The racist realities of teacher retention

All students, and the teaching profession itself, benefit from the work of Black teachers. Yet, huge numbers of quality Black teachers have been barred and pushed from the teaching profession by systemic racism. This post examines why acknowledging and removing these barriers is a necessary step towards reducing the Black teacher shortage and improving the quality of education for all children. 

The systematic, intentional elimination of Black teachers from the teaching force has a long and ugly history. According to a July 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education, while the overall proportion of teachers of color (TOC) has increased slightly from 1987 – 2012, the proportion of Black teachers in schools over that same period decreased from 8% to 7%.  In fact, the number of Black teachers in America’s schools has been declining steadily since the 1950s, starting with the firing of tens of thousands of Black educators during the fight to desegregate Southern schools. As one veteran of that era recalled in a conversation with me, “We were told that we weren’t good enough to teach white children.” Some were fired outright; others were forced to be teacher assistants under less qualified and lower seniority whites.

As I noted on the 60th Anniversary of the Brown decision: “Just as African American students have been the victims of low expectations in the classroom, African American educators have been the victims of low expectations inside the larger education community. Within a profession that itself has struggled for respect and empowerment, the voices of Black educators have been historically muted, particularly in the areas of educational policy and reform.”

The need for more Black teachers

According to the Department of Education, while 16% of all public school students are black, 82% of teachers in K-12 are white. However, a recent study at Johns Hopkins University found that Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are much more likely to complete high school and consider college. In fact, one study reveals that students of all races seem to prefer Black teachers. Ironically, lead researcher of the Johns Hopkins study, Nicholas Papageorge, describes what they found as “the power of [teacher] expectations.”

Blocking the schoolhouse door

Despite this clear need for more Black teachers,  in the teacher preparation and licensure pipeline, only 42% of Black students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in education successfully complete those programs within six years, while 73% of white students do. During my 10-years on Mississippi’s Educator Licensure Commission, I fought, unsuccessfully, the politicized practice of setting cut scores for the teacher licensure exam well above the top scores of most Black teacher candidates, even though the test publisher insisted these candidates placed within the range of proficiency.

Even if black teacher candidates navigate the systemic barriers in teacher preparation, black teachers like Marilyn Rhames, must also contend with discriminatory district hiring practices. Hiring inequities not only affect teachers of color but also cause a disservice to all students. Renowned teacher educator, Gloria Ladson-Billings, argues that white students have an even greater need than their African American peers to encounter Black teachers at some point. Likewise, Dr. Travis Bristol insists that teachers of color are essential to helping their colleagues and the teaching profession develop the ability to work effectively and ethically with our increasingly multicultural student population.

Racism fuels Black teacher attrition

The problem, however, is not just getting more Black teachers into K-12 classrooms and schools, it’s keeping them there.  

After getting hired, Black teachers often face continued racism in our working environments, including racially motivated challenges to our competency.

Black male teachers often complain of being made the de facto disciplinarian for every Black student in their school.

Not surprisingly, Black teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate than any other group, but many of them are not leaving by choice. African American researcher/educator, Dr. Terrenda White, makes a critical observation:

Pre-retirement departures among veteran educators of color…are sometimes the result of massive dismissals on the part of reformers…The sad irony here is that as veteran teachers of color are now blamed for the conditions of these schools, one consistent finding about teachers of color was their commitment to work in the very schools where other teachers were less willing to work, and whose departure from these schools was historically much lower.

This disturbing trend continues. I’ve seen it in my own career, and others have documented it around the nation, such as recent examples in Chicago and New Orleans.

So, how can we get (and keep) more Black teachers? 

We can start by acknowledging and confronting the racism within the profession, and treating Black teachers with respect and equity.  That’s harder than it sounds within an educational system that by design criminalizes Black children starting in preschool.  Many of our (white) colleagues can’t even imagine the effects working within culturally damaging school settings have on Black teachers, some of whom fought their way as students through these same dysfunctional systems. Witnessing and fighting the racist inequities suffered by my own children and their peers in the same school system for which I worked has been among the most wrenching experiences of my teaching career.

