‘Run ragged’: Black teachers are being crushed by mental health, racism and lack of support. Meet two groups working to help them

Two years ago, a family member called me out of the blue to say they were leaving their career as an elementary school teacher after eight years. Our family would learn that this lovely young Black teacher who’d entered the profession intending to make a difference in their Black and brown community was having a mental health crisis.

I wanted to explore what would cause so many teachers, particularly teachers of color like my relative, to flee the classroom. Why were teachers having so many mental health issues? And where could they find support?

First, I learned that the percentage of Black teachers in the U.S. pales compared to that of white teachers — only 7% identify as Black, and only 2% are Black men.

As for the breakdown of American public school students (elementary and secondary), over 50% are either Black, Latino, Asian, or Indigenous, according to Pew Research data from 2018 to 2019.

Those numbers themselves play a role in the stress on Black teachers, and many whom I spoke with, my family member included, said what they were vitally missing most was community. But how can teachers find community with so few colleagues who look like them? And even if they connect with other teachers of color or Black teachers in their schools, how long will it be before those teachers leave?

A 2021 study published by Educational Researcher found that Black teachers more than doubled their counterparts when it came to leaving the classroom after their first year in the field.

Even if there were a hiring bonanza of teachers of color (which there was between 1998 and 2018), according to Time Magazine, sadly, most left the profession more quickly than their white colleagues.

“I would prefer to work with as many different kinds of people as possible. … Diversity that matches the students. It should look like our population,” my family member, who prefers we not use their name, told me. “It would be better to have support and be able not to be the one person on staff, saying things like, ‘Hey, try to remember it’s Black History Month. Try to teach about Black people,’” they said.

In 2014, Sharif El-Mekki co-founded The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization that focuses on helping schools to both recruit and maintain Black educators nationally.

Not only does El-Mekki, now the director and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, founded in 2019, advise schools on recruiting and retaining Black teachers, but additionally offers paid apprenticeship programs for Black male, college, and high school students.

El-Mekki’s work focuses on creating a Black teacher pipeline with professional development programs, apprenticeships, and campaigns that amplify the message that Black teachers matter.

“So while we recruit Black teachers, most of our professional development is with white teachers,” El-Mekki says. “After George Floyd was murdered, we had a two-year contract to work in Minneapolis public school systems because they invited us to work with their school and district staff,” he adds.

El-Mekki explains that Black teachers are often attracted to some of the most underresourced school districts because that may be where they went to school.

“If we create schools and districts that are good for Black students to learn, then it’s also going to be a good place for Black teachers to teach. But so often, it’s the opposite— both bad places for Black students to learn, which means it’s also going to be generally bad places for Black teachers to teach,” El-Mekki says.

El-Mekki says that too often, racism gets whitewashed with ‘fancy words like micro and macro aggressions’ and school HR departments usually aren’t much help.

“So, already, I’m just experiencing biases throughout. Then, I get to the classroom, and I’m experiencing this racism from colleagues. But then I’m also being triggered by the experiences I had as a student in some of these same seats,” El-Mekki says.

He explains that all of these experiences lead to “deep racial stress” that are often misunderstood or ignored by white colleagues, school leadership, and even school board members.

Micia Mosely is the founder and director of the Black Teacher Project, a program that sustains and develops Black teachers. The program’s motto is “Every child deserves a Black teacher.”

“There’s a lot to me that goes into being a well teacher and a well Black teacher right now,” Mosely says.

She confirms that teachers “are looking to find community.” And with recent attacks on teachers with regard to teaching “critical race theory” (CRT), many educators don’t feel safe. “And in some cases, they feel like they’re being asked to teach lies,” Mosely says.

In February, the Black Teacher Project held its first “wellness retreat” for teachers. She says the retreat was “two days of Black educators gathering and really focusing on their wellness, both physically and mentally — both understanding the importance of it but, more importantly, engaging in it.”

Mosely describes the retreat as a place where teachers can learn mindfulness, not to share with their students, “But you’re going to get this mindfulness because you deserve it, and you need it.”

“I think part of it is finding professional development that honors the experience of educators and is not always tied to achievement that is based on things that are often just as racist as the thing that’s stressing out the teacher,” Mosely says.

Mosely says the Black Teacher Project also offers a “virtual design lab,” where educators come together in teams, and by teams, it can just be another Black teacher that you know. “They are using a Liberatory Design process, which is a mashup of design thinking and equity practice to work with their students to develop wellness practices.” Mosley adds that the program is “powerful” for teachers because they “get to discover themselves and their students. There’s a concurrent internal healing process that they go through that’s just about them.”

One of the most pressing issues that teachers face across the nation is being woefully underpaid. And all of the teachers I spoke with said in addition to other stressors, such as microaggressions and, lack of support from administrators, poor salaries made things worse.

In President Joe Biden’s February State of the Union speech, he clearly made the argument for higher teacher pay.

“Let’s give public school teachers a raise,” Biden said. And lawmakers in states across the country, on both sides of the political aisle, have been outspoken about legislating higher salaries for teachers in order to retain them.

Low teacher wages play a big part in the stress on all teachers, particularly Black teachers because many of them are carrying immense student debt.

“The issues around student debt disproportionately affect Black and brown teachers. … If you can’t see yourself making it on a teacher’s salary and you have a net of $200, $300, $400, $500 every month about student debt, it puts you in a spiral,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the country, says.

El-Mekki says that in the past couple of years, he’s been made aware of a growing number of spaces for self-care for Black educators, particularly self-care awareness. Some have names, and some aren’t as formal, but there are groups of teachers who come together to support one another, share wins and challenges, and have a space to unite, he says.

“The purest form of activism is teaching Black children well, and that has fueled me for 30 years… that means they [students] need great Black teachers so that they can be taught well so that it can influence the system.”

My family member says the work of teachers is essential: Kids thrive when there are more teachers in classrooms with more resources to teach well.

“It just seems like a very basic thing, but I think it’s just that we don’t value education enough to put the real money in there that it deserves and hire more people. There just needs to be, like, more people. Everyone has run thin, kind of run ragged, and then they can’t make good choices,” they said.

Rebekah Sager is an award-winning journalist and published author with over a decade of experience. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, Playboy, VICE, Cosmopolitan, The Los Angeles Times and more. She currently works as a reproductive reporter at the American Independent.

This story was supported by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, where Rebekah is a 2022-2023 fellow. Read her first story here.

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