Bias, extra work and feelings of isolation: 5 Black teachers tell their stories

Black teachers: how to recruit THEM and make them stay

This is the second part of a special series on the recruitment and retention of Black teachers in California. The recruitment and hiring of Black educators has lagged, even as a teacher shortage has given the task new urgency.

Our series will take a look at the obstacles that keep Black people from becoming teachers, and the bias and lack of support some face when they join the profession.

The final story will look at what California and school districts are doing to recruit and retain Black teachers, and what still needs to be done.

California school districts have been trying to recruit and retain Black teachers for years, but the numbers don’t seem to be increasing. The cost of teacher preparation and unpaid student teaching make it difficult for Black teacher candidates to complete the work to earn a credential. Once in the classroom, a lack of support and respect sometimes makes it difficult for them to remain.

In the 2020-21 school year, the most recent year data is available, 3.8% of all teachers in California were Black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Black students made up 5.2% of the state’s student population that year. 

Research shows that having a Black teacher in the classroom has a positive impact on all students, especially students of color who, as a result, have higher test scores and graduation rates.

Krystle Goff: We constantly have to prove ourselves

Krystle Goff is a student program coordinator at 122nd Street Elementary in Los Angeles Unified.
Krystle Goff

Krystle Goff worked as a special education paraeducator for four years before earning a teaching credential, and later a masters’ degree. Now, even with eight years as a credentialed teacher, she still feels she has to prove herself every day.

Black teachers aren’t given the same opportunities to make mistakes that other teachers are given, said Goff, who works in Los Angeles Unified. There is pressure every day to get it right the first time, even from other Black teachers, she said.

“There is a standard that Black educators hold toward each other,” she said. “We are harder on ourselves and harder on our students than I think is talked about.”

Goff also spent 14 months at the Principal Leadership Institute at UCLA, which prepares educators to be social justice leaders in Los Angeles Schools. 

“(There was) lots of reading, lots of literature, and it just kind of pulled apart the systems that I now just can’t unsee,” Goff said. “It’s almost like I’m in the matrix. When I walk into school systems. I’m like, you guys need help.”

Goff is currently the targeted student population coordinator, responsible for the re-designation of English learners at 122nd Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. She wants to be a school administrator. 

“It’s important because that’s the only way we are going to shift schools,” she said. “… We need principals who are able to see the needs of the community and address them on the school campus, and not weaponize what’s happening in the community on the school campus.”

There is racial tension at 122nd Street Elementary that should be addressed, she said. The school is predominantly Latino, with Black students making up less than 20% of the population. The tension was apparent in February as teachers made decisions about whether to have Black History programs. 

“It’s been very, what seems controversial,” Goff said. “… It’s very political.”

Schools should offer staff training on race and identity, or a staff retreat where colleagues can discuss the topic, Goff said.

“I think that in every layer of what makes a school run – from the parent center to the classroom, to the office – there’s this buzz about race and identity, but we don’t ever talk about it,” she said. “We don’t ever mention it. And somehow we’re supposed to all gel together and work together. I think it takes training to identify who we are and what we bring to our position to understand how we’re able to best work with one another.”

Preston Jackson: More Black mentors are needed

RB Preston Jackson 12 1
P.E. Teacher Preston Jackson works at California Middle School at Sacramento Ct.

Being a teacher is hard, but being a Black teacher is harder, said Preston Jackson, who teaches physical education at California Middle School in Sacramento City Unified.

“Ninety percent, you probably are going to be on a site where you’re the only one there,” Jackson said. “And so you’re not going to have someone there that has gone through a similar process, because being a Black teacher is a completely different situation.” 

Jackson is one of two Black teachers at the middle school. During his 19-year tenure, there have only been a few more, he said.

Having more Black mentors would have made his early years in teaching easier, Jackson said, because they would have provided guidance on difficult topics a new teacher may not feel comfortable discussing with administrators, like how to deal with parents of other races that talk down to them.

“They have to have someone they can have those types of tough conversations with, to kind of help them work through the process until they get to a point where they are confident enough on their own feet, where they can handle those things,” he said.

Jackson gets discouraged about teaching sometimes, particularly when it comes to the low expectations he feels some in education have for Black children. This is the No. 1 reason Black teachers quit, he said.

He was going over benchmark test scores with the principal and fellow members of the School Site Council in February, when he realized that no Black students were enrolled in Math 8, the highest level math course.

“So, you can tell me that, with all the Black kids we have on this campus, not one is qualified to be in Math 8?” Jackson asked.

Not even the high-achieving Black students in the school were enrolled in the class, and Jackson suspects they were not steered toward the class because teachers think it is too difficult for them.

“They’re expecting kids to fail,” he said. “They’re setting the kids up for failure instead of preparing them for success. And that’s a huge problem.”

Alicia Simba: I wanted to work with Black teachers

Alicia Simba 2
Alicia Simba is a transitional kindergarten teacher at Prescott Elementary School in Oakland Unified.

Alicia Simba chose to work in the Oakland Unified School District when she started as a teacher four years ago, so that she could be in a school community with other Black teachers. Her school, Prescott Elementary School, also has a Black principal, and the district has a Black superintendent.

When she was looking for work, Simba went to Wikipedia and looked for cities in California with the largest populations of Black residents, and then looked up their school districts. Even those districts often didn’t have many Black teachers, she found.

