First off, Black teachers make up roughly 7% of all teachers nationwide. Time Magazine reports that between 1988 and 2018, teachers of color were hired at a faster rate than white teachers, and yet a large number of them left their roles even more quickly. And according to researchers at the UCL Institute of Education, in 2020, 5% of teachers had chronic mental health issues—about 1 in 20 teachers.
Between the pandemic and racial tensions at levels unseen in America in decades, the 2020 to 2021 school year was horrific to be a teacher—even more so as a Black teacher.
As difficult as it was for all teachers to replicate classrooms virtually with students watching from screens at home (if they had such technology), the added stress of watching the televised murder of George Floyd and the global protests for change that followed took its toll. The year's events ignited a tension that pushed many teachers over the edge.
LaToya, who prefers we not use her last name, teaches fifth grade in Dallas, Texas. She says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, while teaching remotely, her mental health issues began to have a severe impact on her life.
“For us to suddenly be technology gurus and to be able to transfer everything that we've done in-person to online, I felt like it was unfair, and it stressed me out to the point where I wasn't sleeping. I was in a real bad spot,” LaToya says. “I was staying up all night. I was trying to figure out how to convert my lessons digitally. It was insane. Amongst all the other things I had going on.”
LaToya says she debated whether or not to leave teaching altogether but instead ended up seeking therapy.
“It was life or death at that point. So, yeah, I saw a counselor. I went to a doctor and talked about it. I was just having really bad anxiety. They ended up putting me on anxiety medication,” LaToya says.
Abigail, who also prefers we not use her last name, teaches ninth grade African American history. She says that as much as she loves teaching, the stress of teaching after the COVID-19 lockdowns has grown to the point that she’s considering leaving the classroom. She explains that after the lockdowns ended, things were different, and no one thought to address it.
“Kids just didn't know how to be around each other,” she says. “They don’t know how a classroom functions or how to talk to each other. We've all been given laptops, but no professional development training on how to incorporate laptops into a classroom or how to incorporate the fact that kids are on their phones all the time. It was like the pandemic ended, and everyone thought that teaching would just go back to normal like everything would be fine. And that's just still not true.”
Abigail says her stress is greater than it's ever been right now. She says she’s overweight and speaks with a therapist, and is taking medication to address her anxiety.
She says she also has to deal with the trauma of her students on a day-to-day basis, and that also weighs on her. All of Abigail’s students are Black.
One of her projects in the first weeks of school is to talk about the first time they faced racism.
“I tell them about the first time in my life I was called the N-word. And I tell them the story about how I didn't tell my parents. I just went home and never really dealt with it until I got to college. I say to them, ‘I tell you this story because my number one goal for you is that you don't do what I did, which was to not tell anyone.’ I didn't emotionally deal with it, and it affected my mental health later in life. I tell them, ‘My goal for you is that when you encounter racism, you don't do what I did, and instead, you have strategies or coping skills or next steps that you can take when you face racism.’”
Samuel, who prefers we not use his last name, teaches middle school at a charter school in Georgia. His first year of teaching was in 2020. He was in Philadelphia during the year of the pandemic. He says that particularly as a Black man, it was “a lot to see consistently on the news every day.”
He adds that he was lucky, though, because at the time, he was teaching at a highly progressive school and he was allowed to teach a social justice course, which helped in handling his mental health stresses.
“I don't know if I would have been as invested in teaching if I was not able to teach that class at that time,” Samuel says.
In 2021, Samuel moved to a school district in Georgia and was not able to teach the social justice course, causing him to at times feel “overlooked” and “questioning” if he could remain in the field of teaching, particularly in the South.
In 2022, Samuel was able to convince his administrators that his social justice teaching could apply to any curriculum. He was given the chance to teach a project on the causes and effects of gang violence, an issue that resonated with his students. He says that the autonomy he’s been allowed to have has kept him in the profession and feeling mentally strong and healthy.
If one looks back to the history of the American educational system, back to the end of the 19th century, when a group of white men decided to create a foundation for the nation’s schools, it’s easy to see that what’s happening today is only a part of natural evolution.
