Teacher Retention

Teacher Retention: An educational crisis

By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver

*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.



Is it worth it?

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.

Well-being

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.”

Compensation

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.”

Whiteness

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.”

Invisible Caseloads & Dangerous Colleagues

Teachers are considering leaving education just to experience the type of workday that doesn’t require adherence to an urgent and uncompromising school schedule. Not only is it difficult for teachers to navigate the stringent time requirements of a professional educator, BIPOC teachers often feel pressure to accomplish more work within the school day than their white peers. A lot of the additional labor that BIPOC teachers perform does not stem from formal professional obligations but is a result of both internal and external expectations that BIPOC teachers play a uniquely supportive role for BIPOC students. BIPOC teachers often feel a sense of responsibility to be particularly supportive of BIPOC students because of the belief that without their extra labor, these students would not receive the support, understanding, and empowerment they deserve. Given that teaching often causes burnout due to the day-to-day requirements of the profession, it is difficult for BIPOC teachers to sustain their mental and physical health while trying to accomplish this additional labor in an already jam-packed school day. On top of navigating the student related labor, BIPOC teachers have to navigate relationships with coworkers and leadership in ways that make the day-to-day experience of being in a school quite taxing.

Invisible Caseload

BIPOC teachers often function as the central figure that students and teachers look to for support and guidance. As one current educator noted, “You honestly become the unofficial spokesperson for anything that goes on in the community you’re a part of” and you are implicitly expected to carry out that task whether you want to or not. The pressure surrounding the appropriate execution of that task often makes BIPOC teachers feel as though they are overextended and overworked. A former teacher noted that the teachers she worked with referred to this dynamic as the ‘invisible caseload.’ Importantly, she noted that part of the problem of the caseload is that it compounds for teachers as they remain in the profession. During her time as a K-12 educator, she became the trusted teacher of color for many of her students, and over time those relationships led students to reach out to her for guidance and support long after she was their teacher. Although she welcomed the opportunity to support her former students, she noted that finding the time to provide them with advice or write them a letter of recommendation often felt impossible given her already crowded schedule as a full-time teacher.

However, many BIPOC teachers continue taking on this invisible caseload with hopes of allowing current and former students to receive the type of support they may not otherwise seek out or receive. As one current teacher put it, “A lot of times I saw teachers looking around and kind of feeling like well if I don’t protect these students and I’m not advocating for these students who the hell is going to advocate for these students? Because a lot of people are looking at these kids like they just have deficits because they’re Black, Brown and poor, and really it’s like no, they just need basic decent consideration… There was an element of ‘I don’t like being here; I would really like to quit.’ But then I feel like if I leave, there’s not going to be anybody here to advocate for these kids and treat them like the humans that they are.” BIPOC teachers are placed in a position where they must navigate these concerns while managing the intense demands of a typical school day.

Inflexible Schedule

Many of our community’s BIPOC teachers noted that one of the main reasons for exiting the profession was to secure employment that allowed for a more self-paced day. One former teacher who still works in education noted that returning to school buildings after being away from them for a while highlighted the anxiety that the school day and school environment can produce. As she put it, “What I noticed in going back and doing projects in schools every once in a while is the level of urgency and energy that’s let off in a school that just makes me so anxious now that I’m not used to the walkie-talkie fast hurry up everything, lunch room, the sound.”

Teachers referred to the development of ‘teacher bladder’ as a necessary requirement of the job as meeting the pace of the school day requires teachers to condition their physical needs in ways that align with the daily schedule. Many of their mental health needs, however, go unmet due to the demands of the school day. For one former teacher, meeting these demands required that she would sneak home during the day just to get 20 minutes of silence. Other former educators used strategies like walking around the school when they knew no one was outside or parking in their car just a few blocks away to get a moment of solitude so they could mentally recoup during the day. Not only does the school day limit educators’ ability to enjoy these micro forms of self-care, but major commitments like family events, vacations, and even doctor’s appointments have to bend around the demands of teaching.

Dangerous Colleagues

Even with the additional stress brought on by the pressure of being positioned as the primary advocate for students of color, navigating the school day might still be sustainable if it wasn’t for the additional “racial battle fatigue” that is caused by other educators. One former teacher noted that while it’s one thing to navigate racial dynamics with students, particularly young students who are trying to make sense of things, the uncompensated labor of helping white educators navigate race during their work hours is a bridge too far. As she put it, “It’s cute when it’s a four-year-old, but when you’re having to help an adult white woman with her personal bias and you’re not getting paid for the work, it’s not cute.”

A current teacher noted that they feel an immense amount of pressure to help teachers develop a racial outlook that does not result in harm to BIPOC students. As she noted, “To feel that pressure of teaching another teacher about a student’s humanity, it felt like a heavy burden or responsibility as one of the few BIPOC teachers on campus.”

Retaining BIPOC teachers in an industry that forces educators to perform an overwhelming amount of work within a tightly constrained and inflexible schedule seems to be a difficult request. Many community members noted that the amount of pressure BIPOC teachers face day-in and day-out to complete their invisible and formal job obligations is overwhelming. If BIPOC teachers are to remain in the profession, it appears they need an arrangement that allows them to recoup from the physical and mental demands of the profession and a working arrangement that allows them to meet the demands of their personal lives.

