Tough Lessons For Teachers Of Color
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now. If you have school-age children, they're either home from school this week or just about to go back, so you're probably thinking ahead to what your student will be doing this spring or maybe even doing some snooping about who his or her teacher will be next year. But what you might not know is that for a fair number of teachers, this could be the beginning of the end of their teaching careers.
According to the National Education Association, the average turnover for all teachers is 17 percent. But that number jumps to 20 percent if you're talking about the turnover in urban school districts. And according to a 2005 University of Pennsylvania study, teachers of color leave the profession 24 percent more often than white teachers do. Amanda Machado wrote about this in a recent article in The Atlantic titled, "Why Teachers of Color Quit."
And she wrote from personal experience, and she is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
AMANDA MACHADO: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: So, you know, this article is, like, describing a problem that's hiding in plain sight. So why don't you tell us a little bit about your story? And then I'm hoping we can broaden it out. So I think a lot of people would want to know why did you originally want to become a teacher?
MACHADO: Yeah, well, I came from an immigrant family background. My mom's from Mexico.
My dad's from Ecuador. And I went to a predominately white high school. So I got to see kind of two sides of the spectrum. And I saw the advantages and luxuries that are afforded to students that go to privileged high schools.
But then I also saw the struggles I was having coming from an immigrant family. So that experience made me see inequality a lot more clearly, and that made me interested in figuring out how to solve it.
MARTIN: You joined Teach for America after graduating from Brown University in 2010, an Ivy League school.
Are the kinds of things that made you want to leave the profession, did that - was that something that you saw right away, or was that something the kind of happened over time?
MACHADO: Definitely happened over time. I was incredibly passionate and excited about the profession at first and throughout my time. But I guess in the back of my mind there was always this struggle that I was having personally about justifying staying in the profession when I was encountering all these challenges, especially when I came from a family that I did.
I kept thinking when my parents sacrificed so much for me to have a reputable job or a less stressful lifestyle, how do I justify then staying in a profession that wasn't necessarily bringing me those things?
MARTIN: Well, you kind of identify three key reasons why teachers of color quit. And I want you to kind of walk us through them. And then, the first thing that you talk about are - how would you describe it? I mean, you know, diversity professionals describe these things as micro-insults, you know, little things that are, like, annoying things that become kind of a big thing because they're kind of indicative of a pattern of just being treated in a way that doesn't seem like a big deal at the time but kind of is or feels like it is.
Could you describe a little bit of those things?
MACHADO: I think for a lot of teachers of color that I knew, they had it a lot worse. They had very culturally insensitive remarks being made to them by fellow teachers, by administration. My school was pretty aware of privilege and race, and they had incredible results getting students into college from all backgrounds.
But I felt like it was more things that I was seeing outside of the class with other teachers in the core members that I was friends with, teachers I would socialize with, that didn't seem to be seeing cultural sensitivity as a priority as they were teaching.
MARTIN: One example that stood out for me was that there was a school in which students were required to take unpaid internships on their breaks that were arranged by the school.
But one of the parents was like, we can't afford to buy these school uniforms that are also required if she does this unpaid internship. But the school was adamant that the student needed to do this unpaid internship rather than a paid job that would've allowed her to pay some of her bills. And that was one of the examples that you cited. Can you cite some others?
MACHADO: Yeah, I think it was also just a general unwillingness that I saw from lots of teachers to even talk about those discussions at all. I don't think they necessarily saw how big of a deal race was to our kids and to us as teachers of color. So they didn't necessarily want to talk about it.
MARTIN: So there were these, like, little nicks, but then there were other things, too. What were some of the other things?
MACHADO: I think the other things were more personal towards me. I think just from coming from the background that I did, I couldn't keep race out of my head. I called it in the piece, big picture anxiety.
I was always thinking about the very different racial and socioeconomic realities that our students have. And I felt a responsibility to them which intensified the pressure. And it made me hypersensitive to anything that didn't relate to their backgrounds. I remember actually there was an interview with Sandra Cisneros done by WNYC where she was talking about how she struggled as a teacher of color. And I remembered a quote from the interview is, where she asked herself, how is a poem going to save my kids? How is writing going to change their lives? And I think that's what I thought of as an English teacher.
So if I'm teaching a lesson on verbs or I have to administer the PSAT, I'm always asking myself why does that matter to a person who lives in the inner-city, who hears gunshots, who has had their house robbed? Why is that going to change their situation?
