Teacher Retention

Educator perspective

By |Torrence Brown-Smith

Undervaluing Teachers Always Harms Students

As I read the articles Teacher Retention: Is it worth it? and Teacher Retention: Invisible Caseloads & Dangerous Colleagues, I kept revisiting the same thought: when, if ever, has teaching ever been viable for historically marginalized peoples? As an educator who taught in New York City and is currently teaching in the Denver metro area, I’ve always felt teaching kids was fulfilling—soulfully viable. But outside of our students, was education viable? That’s a question I was unsure about. 

Teacher Retention: Is it worth it? addresses the economic aspects
of being a Black educator, It’s limited in its critique of the U.S. educational system regarding teachers of color and their faced racial exhaustion. Teacher Retention: Invisible Caseloads & Dangerous Colleagues addresses the racial exhaustion that hinders teachers of color, but fails to illuminate the economic disparities between white educators and educators of color. There is a kind of  social celebration of teachers—that isn’t rooted in appreciation of what we do, but rather in others knowing they wouldn’t want to do what we do. They celebrate us in pizza and doughnut parties; with coffee and target gift cards. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for these things, but I’d be even more grateful if I was paid a living wage, had time to grade and build effective lessons daily, and to not be the [insert any marginalized identity] child whisperer.  

Teaching isn’t an economically viable career, especially for teachers of color. As the cost of living becomes less and less affordable, as the cost of raising a family becomes less and less affordable, Teachers have to protest and disrupt the learning of our students to demand living wages and more time to lesson plan and grade, and for better services in schools. There is no opportunity for us to truly build wealth. White households already have a structured advantage—based on the structured disadvantage of people of color through unequal distribution and access of resources—with their median wealth being $189,000, compared to the $24,000 of Black households. We are forced to make decisions between raising a family and continuing our careers in education. I have a co-worker who expressed her conflict between starting a family or staying in education. Education is risky for teachers of color as it puts us in an unfair quandary. We risk our families and making enough money to do what we love. It shouldn’t be like that. 

Wealth is the difference between a household’s assets and debts. We barely make enough to have various assets, and our debts outweigh our assets. On average, Teachers of color have more student loan debt then our white counterparts. If the government and school districts valued teachers as much as they claim, they would not only raise our wages and give us flexible work schedules, they’d also cancel our student loan debt. If student loan debt was forgiven, it would instantly increase the wealth of teachers of color, as well as making teaching a viable career. 

Chester M. Pierce coined the phrase “microaggressions” in 1995 to contextualize the intentional and unintentional verbal and behavioral slights toward culturally marginalized groups. The accumulation of these slights can develop into what William A. Smith calls Racial Battle Fatigue, which is the emotional effects of resisting, fighting, and coping with persistent racial microaggressions in racially hostile or unsupportive environments. 

The teaching profession is overwhelmingly white, whereas the student body is on the brink of being majority students of color. That discrepancy between teachers and students prompts a feeling of responsibility from teachers of color to protect students of color. During Jim Crow, Black teachers felt a responsibility to develop their Black students racial-esteem to protect them from an anti-Black world. That’s the tradition a lot of Black educators come from. Not only are we trying to protect students of color from the racial slights they may experience; we are also dealing with racial slights from our administration, our white students at times and their parents, and our white colleagues. We are defending being able to teach about racial dynamics in our classrooms, while simultaneously supporting our colleagues racial awakening and diversifying their curriculum.
As we do all of this work, we are often pulled aside to talk to students of color because we can “relate better.” The personal sacrifices of teachers of color are rarely acknowledged, just as our labor is expected rather than supported. The negligence of the system is what leads to the exhaustion. Like a teacher expressed in Teacher Retention: Invisible Caseloads & Dangerous Colleagues, “To feel that pressure of teaching another teacher about a student’s humanity, it felt like a heavy burden—” 

As teachers are leaving the profession because of being overworked and underpaid; because of the invisible caseloads; because of the racial slights leading to racial battle fatigue, there is an anxiety that keeps us in the classroom. What does it mean to leave our kids behind? Who is going to encourage them? To support their growth? To be stern, yet tender with them? The social responsibility of being a teacher, particularly a teacher of color, keeps us rooted, with those roots turning into chains as we continue to be exploited and

Torrence Brown-Smith is a middle school reading teacher in the Denver metro area. He’s a Ronald E. McNair Scholar who has a forthcoming manuscript in the winter of 2024 titled It gets tiring. It affects different parts of your life.”: Examining Racial Battle Fatigue among Black College Students at a Historically White College and University, in The Journal of Negro Education.