In 1892 there was a turning point in the educational system. It began with the National Educational Association’s (NEA) commission of the “Committee of 10.”
The Committee of 10 was made up of 10 white men, primarily educators, tasked with designing a uniform educational system in America. The committee made the decision that all American students would learn the “traditional” subjects—Latin, Greek, English, modern languages, mathematics, the physical sciences, etc. Students would attend eight years of elementary school, followed by four years of high school, and all subjects would be studied for one period each day in a five-day school week.
Anthony Conwright, an African American journalist and educator, explains that structurally, these educational standards weren’t designed to disrupt what happens in society. It was incomprehensible for the committee to imagine the inclusion of the history of Black Americans, the system of slavery, or land stolen from Indigenous people be included in the curriculum—because it was unimaginable to them at the time that students of color (or women) would be sitting in these classrooms.
“Knowing this is the foundation, Black teachers are left to investigate the profound question of ‘How best can I be ethical in an unethical system?’ [...] What Black teachers and educators experience in the education system is the same exact dynamic they experience out of it,” Conwright says. “When those two realms feel like they’re overlapping, I think that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
In other words, Black teachers are tasked with not only creating curricula around current events but additionally managing their own trauma along with the trauma of their students. This leads to what William A. Smith, professor, and chair in the University of Utah’s Department of Education, Culture & Society and the Division of Ethnic Studies, calls “racial battle fatigue.” Smith explains that this fatigue is the genesis of the chronic mental health issues Black educators are facing.
Smith has written comprehensively about the microaggressions experienced by Black teachers, professors, and administrators and the biopsychosocial impact it has.
“My mentor passed in 2016 at 89 years of age, Dr. Chester M. Pierce, a Harvard psychiatrist. He also, like me, had a joint appointment in the School of Education and the School of Medicine. And he coined the term ‘racial microaggressions,’” Smith says.
Microaggressions can come in the form of being one of the only Black teachers on a predominantly white staff, Smith says, or from teaching to a state-mandated test in a curriculum in which your history and that of your students is not reflected.
When it comes to the job of being a teacher, Smith says, the stress is so intensely negative that it becomes coded by the body. The body, he explains, interprets racism as violence or as a violent act.
“So if you're experiencing discrimination and racism daily, your body can only do several things. And one is to run. And you would have to run, be in shock, or fight physically. And typically, what we do is we're fawning, or we're in shock, and we're just standing there, right? And we're dealing with this. Rarely do we either run away or we fight it, or we might fight it in ways in which it doesn't change that environment,” Smith says.
He adds that if we can’t change our circumstances, then our bodies will internalize the stress, and it can appear in physical ailments such as hives or rashes or even cancer or diabetes.
“The reality of being an African American or Black academician, specifically within a predominantly white institution, is what leads to continuous mental exhaustion,” says Andrea Peoples Marwah, a teacher in California.
“I've experienced these occurrences of racial trauma throughout my 31 years of teaching. Experiences that are laden with racial undertones and aggressions toward me and toward my fellow African American Black colleagues on a continuum. The racial trauma is not only problematic, but it's a detriment to our emotional and psychological needs that allows us, as scholars, to be fully present with inherent inconsistent success, especially within predominantly white institutions,” Marwah says. “So it's been rough, and I think that these actions or ‘isms’ delay and frequently prevent our professional and personal success as educators.”
Marwah adds that it’s not only microaggressions; macroaggressions ultimately push teachers out of the profession.
“There's an expectation for Black teachers to carry the pain of injustice while also solving the injustice. And for me, I have to reassure white people that I am not a threat while at the same time qualified to do my job. And that's a lot of this mental exhaustion.”
This content is supported by the Carter Center’s Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. Rebekah Sager is a 2022-2023 fellow. This article is the first in a series about the mental health struggles of Black teachers.
The project explores questions such as the history of Black teachers and their role in the Black community. How have things changed in the classroom since COVID-19 and the current political climate? What are the primary stressors leading to why teachers of color leave the profession, and what does that mean for students?
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