Last year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that Black educators make up approximately 9 percent of the teacher workforce, of which a majority are Black women. A group that is often studied but left out of conversations, we wanted to intentionally facilitate spaces for Black women across and outside the gender spectrum and learn more about their experiences in this climate, as much recent research covers pre-pandemic educator experiences.
Joy in learning, discovering Black literature and having a relatable role model are some of the benefits of having a Black teacher for Black students. Yet, in our research study on the experiences of this underrepresented group, most of the Black women we talked to experienced the opposite in their workplaces, namely apathy and interpersonal racism and discrimination. They also expressed the weight of more obscure inequalities, like the hidden emotional labor from protecting Black students from inappropriate discipline practices and coping with the stress associated with racism and sexism. What they describe are manifestations of systemic inequalities that impact Black teachers.
The 27 Black women we interviewed were powerfully self-aware. Most reported a thorough understanding of the ways that intersectional oppression shows up in their work lives and how it bleeds into their personal lives. As a result, even the strongest and most self-aware Black women can subconsciously internalize the stress from these frequent encounters, which may have downstream effects on their professional and personal self-image, emotional well-being and physical health.
Despite the risk of negative consequences for showing up unapologetically and authentically, several research participants expressed that being a teacher is their calling, their purpose and their joy. Most notably, it became clear that for Black women educators in this study, being a teacher is more of an identity than a job title.
Utilizing a Black Feminist Framework
While interacting with the women who graciously agreed to participate in our research project, I noticed sentiments from Black feminist literature echoing throughout each conversation.
Although no one specifically cited bell hooks or Patricia Hill Collins, several participants describe their teaching styles as akin to revolutionary feminist pedagogy characterized by a sense of radical care for their students.
Their stories remind me of what Patricia Hill Collins describes as “othermothering,” the phenomena of Black women sharing motherwork responsibilities by protecting and helping raise Black children within communities, oftentimes inherently and without expectation of receiving something tangible in return.
Whether inviting students who need a listening ear for lunch in the assistant principal’s office, or simply recognizing students’ love languages, our participants shared dozens of beautiful ways they show up as teachers, role models and othermothers for their students. Thus, radical care became a resounding framework that informed the practice of Black women educators and the themes expressed by participants in this study.
This shared sense of responsibility to model authenticity, perfection and representation of Blackness to their Black students is a familiar feeling, but I noticed some distinct gendered differences in the expectations for how they show up and take up space.
In this article, and in the remainder of this series on Black women educators’ experiences, we’ll dive deeper into the intersectional complexities many participants mentioned. While our participants discussed the stresses of systemic and interpersonal discrimination and oppression, these spaces illustrated the potentially healing effects of connecting through affinity groups, especially after the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Collaborative, Community-Based Research Project
As we began this research study, our goal was to center participants’ voices and some of the infrequently told stories about Black educators’ experiences and impact. In fact, throughout this series, you’ll hear from participants who’ll tell their own stories. This concept is called community-based participatory research (CBPR).
The premise of this research method is for researchers to take a step back and approach research with collaboration in mind; in this way, we opt to formulate research findings with Black women educators instead of doing research on Black women educators. We recognize that our participants are experts in their own lives and within their profession.
By conducting this research side by side with the Black women in this study, we are hopeful that this research contextualizes grim data about teachers leaving the profession, educator well-being, and ultimately, why many of these Black women stay in education despite the manifestations of racism, sexism, and systemic intersectional discrimination in their workplaces.
To help bring these issues and this research project to life, we partnered with the Abolitionist Teaching Network to recruit a diverse group of Black women educators. Within less than 24 hours, there were 300 educators who expressed interest in participating and met the study criteria. From those Black women that met the criteria, 27 participated in the study.
Our participants are educators all over the United States, with tenures ranging from three years to over 30 years in the classroom and leading schools. The majority of our participants have been in the profession for over 15 years. Most teach in public schools, but several find teaching homes in charter schools, freedom schools and independent schools. Some have started their own schools, and some have transitioned into higher education.
EdSurge Research often holds what we call teaching and learning circles with educators where they can openly discuss concerns, challenges and triumphs in their jobs. This time, with school buildings back open from the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, national teacher shortages and highly politicized book bans and curriculum restrictions in the backdrop, with this exploratory research, we wanted to co-create spaces for Black women educators to connect, support one another and learn more about how they’re doing with so much turmoil happening in schools.
We held four, 90-minute sessions with six to ten participants in each session, facilitated by an educator, also a Black woman, whom you’ll hear from in an upcoming article. We transcribed the audio from the group sessions and analyzed the data using a method called thematic reflexive analysis. Some quotes from our participants are featured throughout this article.
These intimate virtual teachers’ lounges created a non-judgmental environment where the educators could feel heard and connect with other educators near and far. Some participants expressed that having the opportunity to connect with other Black women educators felt like a hug from a sister they didn’t realize they needed.
For the remainder of this article, I’ll briefly mention some primary themes we noticed throughout our time with these educators and some topics you can expect to hear from our participant co-authors in this upcoming series of articles from Edsurge Research.
Why Black Women Teach
One consistent sentiment from our participants was the joy they experienced from teaching. Several knew they wanted to be teachers since adolescence, while some embarked on a not-so-linear path, but almost all participants openly expressed how teaching – the exchange of knowledge, wisdom, and mentorship – felt like a calling. For one veteran public school teacher in Georgia, in particular, the calling to become a teacher has been there since she was in middle school:
While some fulfilled generational expectations of teaching, others felt a responsibility to reach back to teach younger generations, especially after reflecting on the positive impact their Black teachers had on them. That was the case for a new public school teacher who had been in the field for less than five years. Despite the fact that her grandfather lacked formal education, he always stressed the importance of education:
Why Black Women Stay
Most of our participants teach in schools with large numbers of Black students, and several participants express their intentional decisions to teach at predominantly Black schools. They describe a sense of responsibility to their students because of their shared identities, and the wisdom they’ve gained from overcoming obstacles related to racism and sexism. They feel they can help when their students inevitably encounter similar issues. One participant, a 15-year veteran and head of a freedom micro school in Georgia, believes that it is her responsibility to fight for Black students and families in the classroom:
Multiple participants shared similar stories of personal challenges. One participant shared an experience of how the invisible toll of emotional labor shows up over time:
Although their work may deplete their energy, radical care for their students and the welding of professional and personal identity evoke a feeling of responsibility to play multiple roles in their students’ lives.
Where We Go From Here
Most of our participants agreed that their job is interwoven into who they are. Many describe education and teaching as generational family values; some grew up with the reminder, and some found their roots in the profession later in life. Regardless of how and when they discovered their love for teaching, several participants expressed a spirit of radical care for their students that anchors them in the profession.
What we learned from this group of Black women educators is that they model persistence, are committed to personal growth and their shared sense of responsibility has roots in civil rights and educational justice activism. They engage in radical care for their students and negotiate a balance between radical care for their students, their families and themselves.
In the remainder of this series, we’ll hear from two participants from the research project and the facilitators of each session. You can expect a deeper dive into topics that came up in the group discussions with our participants, such as:
- How trauma-informed leadership can disrupt systemic exclusion;
- Navigating queer and gender-expansive identities while Black; and
- How identity-based affinity groups can help serve as restorative, healing spaces, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our hope by the end of this series is that we gain a better understanding of the experiences elicited from these discussions in order to improve the retention and preparation of Black women teachers in the workforce.