Yet, it is often our desire to see those conditions forever changed that has inspired many Black candidates to enter teaching. Eliminating education’s racist realities will require hard transformational work all along the continuum, and not just by Black teachers. One promising trend is the development of teacher residencies (as mentioned earlier in this series by Jessica Keigan), particularly when they are connected to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as those at Xavier University of Louisiana or at North Carolina A & T State University. The Department of Education report referenced earlier notes that 16% of all Black teacher candidates attend HBCUs. It makes sense that districts or systems serious about increasing the numbers of Black teachers would partner with HBCUs in these types of programs.

To attract and keep more Black teachers, we should also continue to raise professional status for all teachers, and the best way to do that is through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Just as there is an important distinction between someone with an accounting degree and a Certified Public Accountant, there are critical differences between someone given a state license to supervise a classroom, and a teacher who has demonstrated highly accomplished practice, which includes genuine cultural competency.

Non-negotiable: Anti-bias training for all

For the present and much of the foreseeable future, most Black children will be taught mostly by white teachers. Therefore, anti-racist, anti-bias training must be part of every teacher’s preparation and ongoing professional development. For the children’s sakes, and for the sake of the teaching profession, we must do more to ensure all teachers are culturally competent/proficient to work with all students, parents/guardians, communities, and their colleagues. Meanwhile, those of us committed to public education must continue the fight to expose and correct existing structures of racism embedded in our own school systems.

Renee’s post is part of CTQ’s May/June blogging roundtable on teacher shortages. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.


  • JonEckert

    Thank you, Renee

    Whenever I read anything by you, Renee, I expect to have my thinking challenged. This post was SO hard to read as a white male in teacher preparation. Much of what you shared, I had read and seen before, but there were multiple insights that you provided that were particularly compelling and new for me. Like you, we deal with the issue of cut scores on exams in Illinois that eliminate many potential teachers of color. The point about black male teachers being "de facto disciplinarians for every black student in their schools" really resonated for me, as I have seen this in practice. Thank you for your recommendations as well. They offer some hope in the face of deep societal challenges as your example about your own children's experiences in the system where you serve demonstrates. Thanks most of all for your example.

  • ReneeMoore

    Paying Attention is Half the Battle

    Thank you, Jon for your thoughtful response. It was a hard piece to write because I've lived every part of that, multiple times. 

    The part about the cut scores was a jarring experience for me. As I stated, I was part of the battle over them in my state, but then I learned that other states had similar procedures/practices. Think of the thousands of potential Black teachers whose hard work and dreams have been crushed unnecessarily. What great impact they could have had.

    Acknowledging that these practices exist, that they are embedded in the system–not just the occasional prejudicial act of an individual–is crucial to ending them. 

  • JohnHolland

    “We can start by

    "We can start by acknowledging and confronting the racism within the profession, and treating Black teachers with respect and equity.  That’s harder than it sounds within an educational system that by design criminalizes Black children starting in preschool.  Many of our (white) colleagues can’t even imagine the effects working within culturally damaging school settings have on Black teachers, some of whom fought their way as students through these same dysfunctional systems."

    Renee, I agree with what you wrote above, and you have done in this post, "confronting the racisim in our profession" is easier said than done. Our school will begin working towards "cultural prociency" next year. As you know, I have explored culturally relevant pedagogy fairly deeply. I wonder though, when you write, "Therefore, anti-racist, anti-bias training must be part of every teacher’s preparation and ongoing professional development." It seems this is a step farther than the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings. It suggests that non-teachers of color should not just try to understand and relate to the perspectives of our students while attempting to bridge the gap between the school culture and the student/family culture. It seems like anti-racist/anti-bias training would put in place to prevent new teachers from making mistakes related to race and bias in their classrooms. I take this from the connotation of "training" vs. "education." In order for this to work there would have to be acceptance of the importance of race not only to how our schools function but also in society. We would have to admit that America, as a nation, is biased in many ways. I think one key point  in our steps forward are made when you mention that all students benefit from being taught by black teachers. When I read that I wanted to know, "Why?" What is it that a black teacher offers students that white teachers don't offer? I suspect it is the gift of perspective but I want to know more. As I followed the link and read the study this is one working theory.

