*In order to understand the reasons BIPOC teachers are leaving education, the experiences of BIPOC teachers have to be considered with respect to the differences between the various identities comprising this categorization. BIPOC is a category made of distinct racial identities, and respectively, these identities uniquely impact the experience of being an educator. It was widely supported amongst community conversation participants to not collapse all experiences into an expansive not-white category. This consolidation requires us to neglect important distinctions and may eliminate nuanced explanations of experience in favor of a more homogeneous account of the experience of BIPOC educators. With an understanding of these flaws, we will use the term because participants consistently named, analyzed, and problematized the use of BIPOC.
“I feel like we’ve made this situation where education doesn’t look like a viable career path and that’s not okay.”
Many teachers that are Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color, (BIPOC) are questioning the viability of teaching as a career. Keeping BIPOC educators from pursuing other career options can prove difficult because the job itself is incredibly hard and the compensation teachers receive does not reflect the value of their labor. Teachers are questioning the prudence of being committed to an industry that is currently designed to make it nearly impossible for them to be reasonably compensated for their work–even regular wage increases fail to keep up with expensive living costs and rising housing prices. With this awareness, many BIPOC teachers are deciding it’s a good time to get out of the classroom and pursue other professional opportunities. One current educator succinctly summarized his assessment of the current state of the profession from the point-of-view of BIPOC teachers noting, “The ask is too much and the compensation is mediocre for teachers of color.” Given the imbalance between the high professional demands and modest compensation, for many BIPOC teachers, leaving education appears to be the best, and sometimes only, option.
Remaining in education can force many BIPOC teachers to make the decision of whether to put their career aspirations ahead of their well-being, whether social, familial, or financial.
One reason BIPOC teachers are choosing to leave the profession so frequently is that educators are asked to behave as though they’re not embedded within social networks which conditions their professional choices. As one educator put it, “Schools are pushing folks out at every single age from education, and not only are we experiencing push out, we’re getting pulled out by our families. ‘You don’t have to take that, I’ll help you find a job here.’ And so if our family is for us and the school district is pushing us – we’re not thinking about educators as families, we’re thinking of individual people and that’s a mistake.”
One former teacher noted that during her time as a teacher, family members–including her husband, brother, and children–begged her to consider working in another industry. Despite the concern from her family about the toll teaching was taking on her mental, physical and economic well-being, she says for many years her passion for being in education drove her to endure these struggles. She explained her decision this way, “The kids are stressful, the parents are stressful, you don’t get paid much, the healthcare sucked, but the thing that was keeping me was a passion for the children.” She says she had hoped that by staying in education, she could provide students with the opportunity to encounter an educator invested in their social-emotional health and that eventually, this would allow more students to have the opportunity to develop into functional adults. Her experience in schools as a child had caused her to place a significant amount of importance on this mission, but she eventually realized that the problems of the profession couldn’t be ignored because of her desire to positively impact children in the classroom. As she put it, “We can’t put that on children. They cannot be the full reason teachers are staying in the profession because then what you have is burnt-out teachers who are staying in it even though they need to go, and it’s not fair.”
People often go into teaching knowing that they will be underpaid but increasingly, levels of compensation are crippling BIPOC teachers’ ability to justify teaching as economically viable. One BIPOC educator noted that in choosing to become a teacher after some time in the military, he had to embrace a significant pay cut. He knows that his decision to pursue teaching is limiting the economic stability of his family for whom he is the primary earner.
Several community members noted that the inadequate compensation of the career uniquely pushes BIPOC educators to look for other work, especially as many of them are already dealing with the consequences of the racial wealth gap. On average, white American households have a significantly higher net worth than BIPOC households, and many BIPOC teachers are not entering the workforce with the security provided by inherited wealth. As a result, BIPOC educators must wrestle with the implications of taking a teacher’s salary on their long term financial security. For instance, one may be less concerned about taking the salary of a middle-school math teacher if one has inherited assets that can be leveraged as collateral or sold to provide liquidity. Not only do current teacher salaries make achieving financial security more precarious, in expensive regions like the Denver Metro Area, it more or less eliminates the possibility that one will be able to obtain the assets that create wealth.
