Teachers suffer from ‘racial battle fatigue’ after a year of pandemic and police killings
Black teachers were already leaving the profession in high numbers before the nation’s upheaval over racism made their jobs harder
It took Jasmine Lane five years to discover and fulfill her passion for English literature and teaching — but a year and a half to burn out.
“I have been navigating majority [or all] white spaces for a very long time. … In a state with 96% of its teaching staff being white, choosing teaching was to be no different,” the 27-year-old high school teacher in Minneapolis wrote in her blog this winter. But the abuse and isolation of this last year were too much, she wrote.
It wasn’t worth the tightness in her chest, “knowing I have to get up and stare at a silent screen hoping in vain that someone will talk, wondering which family will criticize me today, which students will yell at me, and whether administration will support my professional judgement.”
“So, dear reader,” she wrote, “I quit.”
Lane’s story is one of a growing number of anecdotal tales of stress and anxiety emerging from the ranks of Black teachers over the course of the last year. Data doesn’t yet confirm a trend, but if many Black teachers do quit, researchers and educators are concerned about the implications for student achievement and ongoing efforts to diversify the nation’s teaching workforce. Teaching was already a very stressful job, and the pandemic year has only made it worse. For Black teachers, that strain has been compounded in a year like no other. Since March 2020, Black Americans have experienced a perfect storm of social and emotional stressors, including the unequal death toll from COVID-19 in the Black community, the ongoing resurgence of white supremacy and an onslaught of high-profile police killings of Black people.
Black teachers have been in the awkward positions of having to create lessons around police violence and being asked to share their thoughts and feelings about race with colleagues from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They did so while navigating a pandemic that shuttered schools and forced many into an alien way of teaching — online — and supporting kids also dealing with trauma, loss, and the fear and uncertainty triggered by social unrest. And they did so often without mental health support, leading to what experts and Black teachers themselves are calling “racial battle fatigue.” There’s a sense of angst among Black teachers, and they’re losing sleep over it. Ashley Woodson, director of the Virtual Freedom School for the Abolitionist Teaching Network, a group that promotes racial justice, and a former teacher educator who now mentors teachers in her role with the network, said, “I’ve been hearing it: the increased hours, the increased stress, the increased anxiety, the depression and vicarious trauma, fear and concern. … There’s a troubling notion of racial authenticity my teachers are running into where there’s almost an expectation that they’re going to be the space where issues like this are addressed.”
Although it’s unknown what impact the trauma and strain of the last year will have on Black educators leaving the profession, experts say that a pre-pandemic emergency — more Black teachers than other teachers quit in the first five years of teaching — has become even more urgent.
Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and policy at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an expert on the teaching workforce, says research shows that while there’s been an increase in the number of teachers of color in the United States over the last 30 years, the growth has been largely driven by increases in the number of Asian American and Hispanic teachers. The number of Black teachers has not kept pace, and male teachers of color continue to have the highest quit rates, he said. Ingersoll predicts that when the pandemic ends and the economy improves, there could be an upsurge in teacher turnover and retirements, pointing to research on behavior during economic downturns that found that many workers are reluctant to quit their jobs and might postpone retirement until the crisis is over.
“But some people can’t survive. They’re totally stressed out, and they’ve got to get out,” he said.
The 2020-21 school year was Lane’s first at the predominantly Black high school on the outskirts of North Minneapolis that she chooses not to name. At her previous school, she had been the only Black teacher in the district. She left, she said, because she saw students struggling to read, and her offer to help them was turned down by a school administrator. In one conversation, she said, this white administrator told her: “I know how it can feel to be the only minority person in the building.” And then he brought up the fact that he was married to a Black woman.
At her new school, the students were predominantly Black, and she was one of a handful of teachers of color, albeit the only Black English teacher. During her first months there, school was still remote due to the pandemic, so she never met any of her students face to face and missed out on “all the good stuff that happens in teaching.”
Online, her 11th grade English students “were an arrangement of letters above a black, silent box,” Lane said. “I didn’t know them at all” except from their emails. The interactions she did have with students were often disputes over grades and assignments. Some white students questioned why they had to read August Wilson’s Fences play and Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I A Woman speech. One went so far as to accuse her of teaching a play that “stoked racial resentment.”
“The feeling of dread that set in my chest on Saturday night was there until the following Friday at 2:10. My hair was falling out. I didn’t recognize myself,” Lane said.
She lowered her expectations, giving assignments that required students to do only the bare minimum to get a passing grade — write a response to a reading passage using complete sentences, for example — but still only 20% of her estimated 150 students did the work. “I hated that,” she said. She wasn’t sleeping well. She felt her only choice was “the kids or me, and I chose me.” She couldn’t name it then, but would come to understand that what she had was racial battle fatigue. A professor at the University of Utah, William Smith, coined the term racial battle fatigue nearly two decades ago. Smith, professor of ethnic studies and chair of his university’s department of education, culture and society, defines it as “a systemic, race-related, repetitive stress injury.” Racial battle fatigue is used widely today to describe how the persistent and subtle verbal and nonverbal acts of aggression or discrimination against Black people and other marginalized groups cause them stress, anxiety, frustration, anger and even physical symptoms.
“The body is the keeper of racial battle fatigue,” Smith said. Black teachers and other racially marginalized teachers navigating spaces in which they work with white colleagues are always weighing, “ ‘Do I say something, do I be quiet?’ ” he said, “because it’s always a negotiation between risk and fear.”