    One of the keys to how white privilege works is that a white person does not have to translate across cultuarl boundaries. They are within the culture (white) that schols operate in (dominant). Teachers of color may need to, at some point during their educational career, learn how to cross a boundary from their own culture to the dominant culture. As much of teaching has to do with "inculturating" young people into the dominant forms of culture through the content areas students see that the ability to translate across cultural boundaries helps them to build their own bridges to the content. I think this may relate to what you wrote, "Many of our (white) colleagues can’t even imagine the effects working within culturally damaging school settings have on Black teachers, some of whom fought their way as students through these same dysfunctional systems." What do you think? Is it more about translation across cultures or is it more about becoming aware of and preventing bias?


    • ReneeMoore

      “This Bridge Called My Back”

      John, you raise two important points that I couldn't expand on in the space of the blog. 

      The call for anti-racist/anti-bias training is a pragmatic response to the the current and future demographic of the teaching profession. It will not be enough for individual teachers to be more culturally aware and proficient (necessary as that is); we also have to be, in many ways untrained in how we have all been socialized in this country around issues of race. We need to be able to recognize racism and discrimination in the systems in which we work, expose it, challenge it, and be active participants in dismantling racism [which is a system of violence, not an individual attitude]. One of many examples: As the only Black student in a college creative writing class, I was challenged over a personal narrative about my experiences with racism on the campus. The professor and my classmates saw no irony in their defense of the school, "There's no racism here; well, maybe some latent racism…." and their negation of my lived experience ("You're overreacting; what happened to you wasn't racism….").  These type of negations happen to Black students and teachers continually throughout the educational system. They are painful, dishonest, and damaging not only to the souls of the Black people involved, but to those of the perpetrators. 

      What do black teachers offer students that white teachers don't? For many of my white students, I'm their first extended interaction with a Black person as an authority figure; with many of my white colleagues, the first time they've dealt with a Black person as a peer. For some, that can be a life-changing experience. 

      Your working theory moves in the right direction, but let's take a few more steps. Teachers of color, not may–MUST–at several points in our lives and education learn: a) that there are cultural boundaries, b) how and when to cross them. It's part of our successful survival. We bring that lived experience and valuable knowledge into the classroom, and it finds its way into our teaching. Some are more intentional in sharing that understanding with students; with others, it affects the style of teaching. Many of my mentors and professional predecessors, veteran Black teachers, were very direct about this in their teaching. I can remember Black teachers and principals who warned us that we would be mistreated and disrespected in our academic and professional careers, but that we had to be anchored in our identity and determined in our purpose. 

      • JohnHolland

        Common History


        Your response brings me to where I always begin and return. History. Many of my black teacher mentors were also explicit about adressing racisim in my own practice. They were unafraid of speaking about race as they addressed my own experience situated in the dominant culture. This seems to move beyond the awareness we often see in higher education into a praxis of equity we lack in our preparation. Thank you for your perspective.

    • DonaldNicolas

      Change the Narrative


      Thank you so much for your perspective.

      To answer your question from my point of view as a black educator who has taught in all types of socioeconomic, racial, and cultural environments it is more about awareness.  Every student needs the same thing but they all ask for it differently.  You know that as a teacher you have the power to hurt or heal.  Teachers essentially can choose where they want to work.  If you choose as a white teacher to work in a diverse environment it would behoove you to understand deeply the various cultures of the students you work with and have compassion.  

      My worldview allows me to believe in a black child's future very deeply.  For some of our white counterparts their worldview is that a black child's capability is limited in some way, even without knowing the full ability of the child, that's where bias comes in.  We as black educators tend to carry that worldview full circle with all cultures, deeply.  This is why the research in Renee's blog supports that children of all races benefit from having a black educator.  So based on what you're trying to understand I would challenge you to change the narrative in terms of when you hear/see white teachers use code words to diminish the potential of a black child or when you see that teacher writing a referral for frivilous infractions out of frustration.  Remember the research supports that white teachers write more referrals and black students are more likely to face more discipline from school administration when that child has a white teacher as opposed to a black teacher.  

      Your voice is powerful, change the narrative.  

      Thank you for your willingness.

      • JohnHolland

        code words


        I appreciate your willingness to share. I am keenly interested in frames in how we understand the processes of education. As a profession our language seems better suited to talking around substantive issues as opposed to digging deeper to understand them. What are some of the code words you have seen used in the school contexts you describe?

