It was a cool and sunny spring afternoon the first time I heard one of my students use the N-word. It was lunch, and a few tenth-graders had crowded into my classroom to eat and talk about video games after my fourth-period English class. I was a student teacher at the time, and I was in charge of all the morning classes that day, as my mentor teacher was out sick. Her absence didn’t faze me; I’d grown close with my first-ever cohort of students, and it was far enough into the year that I felt comfortable in the classroom. As I talked to the students about these multiplayer video games, telling them about my own teenage brother’s obsession, one of my students, a white male said, “It’s mostly just a bunch of 12-year-olds screaming,
While I was aware he did not mean this as an attack, the word, as well as his flippancy toward its usage, felt like a slap in the face. I look back on that moment and wonder why I didn’t say more, why I didn’t mine my 24 years of race conversations to find the right thing to say, but truthfully I was frozen. I left for the day shortly thereafter, cutting my afternoon graduate-school classes in favor of watching Dear White People in bed, in the hopes of salving the hurt I felt from what I had witnessed and the shame I felt at not being the anti-racist, ultra-knowledgable authority figure I was supposed to be. I woke up the next day, went into school, and found a time to talk it over with the student, who, in standard white 15-year-old-boy fashion, hadn’t thought much of how that word could impact Black people in any context but apologized deeply once he realized it did. Truth be told, it didn’t surprise me that he didn’t know this. The public school where I taught was “diverse by design,” and yet I could count on one hand the number of Black students I saw in the halls, let alone Black faculty. Years of gentrification and redlining had whitewashed the San Francisco Peninsula almost completely, pushing the entire Black community into the East Bay.
My grandmother was a teacher in the Bay Area, and I grew up listening to her tell stories about her classroom while I spent my primary years searching the front of my classrooms for faces that looked remotely like mine. I became a teacher to chip away at these walls of race and class that keep the majority of students in this country from accessing the type of education that wealthy students get simply by living in the right Zip Code or having parents who can pay a steep tuition. I was fortunate enough to go to one of those sorts of schools in Los Angeles, and though the education I got gave me access to opportunities my ancestors could only dream of, I hated the school, and in turn myself, for being so steeped in such overt whiteness and classism. I was assigned to read only a handful of Black authors in high school (which, to my high school’s credit, is a handful more than many others had the chance to). I learned nothing more about Black history than would be useful for getting me a high score on an AP exam. I knew Black teachers existed, but I didn’t have one personally until my master’s program. High school felt like one long implicit message that there was no place for people who looked like me in intellectual society and that to gain access to that world, I needed to learn to be as white as possible. James Baldwin sums up this tension perfectly in his 1963 essay, “A Talk to Teachers,” stating that a black child “pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees ‘liberty and justice for all.’ He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth. But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization — that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”
There is no shortage of statistics that highlight how few Black teachers there are in public schools (just 7 percent, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics) or how significant an impact that Black teachers can have on Black students; so, if the benefits to students are so clear, why are there so few Black teachers?
The answer to this question became increasingly clear as I ventured deeper into the profession. I decided to leave the Bay Area after I got my degree for one reason: I simply could not afford to stay. In the Bay Area, it is not only the quality of education that can be predicted by how close to Google’s campus you live but the salary of the teachers. At the time I left in 2017, it was well known that the Mountain View school district, which was composed primarily of high-income white students, paid nearly $20,000 more per year than the Oakland school district, composed primarily of Black and Latinx students, while rents throughout the Bay Area remained consistently high. As of this writing, the starting salary for a teacher in Oakland is $46,570.26, while median rent is nearly $3,000 a month, making it nearly impossible to live in Oakland on a teacher’s salary alone. This disparity infuriated me; while I love the city, and much of my family resides there, the realities of teaching in Oakland meant I would have to live with them to make ends meet. It simply was not possible for me to be the teacher I wanted to be and live in the Bay, so I decided to move back to Brooklyn.
Unfortunately, once I made the decision to move, the secret costs of the teaching profession began to stack up. While states advertise simple reciprocity between teacher certifications in different states, I was still required to complete all the certification steps in New York, even though they were nearly identical to those in California. This meant paying nearly $1,000 out of pocket for standardized testing, workshops, transcript requests, application fees, and more before I could even apply for a job. This, coupled with the several thousand dollars I had racked up in graduate-student loans, as well as basic cross-country moving costs, meant that I’d already sunken myself in a hole that I would have to spend most of my first year of work digging myself out of. And while, yes, the government does offer loan-forgiveness programs, they are far harder to come by than many think: An English teacher like myself can expect to receive only $5,000 in forgiveness after five years of working, which hardly makes a dent in the cost of a master’s degree. When the costs of my certification began to add up, and absolutely no financial support was available from either my school or the state itself, I fully realized that I’d entered a profession where it would take nearly a decade of work and multiple advanced degrees to even approach a six-figure salary.
