A Simple ‘I See You’ Could Help Teachers of Color Stay

I reread it slower this time, an email sent to 40+ staff members with the subject line, Congrats and Great Work, from my principal. The email was a glowing account of one of my colleagues’ recent accomplishments:  wrote a grant … new outdoor classroom … dedication … significant contributions to our school community. While I realized all those statements were true and my colleague deserved this recognition, as a teacher of color, I was also hurt and perplexed.  Why do such mass acknowledgements and effusive praise only accompany the victories of my white colleagues?  

I left that job this year.  Was it because my work was constantly being rendered invisible?  Yes, that was part of the reason.

Within the same timeframe, I had also achieved a myriad of successes: presenting at a national conference, organizing and leading an off-campus leadership experience for students, co-creating and implementing a schoolwide literacy approach, publishing an interdisciplinary literacy newsletter, leading a parent/staff diversity book club, being nominated for History Teacher of the Year.  Yet, I’d never had so much as a personal email or note in my mailbox or even a ‘great job’ in passing in the hallway.

Although I wish my experience were unique, it isn’t. Like many teachers of color, my labor was expected, not celebrated. The just-released EdTrust and Teach Plus report If You Listen, We Will Stay, identifies major reasons why teachers of color are leaving the profession. It also articulates why my staying at that school was nearly impossible.

I Got Tired Of Working in a Space Where I Didn’t Belong

It is exhausting being the person who always asks others to consider the needs of students of color. You get labelled. Your convictions are turned into contempt. Like the report states, I had to “deal with these experiences every day and … operate in a space where you don’t belong.”

When I asked directly why my labor went unnoticed, the principal told me she didn’t really know what was going on in my classroom (during my post- observation meeting, mind you), and that she’d liked and shared one of my Tweets. I interpreted that comment to mean, “Wasn’t that good enough for you?” I knew then the invisible tax had become too much to bear.

Yet, the problems aren’t insurmountable. Teachers of color want to stay in the profession. A simple “I see and appreciate the work you do for all your students and what you bring to our school community” could have gone a long way. 

When Schools Devalue Their Teachers of Color, Students Lose

When teachers of color are left to feel like adversaries, they look for comrades elsewhere. That was my approach. I sought other opportunities to grow and learn and share my talents and passions. To create a safe space for myself, I went to Twitter to find like-minded educators and joined more professional organizations to empower myself, instead of relying on my school’s validation or a shift in its culture.

I wish those things had been available and attainable in my own building. I wish there were more opportunities to lead, more principals of color in my district, more candidates of color being considered for open positions, and more opportunities to have dialogue centering race and its impact on our educational system beyond the underachieving subgroup discussion. 

Here’s how school and system leaders can change cultures to keep teachers of color in their classrooms: value them, support them, affirm them, and create a safe space for them. These actions are foundational to education and what we focus on for our students. Teachers of color offer so much to school communities, and their departure harms students and school cultures. 

My former school now has no teachers of color. I think of what that means for students of color and what that means for the overall school community. It’s a dual loss. 

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Keisha Rembert

Keisha Rembert is an assistant professor of teacher preparation at National Louis University. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellowship alumna, 2019 Illinois History Teacher of the Year and NCTE’s 2019 Outstanding Middle Level Educator in the English Language Arts award recipient.

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