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A Black female teacher places her head down on her desk while her laptop is open.
Only about one in five principals and teachers in U.S. public schools are educators of color. SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images

How race-related stress could be driving educators of color away from the job

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

When teachers of color experience high levels of race-based stress in schools, they can also have an increasingly negative sense of belonging, according to new research.

For the study, we analyzed survey data from educators of color across Iowa. To get at whether they were experiencing race-based stress, we asked whether the educators felt supported raising concerns with their peers about racism in schools or if they felt the need to ignore or avoid it. I conducted this research along with my colleagues – education researcher Duhita Mahatmya and community and behavioral health professor Eboneé Johnson.

Teachers reported less support from colleagues than did principals. Over 75% of the teachers in our sample (175 out of 229) reported a negative sense of belonging, especially when they thought school districts would not devise policies to actively address equity and racism.

Why it matters

Over half of U.S. public school students are students of color, but educator demographics do not mirror the student population.

In 2003, 17% of public school teachers and 18% of public school principals identified as persons of color. By 2017, those numbers had risen to only 21% of teachers and 22% of principals in public schools. Currently in Iowa, 3% of teachers and 4% of principals in public schools identify as people of color, as compared with 26% of students.

These workforce trends can be traced back to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional. Following the ruling, tens of thousands of Black teachers and school administrators were either fired or demoted. White parents’ not wanting their children taught by Black teachers was among the reasons. Despite ongoing recruitment efforts, teachers of color still leave the profession at a rate almost 5% higher than their white peers.

When there are few or no educators of color in public schools, students of color have historically been more likely to experience low academic expectations and disproportionately high rates of discipline. Also, Black and Hispanic students are less likely to be enrolled in advanced placement or gifted courses.

Students of color – particularly Black and Hispanic students – have been shown to achieve more academically when they have a teacher of color.

Some scholars contend that educators of color experience “racial battle fatigue,” a term coined by education professor William A. Smith at the University of Utah. Racial battle fatigue describes the physical, emotional and psychological toll on people of color when they experience racism in predominantly white spaces.

In our study, we cannot definitively say that negative feelings that educators of color have about their school communities will cause them to leave the profession. However, we do suggest that race-based stress is a factor.

Stress has caused many educators to leave the profession, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. It will take more than just dedicated recruitment efforts to diversify the educator workforce and create inclusive schools. Retention strategies alone won’t be effective unless there are changes in the workplace environment itself.

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What still isn’t known

In our study, we surveyed educators of color still working in Iowa schools. We don’t know how educators of color who have left the profession would have responded. Additionally, we don’t yet know the impact of the “triple pandemic” of COVID-19, racism and an economic recession on the stress levels of educators of color.

What’s Next

We plan to take a closer look at how educators’ experiences differ by race and gender identity. This will help us better understand the diversity of experiences that exist within Black, Indigenous, Asian and Hispanic populations.

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