The Case of the Missing Black Teachers

teacher-with-students-pfIn almost every city I go to discuss the issues confronting African American students and the state of education for Black people I hear a plaintive cry about the need for Black teachers. The statistics are clear. The percentage of Blacks teaching in the nation’s public schools is shrinking. When I began studying effective teachers of African American students in the late 1980s, Black teachers made up about 8 percent of the teaching force. Today that number is less than 5 percent.
I believe there are multiple reasons for the shrinking Black teaching force. One reason is the fact that teaching is seen as a less attractive career option compared to medicine, law, business, and technology. Families that have worked hard to send a young person to college hope that they will choose a more lucrative professional path. A second reason for the decreased number of Black teachers is related to the high percentage of Black students dropping out of high school. If one does not earn a high school diploma the likelihood of becoming a teacher is zero. A third reason for the low numbers of Black teachers has to do with the high degree of professional dropout among Black teachers. The research indicates that teachers of color (and this includes Black teachers) are more likely to leave the profession within 5 years than their White peers. So even when we are able to recruit Black collegians to teaching, we are not able to keep them in the field. The quality of teacher education programs is another reason we struggle to entice Black students into teaching. Some have ridiculously high admission requirements that screen out potential Black candidates. Most are so vapid that Black candidates do not want to spend time sitting in classes with people who know little or nothing about teaching students who are different from them. A fifth reason for the disappearance of Black teachers can be found in the neoliberal education reform agenda that works to displace the few Black teachers we have and hire untrained or poorly trained new college graduates to teach in schools developed by educational management organizations (EMO) such as what transpired in New Orleans and Chicago (and coming to an urban community near you).
For me, a bigger question than where are the Black teachers is what difference do we think having Black teachers actually means for the education of our children? Oh, I know all of the quick responses about “role models” and the belief that Black teachers better understand Black children but is that the truth? If Black teachers are better for Black students then doesn’t that mean that Detroit, DC, and Atlanta should be the places where our students are doing the best? My point is that the problems facing our children is much bigger than merely hiring Black teachers–particularly if those teachers endorse the status quo and hold the same perspectives about Black children that the larger society does.
The reason to increase the number of Black teachers is not just so that Black children will have role models. We need more Black teachers so that ALL children will have role models and a sense that intelligence and authority extends beyond one race or culture. It is the same reason we need more Latin@ and Asian-descent teachers. Our teachers SHOULD look like our students. Our teachers SHOULD be culturally competent and fluent in the languages the students bring to the classroom. Black teachers should be a part of the ongoing conversation about schooling and education reform. Black teachers should once again be the bedrock of the Black middle class. But they are missing!
Where do you think the Black teachers are?

Stay Black & Smart!

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7 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Black Teachers

  1. Dear Dr. GLB, I am curious about the research that suggests Black teachers leave sooner–I’ve read a few articles in special ed that actually claim the opposite for “urban” schools; that white teachers leave sooner (Billingsley, 2004). I really like your point about how teachers of color can be role models for ALL students not just the brown and black students! Sincerely, Saili

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    • Sali:
      The work of Rod Ogawa and Betty Achenstein (sp) along with Richard Ingersoll document the loss of teachers of color. Remember many White teachers are teaching in suburban settings where they are content to stay…most teachers of color are CHOOSING urban areas and get frustrated with the lack of resources and support.

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  2. I am white. I am female. I am the mother of two biracial children. I am a teacher. I am a teacher of diverse children — diverse in terms of SES, race, ethnicity, language, sexuality, religion, culture. I am a,so a proud graduate of UW-Madison.

    There are a multitude of reasons, I’m sure, for “the case of the missing black teacher.” I’m not able to determine if one reason is more prevalent than another. I can say, however, that not all teacher/staff rooms are welcoming, not all PTAs are welcoming, not all schools are welcoming. As a white woman, with biracial children, I often find myself in uncomfortable positions in which race and ethnicity and language are the topic of unprofessional, uninformed, ignorant conversation in staff rooms, school hallways, school parking lots. I’m forgotten in terms of my context of raising biracial children (forget the idea that I also teach many children that are also not white). I need to “name” myself again, point out my stance on issues of diversity, in order to first halt the conversation and then further address the ignorance. I find this battle annoying and exhausting, and I’m sure the reminder is not necessary that I, as a white woman in a predominantly white profession, in which I hold white privilege, am fighting this battle on my own terms. I acknowledge this fully.

    But, with this school context, I can certainly understand a black teacher leaving the profession promptly. I’ve contemplated it myself, many a time. Add to this issue the achievement gap, the low pay in comparison to other professions, the circumstance of being the one and only person of color in the building.

    The problem is complex.

    I know there are many informed, dedicated, welcoming white women in education. And many of us are trying to work and learn and read and inform ourselves on ways to build relationships with children and their families, in and out of school, increase rigor, hold high expectations for all children, and work within and when necessary around the system to help children learn and achieve and feel part of, connected to, their classroom, their school, their education.

    Education is complex. And this complexity is what has held me here, in teaching, for many years.

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  3. Absolutely agree with all of these reasons and with the complexity of the issue. I would only add the issue of teacher pay. According to the NEA, the 2012-13 National Average Starting Teacher Salary: $36,141. As I try to recruit I have many very bright, talented, Black and White people who say to me, ” Doc I can’t go to school five years, have student loans and live on a beginning teacher’s salary.” No teaching is not a profession of big money but when beginning teachers can’t afford to pay student loans, pay rent, make car payments (if they have one) and eat then we have a major issue that may impacts the choice to become a teacher.

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  4. As a Black teacher who has made it past year five, I credit my first teaching mentor who told me that things wouldn’t be easy and even she had hard times as a teacher. I couldn’t believe it. She was amazing and loved.

    I also think that if I, as a teacher, hear ignorant things from other staff such as being confused at the end of the school year with another teacher who is Black, then the kids are in a more annoying place with little power to speak up. We need diverse teaching staffs to reflect the student body so all teachers might learn their blind spots. I don’t have automatic rapport with Black students, and I think that’s fine too. We’re all individuals. As my mother told me recently, it takes all kinds. She said, growing up with all Black teachers, the lax teachers inspired kids to want to go into teaching; if he or she could do it, I could, too. All kinds.

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