly white society, race matters so much more.


To me, racial and social justice was at the core of my work as a teacher. My students’ academic progress represented the fate of my racial group, a group I knew had historically been left behind. So at every school meeting, I could only think about how our curriculum and policies ultimately connected to the struggles our students--and I--had faced as people of color. When I administered a standardized test, how did stereotypes threaten affect the confidence of my students? When I talked to our seniors about elite colleges, how could I advise them on socially adjusting to predominantly white, upper-class college campuses? When I translated at parent-teacher conferences with parents who spoke little English, how did the power dynamics play out in a meeting between mostly white teachers and parents who could not actually speak for themselves? When I planned curriculum standards, how would these standards ultimately help my students advocate for themselves or support themselves against the inequalities they faced? I measured my success as a teacher by how well I addressed these issues and accomplished these overarching social justice goals. When I or the teachers around me strayed from explicitly mentioning these very real racial and social realities, I felt that a crucial aspect of our students’ education was being left out.


Yet still, many teachers seemed indifferent to discussing these issues at all. When Teach for America organized diversity sessions, many teachers in the corps would skip the sessions or come back telling me, “I am so sick of being forced to talk about this.” In one diversity session, so many teachers walked out in the middle of the meeting that corps members all received an email from the Teach for America Bay Area Director asking why so many people had left. A white teacher told me, “All those sessions do is make us all feel uncomfortable.” As a person who had spent a large part of my life as a person of color in predominantly white, upper-class spaces feeling uncomfortable, I felt frustrated that other Teach for America teachers did not want to tolerate just a few hours of this discomfort trying to discuss issues that could help the population their position focused on serving.


During my second year as a teacher, our school hosted a professional development session where the staff, for the first time since I began teaching, shared our backgrounds and family histories. The meeting was by far the moment when I felt most comfortable, included, and connected to my coworkers. Until that meeting, I realized I had made so many blanket assumptions of the staff based on our limited interactions. I wondered, if I had assumed these things so easily, what were our much younger and less educated students assuming? How did they perceive our staff at first glance? How much more trust could we gain by disclosing to them, as we did to each other that day, where we came from, how it has affected our daily relationships, and how it has led to who we are today?


Financial matters can further alienate teachers of color from coworkers. Teachers from well-to-do families have the advantage of accepting a low-paying teaching position and still having money available to them through other means. They have the comfort of knowing their families could help them out in the case of an emergency, or satisfy the occasional craving for luxury when they couldn’t afford it themselves. Teachers from lower-income backgrounds do not have this same sense of security. Often, we are the ones responsible for supporting our families, instead of the other way around. In Teach for America specifically, 39 percent of their teachers of color received Pell grants in college, meaning their families had incomes roughly below $23,000. I knew several teachers of color who had the responsibility of sending money home or otherwise contributing to paying family expenses.

Also, though some teacher training programs, including Teach for America, allow teachers to defer student loans during a short period of time, afterwards, teachers from low-income backgrounds still have to confront this debt. This makes committing long-term to a salary with little likelihood of ever making more money harder to justify. When I saw teachers from wealthier backgrounds stay in the profession, I had to remind myself that they, through their family or connections, could more easily tolerate a teaching salary knowing they would always have access to a lifestyle my family and I could only aspire to.


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