A former teacher put it this way: “The systemic part of it is related to wealth. So even choosing to go into teaching as a Black person is risky because you can make more money elsewhere and we have the brilliance to be anywhere we want to be so we’re choosing to pour into our children but it costs us financially and there’s already the wealth gap that exists. So for me, I’m tired of scraping and scrapping.” She also noted that before she left the profession, she was engaged as a striker with DPS and was quite frustrated by the notion that she had to ‘beg’ to get reasonable compensation. During that time, however, it became clear to her that the racial wealth gap had partly framed her relationship with the profession. She recalled that during the strike she had a discussion with a white woman who thought the existing compensation was fair and adequate and thus had no intention of participating in the strike.
Finding appropriately compensated positions can be especially difficult for teachers that have a specific population of students they seek to serve. For instance one makes nearly twenty-four thousand more dollars by teaching in Boulder rather than in Denver. Not only does choosing to be a teacher meaningfully constrain one’s economic future, where one teaches serves as another source of complication. Given it is unlikely that teachers are going to be paid significantly more or that the wealth gap will close in the near future, many BIPOC teachers end up looking for alternative opportunities: as one current sixth-grade teacher observed, “the easy, basic answer of it is pay, especially in somewhere like Colorado, because of the wealth gap… Black and Hispanic Americans don’t have the generational wealth like White Americans do. So for a Black or Hispanic person coming out of college, with or without student loan debt, and I have a career option where I could make 80k in five years and I compare that to teaching where at most I could make is 60k, they’re going to choose the 80k career every single time.”
Many in the community also felt that the toll of dealing with educational institutions that privilege and prioritize the concerns of white educators and parents at the expense of BIPOC educators makes the exit door look quite appealing. A DPS alum noted, “Some schools just don’t care about their teachers of color. Some schools just operate in whiteness and do not care about, you know, bringing up issues of race or rock the boat of the school board and parents and PTA. They’d rather just have it not talked about at all than bring up those conversations.” Another former educator noted that not only does this type of racial environment make BIPOC teachers choose to leave, but it also stops many BIPOC people from entering the profession in the first place. Young potential teachers report often experiencing racism in their initial interactions with school systems. As she noted, “We can’t even get folks to finish programs because the folks we’re connecting them to in the school system are showing their true colors and people are saying like ‘no, I’m not doing this’.” She voiced concern about her observations to those with more authority in the training program but those individuals seemed to approach the topic with a vague fascination and a somewhat dismissive attitude. While those in leadership seemed to verbally express concern about future teachers experiencing racism in the early stages of their training, their actions and body language indicated to her that this was seen as a low priority issue. Her concern was that not only are BIPOC teachers leaving the profession, the current state of affairs could lead to many young BIPOC professionals deciding to preemptively reject teaching as a career option.
The experience of feeling othered and alienated within educational spaces can be compounded by feelings of isolation within the broader community where one teaches. As one current educator noted, “I think honestly when it comes to the retention of teachers, the increasing of funding could be nice, implementing more mental wellness things would be nice, but I think ultimately it does come down to community and how we rally with our teachers of color and how teachers of color rally for the community at times when the social and political climate might not be the best. You basically have to ride for your community.” Another former BIPOC educator noted that she stepped away from education because she did not have the impact within the community that she expected. As she noted, “For me, I didn’t stay because of the pay and because I didn’t feel like I was making an impact in the way that I was hoping… Pay sucked, my budget sucked, and standards and curriculum sucked. You add that to being a woman of color in a white woman field or white person field.”
It was widely agreed upon that Black educators in particular experience educational institutions in ways that would make them want to leave the profession. They experience unique forms of professional pressure, and because they are often a minority of the larger share of the BIPOC teacher pool, their experience can be lost in the broader narrative about BIPOC teachers. As one former educator noted, “They don’t disaggregate it, and then when you have such large population like the Latinx population, and they consume a very big portion of the total amount of people of color, they’re getting advantages and things that the Black and Indigenous people are not getting and that is a big part of the issue, especially for the Black community because we can’t even see what the actual numbers are because it’s BIPOC.” Another Black educator who has left teaching had a similar point, noting, “We have to be mindful and intentional about creating space specifically for the Black educators for community building for mentorship. All of that has to be specifically carved out and highlighted if you want to retain Black educators. When there are just a few, when you’re trying to do something as challenging as teach other humans no matter what age no matter what content, you do need a community… and it’s too hard when it’s 1.6 percent.”