MARTIN: And then the third issue that you highlight in the piece is that a lot of the teachers of color are first-generation college graduates, more so than many people might realize, and that they felt - you - they - you felt a lot of pressure to kind of do well economically to justify the sacrifices that many of their family members had made to get them through school.
MACHADO: Right, and I don't even think it's necessarily just the economics but also the reputation that comes with it. I mean, for me, I think it was I thought a lot about the prestige. I thought a lot about not necessarily even economic dreams that I can pursue, but other interests that I could pursue, a lifestyle I could pursue if I had a job that wasn't so stressful and so time-consuming and so life-consuming in a lot of ways. And it was unfair to my students who deserved a teacher that didn't have that self-doubt.
MARTIN: Was there kind of a moment - a eureka moment - when you just felt, I got to go? What was the moment that made you sit down and type out your resignation letter?
MACHADO: No, I don't think there was a eureka moment, actually. I think it was a gradual - a gradual thing. Every day, I was thinking less and less about staying in teaching for the long run and then feeling more and more guilty for being in teaching if I knew I wasn't going to stay committed to it. So I thought, you know, I need to tell my administration as early as I can that once the school year ends, I won't be coming back.
MARTIN: As you said, starting our conversation - this is a way - a problem that's hiding in plain sight. I mean, it's interesting that a number of celebrities, the president, the secretary of education, even people like, you know, Chris Rock have become part of campaigns to try to get more minorities into the classroom. What should we do about this? What should we draw from this?
MACHADO: I think there's lots of things we could do. I think, first, staying committed to diversity-training at all levels - at the teacher-training level, teaching topics like that in college, after college, during your teacher career, while you're teaching.
Those topics should be brought up all of the time. I do think we should be still recruiting teachers of color, of course, but finding a way to make the profession seem worth it to them, make it reputable. Give it prestige. Give a financial reward. There's lots of different things that I think would keep people from those backgrounds just wanting to stay.
MARTIN: Did anybody in your family make you feel like a loser? I mean, did anybody say, oh, God, you know, why are you doing this, Amanda? You could be a lawyer. You could be helping your parents out. You could be - I mean, did anybody say that to you, or is that something that came from within?
MACHADO: No. My parents are actually - they're incredibly supportive. My mom's a teacher. She was shocked when I told her I wanted to be a teacher, too. She was saying, oh, no, this is going to be incredibly difficult for you, and I hope you're ready.
But I did - I felt a pressure by myself, a personal pressure. I wanted to make life easier for them, make life easier for me. I missed not being able to see my family as much, living far away, not having - yeah, I think there was just a lot of pressure I put on myself that I didn't want to stay in that profession anymore.
MARTIN: And you still feel guilty for leaving. In fact, you wrote about this. You said, I still feel guilty for leaving the classroom. At the end of the year, some students told me, you're the first Latina I know who went to an Ivy League school.
In one letter, one Latina student wrote, seeing one of my own succeed and experience all that you have makes me want to do more and accomplish the impossible. These comments will always make me feel like I abandoned something or worse - failed at being someone who my students so desperately needed. You know, so what about that? I mean, I could look at it both ways. On the one hand, this is a very individualistic culture where we say, you know, you need to follow your bliss, follow your dreams.
On the other hand, somebody else might say, you know what? Man up. You're - to use a phrase - you know, earlier generations - you know, you're not picking cotton in the hot sun. You know.
MACHADO: Yeah, I definitely had a guilt. I still do now. I still wonder what could have been changed that would have let me stay. I think what the big point here is is that we're missing an opportunity to keep people who are passionate, effective teachers longer in the profession because we start to realize that we don't want to sacrifice what we feel we have to. And I think we're missing out on a lot of great people that could be in the profession if we had that there.
The teachers of color I knew that left are now also kind of in this middle position. They're feeling guilty, but they don't know if they want to go back. And I think there is a lot we could do to persuade them to stay that we're not doing as a society.
MARTIN: Amanda Machado is a writer who's based in Florida. Her piece in The Atlantic is titled "Why Teachers of Color Quit." And she was kind enough to join us from member station WUSF, which is in Tampa. Amanda Machado, thanks so much for joining us. Best of luck to you in your future endeavors, whatever they are.
MACHADO: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.