“Unlike other friends and peers that I have, I’m never the only Black teacher in a professional development or at a conference in the district,” Simba said of Oakland Unified. “I think that, really, to me, helps with the retention part.”

Of her friends from her teacher preparation program, Simba, a transitional kindergarten teacher, says she works with the highest number of Black children and has the lowest salary.

“I can see how friendships might become more segregated as we get older,” Simba said. “In a couple of years my friends and I will just not be living within the same means. They’ll want to go to Baja, and I can’t go –  not because I don’t want to go to Baja. I do want to go to Baja. But because I teach in OUSD.”

Simba attended a women’s college on the East Coast as a science major and worked at the campus daycare center before being accepted into the teacher preparation program at Stanford University on a full scholarship. It was the job at the daycare center that made her decide to teach.

“I was like, one, this is the best job ever,” she said. “I love the kids. But two, I get to hang out with the best women in the world.”

Simba decided to take the traditional route to a credential instead of an alternative route, such as an internship, which pays teacher candidates to work as a classroom teacher while completing teacher preparation coursework. She wanted a more thorough education, she said.

While teacher interns are paid, they are more likely to leave teaching because they do not benefit from mentorship and are thrust into a classroom as the lead teacher without support or guidance, she said.

Traditional training can help teachers learn to deal with difficult situations that may lead to burnout, Simba said.

 “Like when a kid throws a chair, or bites them,” she said. “Like when one peed on the floor, they actually know what to do. These are all things that happened to me.”

There are things that can be done to increase the number of Black teachers, including student loan forgiveness, paying student teachers, paying teachers more equitably across districts and offering subsidized housing, Simba said. Young teachers also need mentorship and emotional support, she added.

Black teachers may feel they have to leave (their jobs) to preserve their own emotional well-being, even if they love the kids and the community and love to teach, Simba said.

Brooke Sims: Cruel words impact Black students 

Brooke Sims teaches first grade in  Stockton.

Brooke Sims has always loved school. Her mother and grandmother were teachers, so she spent a lot of time in classrooms, even as a small child.

“I was joking about how much I loved school supplies, so maybe that’s why I’m a teacher – a love of school supplies,” she said. “I always played school.” 

Sims had a chance to do it for real in high school when she helped out in preschool and kindergarten classrooms in Stockton as part of a career educational course called “Careers with Children.”  It wasn’t long before Sims was certain that teaching was what she wanted to do with her life.

Having her family as role models helped Sims to visualize herself as a teacher, because she had few Black teachers during her K-12 years in Stockton. She didn’t see many Black teachers until she attended Delta College in Stockton and then later, when she began student teaching at Elk Grove Unified in Sacramento County.

Sim says that in the 16 years since she received her teaching credential, she has considered quitting many times. The work is harder; there is little support and the pay isn’t great.

She also has had to contend with colleagues who make racist and insensitive comments about people of color, including students.

“It breaks my heart because it’s like, you’re teaching black children, you’re teaching children of color, and this is what you think, and you’ve never taken the time to reflect or maybe look at it differently.”

This sometimes plays out with Black children sometimes being meted out harsher punishments than their white colleagues, even if their offenses are worse, Sims said.

“I’m not in all of these people’s classrooms, but I’ve heard the microaggressions, I’ve heard the way they speak, and I can’t imagine what happens in the classroom,” she said.

The incidents go back as far as her days as a student teacher. In one case, a white teacher candidate came back from a meeting with her consulting teacher livid. She told Sims that the consulting teacher told her not to work so hard with two students of color because “they are not going to go to college.” The candidate asked to be assigned another consulting teacher.

“She could not believe that this woman said this to her about some little kids, some little first graders,” Sims said. 

Petrina Miller: Better pay would make teachers stay

petrina miller
Petrina Miller teaches at 116th Street School in Los Angeles.

A lot has changed since Petrina Miller began teaching at 116th Street School in Los Angeles about 26 years ago, including the demographics of the students. When she began teaching, the school had mostly Black students, and now the majority of students are Latino.

Although Miller appreciates the need for Black students to have Black teachers, she doesn’t think people should be assigned tasks, or students, solely because of their skin color. It’s not fair to the student, and it’s not fair to the teacher, she said, because sometimes, they might fare better with a younger teacher, for example.

Miller, who teaches a combined transitional kindergarten and kindergarten class at the school, is a member of Educators for Excellence, a nonprofit with the goal of elevating the teaching profession. It has more than 30,000 members. 

Black teachers are being pushed out of the profession because of a lack of support, an ability to earn more at another job and a general lack of respect from the public and administrators, Miller said.

People don’t go into teaching for the high pay, Miller said. But teachers do deserve a wage that is livable or some sort of property tax adjustment or other financial help to make being a teacher more attractive.

“Then they can live where they work,” Miller said. “I know some teachers who work in San Pedro and live somewhere else. They can’t afford it, or they work in Torrance and … they can’t live there, it costs too much.”

Since the Covid pandemic there has been less support and sometimes respect from administrators as they struggle to balance new rules and requirements from the district and state.

“I think that being 10, 15 years into this profession, you expect a certain amount of respect or professionalism from your higher ups,” Miller said. “And I think that the trickle-down effect on all the things that happen from the district office to the (school) office, that respect is just getting lost.”

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