Broke, muzzled, and sick of bias: Why our teachers of color are leaving the classroom

by David McGuire

In my five years as a teacher and principal, I have never been in a school where the majority of teachers were teachers of color.

Teachers of color make up only 18 percent of the educator workforce, and many of them are concentrated in urban school districts, where schools are hobbled by high poverty, lack of resources, and insufficient community support.

Even so, most teachers of color are usually alienated in school buildings because most teachers in urban schools don’t look like the students they serve. For all those reasons, job satisfaction remains low–because pay is not an incentive, hard work sometimes goes unnoticed, and weighing career options outside of education can be enticing.

I wondered why so many teachers of color are dissatisfied with their job status, so I asked some close friends of mine to weigh in on the topic.

India Johnson, a teacher in Warren Township, believes teachers of color are burned out and dissatisfied for these reasons: they are muzzled, they see first-hand the destructive power of the opportunity gap, and they know being broke won’t cut it.

With racial tension on the rise in our country, the lack of hope in our presidential candidates, and police killing people of color, educators of color feel muzzled. They stare into the eyes of their students daily, and what they sincerely want and may even need to tell them, cannot be said. They feel as though they have to smile and remain on script.

She feels it’s us against the opportunity gap, which is our greatest nemesis. It is difficult to not take it personally when you're one of the few brown educators in the room during a discussion on why Black kids just can't learn. When the opportunity gap isn't addressed as the systemic issue it is, the conversation pierces.

Finally, many of teachers of color are the highest achievers in our families, so being broke for a lifetime just can't cut it. Many teachers of color don't have an inheritance being passed down to us. We are creating the inheritance to be passed on. Our parents didn't finance our degrees. We are paying back student loans while attempting to build a better life for ourselves, and teachers’ salaries with no potential for increase do not offer much hope. So, many educators of color seek higher-paying opportunities.

Jeremy Coleman, an assistant principal in Pike Township, said teachers of color are increasingly dissatisfied because they work in chaotic and unsupportive schools with large percentages of disadvantaged students.

“You would think that with such unfavorable conditions, teachers of color would leave those schools in droves, but these teachers of color remain in those schools at higher rates than white teachers,” he told me. This suggests teachers of color are drawn to high-need schools with a sense of purpose. That means the incentives have to be about more than money and "carrots" – it means connecting teachers with a broader purpose and making sure these teachers are supported while doing important work and ensuring the development of a pipeline for the next generation of teachers of color.

We’ve got to stop bemoaning the lack of diversity in teaching and starting doing something real to address why educators of color are fleeing the profession–or never considering the profession in the first place.

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David McGuire

Mr. McGuire is a middle school teacher in Indianapolis, Teach Plus Policy Fellow, and currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Indiana State University for Educational Leadership. Driven by the lack of having an African American male teacher in his classrooms growing up, David helped launched the Educate ME Foundation, which is geared towards increasing the number of African American male teachers in the classroom. A born and raised Hoosier, he is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for all students in Indianapolis. He describes his educational beliefs as a reformer grounded in the best practices of traditional public schools, where he was mentored by strong leaders. David graduated from Central State University with a degree in English and also holds an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.