By Youki Terada March 26, 2021 (Edutopia)

Black teachers are leaving the profession at staggering rates. A new study highlights some of the reasons why.

“Mr. Ford is having a really hard time with his class. I’m not saying that he’s not intelligent. I’m just wondering where he went to school.”

As a Black math teacher herself, Frank recognized the subtle microaggressions, the slights and insults, that teachers of color experienced on a regular basis. She was used to the brief look of disbelief when she let parents know that she was the math department chair, as if to say, “You’re the chair? I expected someone else.”

Toya Frank was disheartened by a conversation she was having with a parent about a math teacher—a Black math teacher—at her school. It was her responsibility as the chair of the math department to listen to parents and focus on what was best for the students. But did that include addressing whether the Black math teachers were as qualified as their White colleagues?

Now a professor of mathematics education at George Mason University, Frank studies the recruitment and retention of Black math teachers. In a new study published in Educational Researcher, she found that compared with other factors, like salary, the level of support provided by school leadership, or a lack of resources, Black teachers’ experiences of racism played a major role in why they wanted to leave the profession.

Frank and her colleagues surveyed 325 Black math teachers across the nation, asking a series of questions related to their feelings of isolation at their schools because of their race, how much support they received from their school leaders, and whether they had thoughts about leaving the profession. After analyzing the results, they discovered that while personal factors such as salary, sex, and age accounted for 10 percent of teachers’ thoughts of leaving the profession, their experiences of microaggressions were nearly twice as impactful, at 17 percent.

“Ultimately, what we found was that even when we account for salary, age, gender—all of those other things that people have accounted for before in previous studies—racist microaggressions had a lot of explanatory power in our model,” said Frank. “And it was statistically significant. It was one of those things that really weighed on teachers and their thoughts of leaving.”

When experienced once or twice, microaggressions may seem inconsequential, but over the course of years—or even a lifetime—they exact a toll on a teacher’s psychological well-being. 

THE TOLL THAT MICROAGGRESSIONS TAKE

“Microaggressions aren’t always about race; sometimes they’re by gender, by nationality, or linguistic,” said Frank. “They’re small interpersonal slights between and among people.” For example, Black teachers often feel that their contributions aren’t acknowledged, their competence is unfairly questioned, or their assertiveness is perceived as aggression or anger. Ultimately, experiencing microaggressions on a regular basis can make teachers feel like second-class citizens in the school community. 

It’s not an infrequent occurrence; in fact, it’s astonishingly common. “About 97 percent of all the teachers who were surveyed said that they experienced some form of racial microaggression on a regular basis,” said Toya, highlighting the routine nature of microaggressions for Black teachers.

Jenice View, a coauthor of the study and professor emerita of education at George Mason University, isn’t surprised by the regularity that Black teachers—including herself—experience racism. “I was team teaching in this program, and my colleagues were White,” recalled View. “And there was a colleague who invited us to present to his class. And he said, ‘This is Dr. So-and-so, and this is Dr. So-and-so, and then he just sort of looked at me and said, ‘And this is Jenice.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s Dr. View.’ He knew damn good and well that that was true. But it seemed important to him to present me as less-than. That was maybe, in the academy, one of the most in-my-face expressions of ‘You don’t belong.’ But, you know, there are countless others.”

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