  • JustinMinkel

    Higher up the hierarchy: People of color in positions of power

    Renee, I'm curious as to your thoughts on how diversifying power structures–the number of people of color who are superintendents, principals, school board members, legislators, and so on–might impact the diversity of our teaching force. My district is about 40% Latino, yet the School Board, City Council, and virtually every principal and administrator up the chain is white. 

    I gave a speech at my district back-to-school event, and a young African-American man came up to me, his face glowing, to tell me how excited he was about his school year. A few years later, he left the district, reporting racism from colleagues and his principal; his complaints up the chain of administrators were met with deaf ears or even hostility. I have only heard his point of view, but I have no reason to doubt his account. I wonder if diversifying the teachers in a district will always be limited, when it comes to the racist treatment he experienced and which you describe, without more people of color in positions of power who have not just read about or discussed racism, but have lived it.

    How do we bring about that shift?

    • ReneeMoore

      Not Just a Surface Change


      The situation you describe with your colleague is a wide-spread problem that many Black educators and other educators of color have run hard up against in their careers. However, the problem has some layers of complexity as well. Just having Black people in higher spots on the educational hierarchy may not, of itself. solve some of those problems. One, because racism is systemic and the system is designed to perpetuate it. Ironically, that's why it's often difficult for Black people to get into some of those positions. Once in those higher positions, they may find it even more difficult to single-handedly change the negative impacts of our educational system on Black children and educators. 

      But there is also the very real problem of internalized racism. Some of the worst treatment I've experienced or witnessed towards Black students came from Black educators.  In some cases these persons were acting on their own; in others they were following directives, but the outcomes were devastating. Generations of racism and discrimination has had unmeasurable, traumatic effects on all those touched by it, and on our society. It's not going away easily or quickly. Note in the piece, I said we need anti-racist/anti-bias training for ALL teachers. 

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Talk Vs. Action

    Thank you Renee for writing this post — which really could be the introduction of a book (or two, and a course of study for preservice and practicing teachers) because there's so much to explore here — historical context, contemporary research and the power of your personal story and experiences. (Also, thinking about a recent blogging for impact webinar, it's a great mentor text for aspiring edubloggers with the balance of both research and story — geeky writing teacher aside). 

    Now onto content.

    The district where I most recently taught for the last 10 years and where my (Ethiopian born) son will attend kindergarten starting in August is incredibly diverse with over 130 languages and cultures represented w/in district boundaries. It is one of the reasons we chose to work, live and find a faith community in Aurora, CO. What I've noticed is that we talk a lot about our diversity as an asset and strength, but have done little to leverage the rich and varied experiences and backgrounds of students and families. And of course, like so much of the rest of the country, APS studetns are by and large taught by white teachers. 

    In thinking about John's comments and your post I'm wondering a lot about the teacher prep system and  how we prepare (or in most cases don't prepare) teachers to be culturally competent from day 1. I know the bulk of my knowledge about institutional racism stems from my undergrad sociology coursework (not education classes) and that even ongoing professional learning focused on equity issues and institutional racism focuses on talk and exploration of ideas — not action –i.e. what we should be/could be doing as white classroom teachers teaching a diverse student body. 

    Like other forms of prep that live at the theoretical vs. practical level we have lots of evidence that shows us understanding is not enough. Acknowledging institutional racism is not enough (thinking of John's training vs. education paradigm above as well). And neither understanding nor acknowledgement will in and of themselves close the opportunity gap — by that I mean the opportunity for all students to benefit from the expertise and experience of Black teachers — a gap in too many schools across the country. 

    What are models of places doing serious anti-bias and anti-racist training well? Places where they've moved beyond understanding and acknowledgement to action and change? 