Terrance Lewis, a middle school social studies teacher in Columbus, Georgia, said racial battle fatigue captured the overwhelming feelings he and some of his Black colleagues experienced last summer in the midst of the racial violence and protests. Lewis, 25 and a fourth-year teacher, was already familiar with the concept. He’d come across racial battle fatigue while researching ways to help himself and his white colleagues improve their interactions with Black families.
“Those parents are tired,” he would tell them, “so, that’s why you might not solicit that response you think you were going to get, because those parents are simply tired of fighting the racial battle, and they suffer from racial battle fatigue.”
But his white colleagues didn’t get it, he said. “You’re seen as the guy who thinks everybody is racist — thinks everybody has a problem with the Black students. To an extent, nobody wants to talk to you.”
Last summer, his frustration worsened when “white teachers didn’t speak up about how vile and terrible the Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd situations were,” he said. “When all of those events were happening — George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, the pandemic was going on and it seemed like every other day somebody was dying — I mean I went into a ministate of depression to the point where I didn’t talk to anybody for at least about three to four weeks.”
“I began questioning, ‘Will the educational system ever be beneficial for Blacks, especially Black males?’ ” he added. Racial battle fatigue isn’t just limited to K-12 educators. Dawn Williams, dean of the Howard University School of Education, said she’s heard similar frustration from Black higher education faculty around the country who are being asked to share their thoughts and feelings about unfolding events and not knowing if there will be repercussions.
But she is hopeful that the pandemic will mark a change for the better for Black educators. Pre-K-12 schools have beseeched her department to put on workshops for teachers on anti-bias and anti-racism education, culturally relevant education and culturally affirming education. Her department has held workshops for school leaders, counselors and psychologists about how to have conversations about race, and Williams continues to field calls from school districts across the country that want to build a diverse workforce and partner with the university to create a teacher pipeline.
“The request is great, especially for teachers,” she said. “We’re not big enough to supply everybody’s request, but the requests are constant.”
Andrea Lewis, associate professor and chair of the education department at Spelman College in Atlanta, hasn’t seen evidence of racial battle fatigue deterring teacher candidates on her campus.
“I have not experienced any less of a desire of students who say they want to go into the field,” Andrea Lewis said. “They have been very resilient. They have remained very committed to their major, and their life goal of going into education.”
At Spelman, Andrea Lewis added, a popular mantra is “undaunted by the fight.”
But even if teacher preparation programs keep turning out new Black teachers, the greater challenge is keeping those teachers in the field, experts and teachers themselves say. Lane said her predominantly white teacher education program didn’t prepare her for the isolation she felt on the job. “Getting people in is hard enough, but that’s not the step — it’s retaining,” she said.
Williams uses the acronym RADAR to describe what’s needed to combat racial battle fatigue and retain teachers. It stands for recruitment and development and retention. “When schools are able to recruit Black teachers, they also have to put some development in to retain them,” she said. “Make sure that you’re learning about your teachers, learning about their skill sets, putting them in positions where they are able not only to be successful, but able to see an upward trajectory in their own careers,” she added.
Williams said when school leaders assign Black teachers or other teachers of color to be disciplinarians for students of color, that is not positioning them for success. “That is typecasting them. It really undervalues the intellectual expertise that they bring into the school system.”
Spelman’s Andrea Lewis advises all teacher education programs to hire diverse faculty and ensure field experiences include working in diverse schools so that teacher candidates are exposed to culturally relevant practices. She also says education programs should incorporate the work of Black authors and scholars in their courses.
Terrance Lewis, the middle school teacher, has his own advice for Black teacher candidates: “Find you a mentor who identifies with you and shares some of your same plight. You have to find that person or you’re going to be isolated.”
It will be months, possibly years before researchers know the impact the pandemic has had on the ranks of Black teachers. “There was this larger fear that with all the pressures of COVID, there would be a big increase in retirements, a big increase in turnover, and there’d be a decrease in wanting to become teachers,” said Ingersoll, the teaching workforce expert.
While there’s been a great deal of discussion, “the reality is we don’t have the data,” Ingersoll said. The little anecdotal evidence he has seen so far offers hope. “There hasn’t been this huge exodus out of teaching over the last year because of COVID,” he said.
Although there are anecdotes in lieu of data for now, Black teachers are leaving, according to Woodson of the Abolitionist Teaching Network. The more important question is, “Where are they going?” she said. “They might be leaving the formal school building, but they’re ending up on somebody’s campus. They’re ending up in somebody’s community center. … They’re finding new ways to teach and share knowledge and engage with young people that challenge our understanding of where the school is,” she said. “Learning is still taking place.” Terrance Lewis will be leaving the classroom at the end of the current school year to pursue his doctoral studies in secondary education with a concentration in social sciences at Auburn University in Alabama. His goal is to become a teacher educator and to study the Black male experience. He said he’s not giving up on K-12 education, but that “in the higher ed position, I can reach a whole entire nation — a whole entire world — and that’s part of the goal: to make people aware of the stories of Black males in schools, of the stories of Black teachers in schools.”
Meanwhile, Lane is looking to move to England to teach. Her post about her resignation received more than 10,000 views, from people all over the world — the highest ever for her blog, she said. One person commented that they tried to tell her this was going to happen a year ago. Another wrote, “Choose you, Jasmine.”
Most of the Black teachers who commented referenced race, Lane said. “They were like, ‘No matter how you want to do or what you try to accomplish, racism gets in the way.’ ”