An educational crisis

Not only have school districts had trouble recruiting new BIPOC teachers into the educational system, increasingly, many BIPOC teachers are looking to move away from traditional educational settings. In the Denver Metro Area, this dynamic is creating concerns that many students will get through their entire K-12 education without ever encountering a teacher of color. If school districts continue to struggle to retain BIPOC teachers, schools throughout the metro area will remain places where there is a significant mismatch between the demographics of students and their teachers.

Many community members noted that the retention of BIPOC educators is deeply intertwined with the ability to grow the overall pool of teachers from the local community. One current educator in Boulder Valley Schools noted that the lack of funding for education in Colorado makes it difficult for people in the metro area to begin their teaching career in-state. As he put it, “We don’t invest in education in Colorado so we’re not cultivating our own teachers… So if we don’t invest in our teachers and make it affordable for them and do a good job of that, then we’re going to have to bring in kids [young teachers] from out of state and they’re going to have to go through all the culture shock of moving here. Denver’s a weird place, there’s not a lot of other places like this, and learning to live here whether you’re white or Black is challenging.” He noted that due to the more lucrative opportunities out of state, many of the students of color who had expressed interest in becoming a teacher ended up pursuing their training and starting their careers elsewhere. Unlike teachers recruited from elsewhere, these teachers might’ve been more likely to have a positive experience in the early stages of their career as they did not have to adjust to a new social environment on top of adjusting to a new role as a professional teacher.

The inability to cultivate homegrown talent can cause students of color in the metro area to disassociate themselves with the possibility of teaching as a career path. As one former educator put it, “if you don’t see a teacher of color, you don’t think teaching is for you as a person of color…. When we’re asking why it’s difficult to retain teachers of color, that’s why. You’re not seeing communities like yours come up in this industry.” She further suggested that instead of trying to present teaching as an attractive career option to local kids, school districts in the metro area seem eager to recruit teachers from nationwide programs that cultivate a pool of young, largely white, teachers whose attachment to teaching often stems from the desire to alleviate student loan debt.

Several educators suggested that the inability for schools to retain  BIPOC teachers presents an opportunity to rethink the relationship between educators and students. Taking cues from the innovative spirit of the Combahee River Collective, these educators suggested that reforms to the educational system should be compatible with an overarching commitment to creating systems which are liberating as opposed to dominating or oppressive. One former educator suggested that given the repeated failures of districts in the metro area to provide an environment that can attract and retain BIPOC educators, ensuring students are taught by educators of color may require creating a new educational landscape in which schools are not the only way for BIPOC educators to interact with students. As she put it, school districts are going to have to learn to “Be happy that we’re in the space of children and impacting children just not the way that you want us to be.” She furthered the point noting that our commitment to maintaining existing ways of connecting students with educators unduly limits our imagination in terms of producing solutions. As she put it, the conversation of retaining BIPOC teachers in the contemporary educational system could be a waste of time, trying to reform something that is unsalvageable. Instead of inventing new ways to ensure districts in the metro area can retain BIPOC teachers, she suggests that we may perhaps be better served by beginning to creatively design new ways of ensuring BIPOC educators get opportunities to interact with students.

Districts within the Metro Area are aware that teachers of color often feel isolated in their respective schools and attempt to step in by creating affinity groups which often function like focus groups. These affinity spaces are intended to give BIPOC teachers an opportunity to voice their specific concerns, build a network of other BIPOC teachers, and strengthen the relationship between teachers and administrators. However, these spaces can often feel inorganic and disingenuous, leaving them unable to help BIPOC teachers develop the type of environment that would make remaining in teaching more attractive. Several current and former teachers  noted that having these conversations outside of the purview of authoritative figures from the district would allow them to function better as spaces that actually build a sense of community. Not only would they provide an opportunity for BIPOC teachers to expand their network, but it would also provide an opportunity to strategize ways to improve educational spaces even if that involves critiquing existing systems and practices.

Some of the reasons BIPOC teachers are prone to leave schools can only be attended to through sustained long term efforts, simply treating educators more kindly would also go a long way to help retain teachers of color. As one current educator put it, “There’s some really simple human things that they could be doing and they just don’t do them.” Educators pointed out that simply acknowledging the significant contributions of teachers could make teaching feel more fulfilling and less draining. Doling out schwag like coffee mugs and plastic pens does not provide teachers with the sense that their work is actually appreciated and in fact can remind teachers that their labor is truly undervalued. This dynamic can be especially frustrating for BIPOC teachers, who have to manage an invisible caseload on top of the regular duties assigned to a teacher.

Retaining BIPOC teachers is going to require community members, educators and administrators to be open to new and innovative ways of arranging educational spaces. It also requires a commitment to ensuring that teaching is a viable profession, where one can reliably make a living and experience a work environment that does not cause systematic burnout. Importantly, there was an overwhelming consensus that having a diverse teaching staff is critical for the development of students and the current state of affairs regarding BIPOC teacher retention is going to cause a crisis in education, if it has not already.


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