  • KristaGalleberg

    Student perspective

    Thank you for this post. It resonates with me, both with my experience as a student and as a prospective teacher. For kindergarten through 12th grade, I attended my local, mostly white, public school. In that time, I had one African American teacher. He was one of my best teachers I've ever had, and he had very high expectations of his students. Beyond the lessons about history that I learned in ninth grade, I remember one moment of class clearly – it was the beginning of the year, and Mr. C had to speak to a (white, female) student about her missing homework. He took this as an opportunity to tell all of us that he would never be alone with any of his students. He had a buddy system: even for very personal conversations, such as discipline or academic interventions, at least two students had to be in the room with him. No other teacher of mine had this strict, formal policy, and it was clear that Mr. C had this policy because he was a male teacher of color in a mostly white, very privileged school. Mr. C spoke to this student with the missing homework at his desk, after class, while her friend waited by the back desks.

    This moment taught me more about the racial and social realities of the United States than almost any other moment in my K-12 schooling experience. I am so grateful for this, because I do feel that I experienced an "opportunity gap" by not being exposed to more peers, teachers and role models of color. Now, as a college student interested in social justice work, I am finally getting the opportunity to learn how to work with and leverage the strength of diverse voices and experiences. Thank you again for your post. 

    • ReneeMoore

      Made my day

      Thank you, Krista, for sharing your experience and what it meant for you. It encourages me more than you know.

  • DonaldNicolas



    As a black male educator I fully resonate with your assertions about racism in throughout our educational system.  I would submit that some of our wounds are self-inflicted.  At times when black administrators get into positions they are apprehensive to hire black teachers out of fear of their hiring decisions being judged.  I guess the general idea would say that with more diversity "at the top" that diverse administrators would be interested in recruiting and retaining diverse staff which is not always the case, unfortunately.

    This is why I think this post is particularly important in that it should be a priority for principals, the college of education community, and school board induction staffs to prioritize that teachers of color are supported and treated fairly.

    I thought of a reality.  Black educators are facing significant trauma either by a) working at a school with a needy population and witnessing their students undergoing difficult circumstances or b) working at a school with a non-diverse teaching base and feeling alienated 

    Very rarely are black teachers placed in a situation where the staff is diverse (plethora of teachers of color), the needs of the school are met, relatively speaking, and the student base is relatively well off.  This can be an actual reality for many white teachers which is why many of them stay and continue to promulgate the field.  

  • gdsherif

    Thank you!

    As always, your posts are passionate, focused, and grounded.

    So much of what you've described and is painfully familiar. That's why self-care and wellness is an essential tool in every teachers toolkit. From wellness, we can advocate for equity and social justice alongside the joy and passions of learning.Racist (and sexist and classist) mechanisms in schools have the potential to induce stress and dysfunction. It's real. Luckily, a colleague recommended Barbara Larivee's Cultivating Teacher Renewal (2012), and the importance of positive self-talk.

    Personally, I've come to green, healthy, and sustainable schools as a framework for education reform. All students and staff deserve access to schools that conserve energy, promote wellness, and advance equity between people, planet, and economy. I also think that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) are a useful framework to help teachers and students better understand inequities, and how they are alike and dissimilar around the world. The SDGs can also help us imagine and create a more just and verdant world that we and our students need.

    For more on UN SDGs, follow @TeachSDGs on Twitter.


  • ReneeMoore

    TWT (Teaching While Traumatized)

    Thank you for your comments Donald. 

    You are spot on with that part about the two sources of trauma for Black teachers. I remember when I taught in the high school my children attended. They were in biology classes that according to the state curriculum (and state test) required a lab. The predominantly white school across town and a fully stocked lab; so did the predominantly white magnet elementary school. But my two black science teacher colleagues at our school had to buy demonstration lab kits out of their own pockets and let students watch the lab (they didn't want to let one or two do it if everyone couldn't).  

    Another English teacher and I dumpster dived at the white high school to get their discarded books so our students would have at least some because the district refused to order new books for us.  

    This list could go on and on; and these practices had been going on for decades. 

    Outside of what we see happening to our students, and to us, in our own schools, we have to deal with day-after-day of black people being murdered by those who are supposed to serve-and-protect. I can't look at my students and not see Trayvonn, Michael, Tamil, Cassandra or countless others. Black teachers ask: Is my cafeteria co-worker going to be the next Philando Castile….am I next?

    But through it all, we have to teach. Clearly, there is a need for support and self care; more important is the larger need in our society and schools for recognition, repentance, reconcilation, and reconstruction (to paraphrase Rev. Barber).