Microaggressions, stereotyping among reasons why Black math teachers consider leaving the classroom

Math teacher helping students

Black teachers are leaving the field at a higher rate than colleagues of other races and ethnicities, deservedly drawing the attention of policymakers. Our recent publication in Educational Researcher addressed factors that could shed light on retention issues facing Black mathematics teachers.

A growing body of research points to the importance and significance of Black teachers from pre-K through high school. These studies indicate that Black teachers are viewed as role models by children from all backgrounds, and they also improve the academic outcomes and experiences of students of color. Black teachers are also more likely to work and remain in urban schools, where students are predominantly Black and Brown.

Data about Black Mathematics Teachers

Seminal educational scholarship describes Black teachers’ praxis, lived experiences, and traditions, but little of it is subject-area specific. Our study focused on retention of Black mathematics teachers, a subject area that is often described as “hard-to-staff” and with a long history of poorly serving the needs of Black students.

Analysis from a dissertation quantifying the turnover of Black mathematics teachers noted that Black secondary mathematics teachers represent approximately 6% of all certified public school secondary mathematics teachers. Nearly half enter the profession through alternative certification programs. Most Black teachers also find themselves teaching relatively less-advanced courses, such as remedial-level mathematics and Algebra 1. A quick glance at these nationwide employment data shows, in part, why leading organizations have described hiring more mathematics teachers of color as an actionable step toward a “just, equitable, and sustainable system of mathematics education for all children.”

Policy Directions

Given the U.S. student population and the proven benefits of all students learning from Black teachers, the numbers above represent an ongoing crisis. It is not surprising, then, that elected officials in states from California to Louisiana are restructuring departments and developing incentives to recruit and retain Black instructors and other teachers of color. States have been encouraged to develop financial incentives that would underwrite the cost of teacher preparation and professional development in order to pull Black teachers into the classroom.

While these investments are welcome and needed, our research suggests that these policies are not sufficient to address this long-standing issue. Without school- and district-level policy changes that foster work environments where Black teachers will want to stay and flourish, our analysis found that personal and school-level climate factors impact Black teachers’ thoughts of leaving the classroom.

Anti-Blackness as a Feature of School Environments?

To capture the experiences of Black mathematics teachers in schools, our research team conducted a four-year mixed methods study, “Examining the Trajectories of Black Mathematics Teachers,” at the intersection of the Black teaching tradition, mathematics education, and the impact of race and racism. The quantitative component of our work entailed developing and administering the Black Teachers of Mathematics Perceptions Survey to measure Black teachers’ perceptions of mathematics content and pedagogy, their paths to teaching, and their working conditions.

Within the survey, we developed a scale—the Teachers’ Experiences of Racialized Microaggressions (TERM) scale—that specifically posed questions regarding teachers’ experiences with workplace racial microaggressions. For example, teachers were asked to respond to the following: “I have experienced feelings of isolation at my school/district based on my race.” This scale, modeled after previous work on racial microaggressions, measures the impact of brief, subtle exchanges that send negative, covert slights or insults to a person of color. This “covertness” is why these actions are described as “micro,” but the cumulative impact is significant regarding teacher job satisfaction or the perception that Black mathematics teachers have of their workplace stature.

We surveyed 325 Black mathematics teachers nationwide. We included questions related to salary and found, counterintuitively, that Black mathematics teachers who were satisfied with their salary were even more likely to want to leave the field than those who were not. Upon analysis, we posit that this finding corroborates other research that organizational factors, not salary, were more predictive of turnover for teachers of color.

“One participant in our study described teaching mathematics while Black as ‘teaching with thick skin’ because of the persistent attacks regarding intelligence, content expertise, and unique teaching practices.”

From the TERM scale findings, we found Black teachers’ experiences of racist microaggressions to be a statistically significant variable that explained their thoughts of leaving the field. For example, teachers reported frequently having their academic ability and intelligence minimized because of racist stereotypes. In related qualitative work, Black mathematics teachers noted how they were acknowledged for their ability to build relationships, but were often overlooked for their pedagogical craft and content expertise. In fact, one participant in our study described teaching mathematics while Black as “teaching with thick skin” because of the persistent attacks regarding intelligence, content expertise, and unique teaching practices.

Black Teachers, Microaggressions, and Organizational Policies

Although microaggressions occur at the interpersonal level, they are framed by discriminatory practices within organizations and institutions. Our findings suggest that policymakers and school leaders must confront racism in the workplace as an organizational condition that impacts Black mathematics teachers’ attrition. For example, Black mathematics teachers reported that they were often expected to be “race experts” for other teachers and were frequently called upon by non-Black teachers seeking guidance for how to work with Black and Brown students. Instances such as these often take Black teachers away from their primary responsibilities related to mathematics instruction.

When asked to reflect on the data collected from the TERM survey, Black mathematics teachers shared that they believed the pervasive false beliefs of Black intellectual inferiority limited their career opportunities and often relegated them to teaching remedial-level mathematics courses. Some also felt that these false beliefs obstructed their opportunities for leadership within their schools and districts. These slights, felt more acutely in work settings that were predominantly white, affected their job satisfaction and made them think of leaving the profession.

Looking Ahead and Listening to Black Teachers

As student bodies continue to diversify, school leaders rightly see the departure of Black teachers as a matter of concern. However, we caution that simply diversifying the workforce for the purpose of race-matching commodifies them and erases their value as conveyors of culturally specific content and pedagogical skills.

With respect to school and district leadership and policy, evaluations of teachers that reflect professional standards of conduct must include affirmations of Black teachers’ effective deployment of cultural nuances and treat anti-racism as a professional standard. Leadership at the school and district level must also cultivate anti-racist spaces for Black teachers. The anti-Blackness discussed in our research obstructs leaders and administrators from listening to Black mathematics teachers about pedagogy and content matter. This alienation from working in these environments, as we have seen, can contribute to thoughts of leaving the profession.

Our broader research project includes survey data, structured interviews, and focus groups of Black mathematics teachers ranging from professionals who began their careers in the 1950s to teachers working today. These teachers have determinedly navigated the complex effects of desegregation, white flight, and gentrification on the nation’s public schools. Our research tells us that racialized experiences from the past are not much different from what many Black mathematics teachers have shared contemporarily, including being overlooked for leadership positions, questioned about their abilities to teach advanced courses, and scrutinized by non-Black parents about their abilities to teach mathematics to their children. Indeed, when analyzing transcript data, we often cannot differentiate the teachers’ time period in the classroom because all teachers spanning multiple decades shared so many similar experiences of racial discrimination and stereotyping.

Racist organizational factors, including continued microaggressions in their work environments, affect Black mathematics teachers’ thoughts of leaving the field. While there are no easy fixes, careful listening to these professionals as a matter of policy is a useful place to start.