‘It’s a Breath of Fresh Air to Know I’m Not an Island’ Teachers of Color Reflect on New Alumni Network
By Kathy Pierre
The burdens placed upon people of color in society don’t disappear once they become educators; in many situations, they’re magnified. In Teach Plus and the Education Trust’s 2019 report, “If You Listen, We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover,” one of the five findings was that teachers of color “experience an antagonistic work culture that leaves them feeling unwelcome and/or invisible.” One solution to that widespread problem is emphasizing community and affinity spaces for educators of color.
In 2022, Teach Plus launched the Teachers of Color (TOC) Alumni Network which gives Teach Plus program alumni the opportunity to create an affinity connection and collaborate with other teachers of color from across Teach Plus’s regions. An affinity group is a space for people with commonalities to foster a sense of belonging based on their shared attributes. The spaces can serve various functions, including skills building and professional development.
In addition to being an affinity space, the group also shares input and feedback on practice and policy issues in their states and within the country to hopefully improve the teaching profession and increase equitable outcomes for students.
“I enjoy being in a community with like-minded people who understand what we have to go through on a day-to-day basis,” 2021 Illinois Teacher of the Year Justin Johnson, a member of the Alumni Network, said. Although Johnson is part of other communities and affinity spaces for educators of color, he says there’s no such thing as too much community, so he became an active member of the alumni network.
One theme members of the Alumni Network noted was not just community with other teachers of color, but being surprised at how from California to Massachusetts, the issues they faced were similar.
“I think whenever we get a chance to just check in with each other, it’s interesting to find that we are dealing with the same issues no matter our location, especially coming out of the pandemic and transitioning back into in-person teaching,” Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alumna Meghann Seril said. “Even though there are still many, many challenges, it helps to know that you’re not the only one dealing with them so you don’t feel isolated and then you can reach out and connect to others.”
With Teach Plus alumni from all across the country and with different levels of experience as educators, learning from other teachers is an added bonus of being in the TOC Alumni Network.
“I enjoy being in community with like-minded people, but there’s also something to be learned because I’ve gotten to hear something that’s worked for somebody else or something that they struggle with that they figured out a way around,” Johnson, a Black music teacher, said. “Any opportunity I get to be around educators of color who are in the space and making a difference, I want to try to find an opportunity to do that.”
For Melody Bradley, a Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellowship alumna who has been an educator for 23 years, being able to pour into educators who don’t have as much experience as she does is as important to her as having another community. She sees herself as a community builder.
Michele Lamons-Raiford, a Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alumna, has been an educator for 22 years and she’s finding that she needs community more now than at any point in her career as a Black woman.
“Because of the pandemic, a lot of things were amplified in education: the inequities, the lack of diversity and inclusion, the discrepancies in infrastructures. Did I experience these things in the last 22 years? Absolutely, but the pandemic amplified everything, so these spaces are needed more than ever,” Lamons-Raiford said.
Members of the TOC Alumni Network have been integral participants in the Teach Plus research on how districts and schools can increase the recruitment, support, and retention of educators of color nationwide.
In “If You Listen,” educators of color around the country describe feeling undervalued and antagonized within their school cultures and having to self-scrutinize every action and conversation as marginalized members of their campuses.
Johnson refers to that as the “extra stuff.” Like “not having to obsess over an email response because you think somebody could potentially take something out of context and start an issue for you” or “watching my facial expression because it might be misinterpreted. Things like that that I wish I didn’t have to focus on but they’re very much embedded in my day-to-day activity.”
Bradley’s example of the “extra stuff” teachers of color are tasked with is being thrust into a disciplinarian role, which leads to exhaustion.
“With students of color you don’t want to be seen as [a disciplinarian], but you also understand the burden of being their protector. So I don’t want to deal with interacting with students of color in a negative way all the time, but I also feel the need to do that so that I can try to protect them and ensure that they have equitable treatment,” she said.
Jeannie Penrod, a Latina Senior Policy Fellow with Teach Plus Nevada, has found her place in the TOC Alumni Network and sees it as a place where she can feel seen and heard without being uncomfortable. Part of that is the inclusiveness of the network from its outset.
“There’s diversity there and I think it was welcoming and inclusive from the [introduction], that this is not exclusive to just one demographic or one ethnicity. We are all in this together to be better for each other,” she said.
Although she’s been an educator for nearly two decades, Penrod said it took doing research on teacher recruitment and retention to understand the dynamics of what she was experiencing.
“I never really realized that I was almost tokenized,” she said. It led her to ask herself and others questions like, “Why aren’t people staying and what are we doing to help people to make this a viable career and a career where they can have longevity and make an impact.”
The themed meetings the TOC Alumni Network has held so far have underscored its value as a space for vulnerability and exploration without judgment. For example, an early session emphasized teacher mental health. Not only did the teachers talk about their experiences, but they talked about the systemic issues of educator mental health.
“The variance in the perspectives during that discussion was just very invigorating,” Bradley said, referring to the various experiences and perspectives represented on the call. What stuck out to her was being able to talk “outwardly about mental health and the need for more mental health days as professionals and it not being a taboo thing, and understanding how we’re experiencing the trauma of the pandemic and the trauma we’re experiencing with our students.”
For one meeting, the hosts of the “8 Black Hands” podcast, a podcast hosted by Black male educators Ray Ankrum; Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development; Ismael Jimenez and Chris Stewart, joined and shared their perspectives about education from the perspectives of marginalized students, including those of students of color and students with disabilities. For Seril, hearing from marginalized educators and seeing how the other TOC Alumni Network members on the call responded made her feel more connected and inspired as a Filipina.
That meeting resonated with Laimons-Raiford especially. Immediately after it, she emailed TOC Alumni Network leader and Teach Plus Nevada Executive Director Dr. Tonia Holmes-Sutton, telling her it was one of the most insightful and challenging virtual meetings she could remember participating in. Not only did she relate as an educator, but she related as a parent when it came to topics of advocating for students.
All five teacher leaders who spoke to Teach Plus expressed their wish that the TOC Alumni Network expands to reach more teachers across the nation and provide them with the community feeling and sense of belonging they’ve been able to build this year.
“And I find that having these spaces with people who look like me, people who have similar purposes, as far as impacting kids of color as well as teachers of color, this is something that is really edifying for me, and I really am happy to be a part of it. I’m happy to be on the founding leadership cabinet and I think that Teach Plus is better for it.”
Kathy Pierre is Communications and Media Manager at Teach Plus.