These costs are seen as necessary parts of the profession, and states expect all incoming teachers to pay up. I hadn’t chosen to become a teacher as part of any get-rich scheme but had hoped following my passion wouldn’t put me in debt. I ended up working nights after teaching and grad-school classes babysitting for a wealthy Silicon Valley family to come up with enough cash to finance my certifications. And I came up with extra money babysitting for families I’d worked for in college and skipped out on visiting my family for the holidays to save up enough to pay down my credit cards from moving. And when I had the chance, I chose to work at a charter school, which had more flexibility on expensive certification, simply to make ends meet. But this ultimately will keep me, and others, from being able to enjoy the benefits of the teacher union, like pensions and standardized hours, down the road.
Once I made it to New York, I was lucky enough to end up teaching high-school English at a school whose mission is to desegregate the incredibly segregated New York City school system. The first year of teaching is notoriously challenging: Sleepless nights of lesson planning, tears after work, and feelings of inadequacy are considered standard, if not expected. While I loved my job, my first year was certainly no different. I put in at least ten hours a day in the building juggling two different curriculums, then spent my nights finishing my lesson plan for the next morning’s classes and staying on top of emails. As the years of teaching go on, you find your rhythm, learning how to recycle and refine your lessons so they are done weeks in advance and how to savor your time at home as purely time to decompress instead of grade homework (well, most of the time — let’s be real, I still grade a lot of essays over the weekends). I feel privileged to be able to build relationships around literature with such a great group of young people (who I miss seeing in the classroom dearly). And yet, even at a school that wears its desire for racial equity on its sleeve, where I’m far from the only Black face in the halls or at the staff meetings, I’m constantly reminded of what it means to teach while Black; students still do and say racist things, and while I’ve learned how to manage these moments much better that I did the first time it happened to me years ago, they will always send shockwaves through my days. I still struggle to figure out how to balance teaching an anti-racist curriculum with the realities of giving students the canonical white knowledge they need to gain access to power in a white-supremacist society. I still hear students complain about the lack of diversity in their teachers, even as I know from personal experience things could be far worse.
COVID has of course compounded many of these factors; learning from home is a radically different experience for students depending on their socioeconomic status, learning needs, and even place in the age order of a family. While some of my students breezed through remote learning and exclaimed how much they loved learning from home, others took on the burdens of child care at home and had to all but give up their studies. Some students disappeared completely once we closed the school doors in March. And while financially the COVID quarantine has actually saved some teachers money in the form of reduced commuting costs and classroom needs, the consequences are just beginning to hit. Salaries have stagnated and anxiety about potential salary cuts are growing. These realities still somehow pale in comparison to Betsy DeVos’s inhumane choice to force many teachers and students back into unsafe classrooms this fall, a move the Refuse to Return movement, spearheaded by teacher Harley Litzelman, is working hard to fight.
Teaching has been the best choice I’ve made in my adult life. It has brought me more joy and challenges than I ever could have expected. But all these issues lead me to believe, brokenheartedly, that teaching simply isn’t a desirable path for young Black people anymore. When my grandmother left college to become a teacher in the 1960s, teaching meant a stable union job with great hours doing what she loved. It allowed her to move into the middle class from the rural and segregated town she grew up in and do something that could one day benefit her children. In 2020, teaching simply isn’t a way to build intergenerational wealth, even though it requires the same level of education as the professions that do, such as law or medicine. As a result, when young Black graduates look at their professional options, saddled with student-loan debt and rising rent costs, teaching seems like, and frankly can be, a path to nowhere.
Of course, the barriers to becoming a teacher, particularly one of color, are not accidental but intentional roadblocks to maintain white supremacy in this country. The vast majority of public-school teachers are white women; when combining that reality with the patriarchal expectation that white women are meant to be married, it makes sense that teaching in America has developed into a profession that is meant to serve as a secondary income rather than an actual career. As a result, those who actually become teachers to earn a living are pushed out, leaving only those who have the financial means to endure being underpaid. K-12 educators are the first gatekeepers of knowledge for most Americans; ensuring that those gatekeepers are white and middle class through systemic measures guarantees the maintenance of the white-supremacist system we live in.
Even with all this, I find hope in the words of James Baldwin once again, who said, “We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.” We still live in revolutionary times, where radically changing our society to make it work for everyone has become part of the daily conversation. When we talk about defunding the police and redistributing funds to education, we must talk about using those funds to make teaching accessible, enticing, and sustainable, particularly for Black people. Of course they should increase teacher salaries, but the solutions need to go further than that: All teacher-education programs should be free, full stop. Their certification costs should be completely subsidized by the state, and Black people most of all should be incentivized (with actual money) to enter the profession. Teachers are not babysitters or volunteers; we are public workers. The education of highly qualified teachers only serves to benefit society, and no one should go into debt trying to do work that improves themselves, firstly, but also the next generation.