Being a teacher of color is a gift and a curse. In addition to empowering young people, involved in your work each day is proving your worth to your White counterparts while simultaneously attempting to not get burned out by the students who depend on you as parent/older sibling/counselor/mentor/advocate. Many days are rewarding ones. The love, respect and admiration that you receive from students and parents is worth every bit of effort that goes into earning it. Serving your colleagues as a resource is a honor and a privilege. Although I am out of the classroom, many of the relationships forged during my teaching years remain to this day. Some former students and I still communicate to this day. The experience of being in the classroom is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. However, I faced some challenges. There were some jealous colleagues that I had to contend with – jealous that I had the ear of my students while they did not. I often disagreed with administration on decision and I even challenged them at times. I’ve often had conversations with parents that didn’t always end with us agreeing. However, my greatest challenges came when I was asked to be more than a teacher… my greatest challenges didn’t concern DOING more as a teacher, but rather BEING more than a teacher. I was Black and a teacher; that was enough, in my opinion. But, because I was Black and a teacher was precisely the reason I was asked to be more. The tone and purpose of any conversation can change on a dime when a student or parent sees that you actually look like them or when someone different sees the connections you naturally have; a world of possibilities opens. It is not that I didn’t want to be more, but my question always was, “why is being more my burden to bear?” Just because I was the only Black male teacher in my building, why should I be the only one to shoulder the burden of loving black and brown children? I would wonder why my White colleagues got a pass for being White; as if it was anticipated and expected by parents and Black administrators that they wouldn’t care as much as I cared, and that was okay. It wasn’t okay with me. Nevertheless, there I was; one Black teacher on the verge of burnout.
The Education Trust released a report in 2016 chronicling the experiences of Black teachers told by Black teachers. The report titled “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” is the overall takeaways from over 150 Black teachers nationwide collected during focus groups. The responses of Black teachers in the report were consistent with many of the contentions that I’ve experienced. I hated being looked at as the go to person when it came to disciplining students; as if discipline was all I was good for doing because the students listened to me. I was frustrated with not being heard at times by administration and that my “expertise” had to fit inside the box carved for me in order to become a leader within an organization. For these reasons, and others, I left the classroom and other Black teachers are leaving as well.
You may be a teacher of color who is drained and is slowly burning out. You may be tired of fighting against systemic racism within the institution of the public school. You may be frustrated with the box your administrators and teacher colleagues put you in. You may be worn down by the burden of being the emotional muse of students and parents. However, with all of that said, you know you’re needed in the urban classroom and you wish to stay. So how do you keep your head above water? If you want to remain in the classroom – and in education in general – how do you do that?
- Work Where You Will Be Most Fulfilled – Teaching can be frustrating and stressful in just about every locale. However, if you are at a school where you feel the most fulfilled, the likelihood of you staying is greater than if it were a place you felt you were wasting away. If you want to teach where you grew up, go teach there. If you want to help underprivileged children, teach where they are. The job of a teacher is tough no matter the place, so make sure you feel that you’re living in your purpose wherever you are.
- Immediately Develop a Career Advancement Strategic Plan – Part of the reason we lose the thrill of teaching is because we fall in the trap of complacency. When you go on a trip, you have a destination and no matter the stops along the way, you continue forward until you reach that destination. Teaching may not be your destination. If you think it may be, act like it isn’t and create a strategic plan for your career. Chances are that you will not remain in the classroom for 30 years. You should use teaching as your foot in the door for other opportunities in the education profession. Plan for graduate school, additional certifications, becoming a writer, consultant or counselor. Maybe you want to become an administrator. Whatever it is that you want to do, write the vision and make it plain.
- Find a Mentor Outside of Your School Building – It’s okay to have an in-house mentor by 9 times out of 10, the person who may be best may be your boss. The conflict may be too much for you not to conflate roles. Find a seasoned individual outside of your work place that can provide you a fresh and objective perspective to your situation. Find more than one; get a teacher, administrator and a retired educator. Having multiple advisers will keep you on track, focused on improving your practice and keeping your sanity.
- NEVER Overextend Your Reach; Even If You Want To – you can only do so much. When you over extend yourself, you burn out faster. You may want to do more because you care and you’re passionate… but don’t. One problem we (teachers of color) have is that we inadvertently buy into the “save everyone we can” narrative, and we should attempt to save everyone we can… but do your saving in the classroom. Use wisdom and discretion. If you must overextend yourself… limit it to once or twice a school year. Do not make it a habit.
- Find Your Teacher Colleagues of Color and Meet with Them Regularly – This may or may not be the easiest thing to do. You may be the only teacher of color in your building. You may be the only Black male or Latina in your building. You may have to find others like yourself in other schools… when you find them, network with them and develop a support group that is designed to hold each other up as you go through your careers. Trade secrets and share knowledge. Visit each other’s classes and attend PD’s together. Do happy hours when it’s been a rough week. This maybe the best thing you can do for yourself.
It is in the spirit of this post that I announce the creation of a vehicle to assist teachers in my area with #5. The Urban Education Mixtape proudly announces the creation of the Village for Teachers of Color (VTC).
The mission of VTC is to provide teachers of color with the professional and personal supports to remain in the classroom. It Is my intention for this group to be a resource for all teachers of color in Southern New Jersey; providing them with the encouragement and empowerment to stay in the classroom and encourage others to join them. Our first meeting will be on June 14. We hope to establish momentum to be carried into the start of the next school year. If you are interested in joining us for our introductory session, please refer to the flyer below:
Let us continue to press towards the mark!