Public Schools Are Struggling to Retain Black Teachers. These Ex-Teachers Explain Why

NEW ORLEANS—Before the 2020-21 school year, Christa Talbott, a 20-year veteran of New Orleans schools, had never considered leaving the profession she loved this early.

But then came a dispiriting spring trying to stay connected to her students while COVID-19’s first wave ravaged her hometown. George Floyd’s murder that May left her reeling, exhausted and eager for racial reckoning on her home turf. Talbott (Black) began pushing for change in a school that, despite having a reputation for progressive politics and a dedication proponent of school segregation.
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In the summer of 2020, Talbott and her colleagues asked for a meeting with the charter school’s leaders to discuss racial justice at Lusher, one of the city’s most coveted for families and teachers alike; they also created an antiracism group for teachers. The meeting did not go well. The 44-year old was pondering whether this school year would be the last she taught there at the end of 2020.

“I was tired of being quiet,” she says. “I was tired of sitting back so that white people could feel comfortable.”

Lusher, like America, has long had a teacher diversity problem: Slightly more than 20% of public school teachers—who include those at charter schools— in the U.S. identify as people of color, compared with more than half of students. Only 7% are Black. Lusher’s 2020 census showed that 13% of its teachers are Black, while 22% were students.

The research has been clear for years that many of our schools struggle less with recruiting diverse educators than retaining them: between 1988 and 2018, the number of teachers of color hired by the country’s schools increased at a faster rate than the number of white teachers, yet those diverse educators also left their positions much more quickly, on average.

Now, as Talbott’s story underscores, the problem could be poised to get worse, with Black teachers in particular feeling increased strain.

Into a burning house

A report by RAND Corporation found that black teachers had more chances than other teachers to declare they would be leaving their positions at the beginning of the 2020-21 school years. And a slightly higher percentage of nonwhite teachers than white ones—45% vs. 42%—said that they were considering leaving their position last school year, researchers at the University of Arkansas’ College of Education & Health Professions found. When teachers were asked whether they thought about leaving their position due to COVID-19, the gap was 30 percent versus 22%.

We have failed to address the most vulnerable, despite the dire warnings about a shortage of teachers in certain areas of the country. This includes Black and Latino educators as well as students of color who depend on them. Exposure to people of different races or backgrounds can make students of color more successful academically. They are also more likely stay in school. The same goes for white students.

Meanwhile, many districts and schools continue to believe they can hire their way out of the teacher diversity problem—if they acknowledge it’s a problem at all—and fail to take on the hard work of transforming school culture.

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“A lot of school and district leaders take the approach, ‘We don’t care how messy or untidy or oppressive our house is—just come in anyway,’” says Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, whose organization last fall co-released with the teacher leadership and advocacy organization Teach Plus a report that lays out steps school leaders should take to retain more Black educators.

“They have not spent a second thinking about what kind of environment they are recruiting people to,” says El-Mekki, who invokes Martin Luther King Jr.’s worry, expressed shortly before his death, that he had integrated Black Americans “into a burning house.” “That could stand for teachers of color entering racially hostile school environments today,” El-Mekki says.

Many powerful groups and individuals started investing decades ago in the creation of diverse teachers. Richard Ingersoll, professor at University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (and an expert on teacher population), says that this was a long-standing goal. Ford Foundation joined forces with other organizations during the 1980s in order to prepare and recruit teachers of color. Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education, was instrumental in a drive to recruit 80,000 Black male teachers a decade back. In an effort to increase the number of Black male teachers, the Kellogg Foundation has partnered with several historically Black universities and colleges.

Placentia Yorba Linda School Board discusses critical race theory
Robert Gauthier—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images Supporters and opposers of Critical Race Theory are at odds during the November 16, 2021 meeting of Placentia Yoba Linda school district board.

Partly because of these and related efforts, the number of teachers from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups more than doubled over the last 30 years—from about 327,000 in the late 1980s to 810,000 in the 2017-18 school year. Ingersoll’s research and that of others shows teachers of color are often found in the most difficult schools. These include those where there is high poverty and poor academic performance. And they leave at higher rates largely because of poor working conditions—including a lack of input in key decisions affecting their classrooms—not because of dissatisfaction with teaching more broadly.

“Recruitment is great,” says Ingersoll. “But if you don’t keep them, it’s like putting water in a bucket with holes in the bottom.” Federal and state data on teacher departures lag by a year or more, meaning we won’t have a conclusive picture of the pandemic’s impact on teacher diversity for years to come. Early data suggest that the pandemic may be exacerbated by the problem of the leaky bucket.

The RAND study was based on surveys completed in early 2021—nearly one year into the pandemic—by more than 1,000 teachers across the country. Teachers of all racial groups reported high rates of frequent job-related stress (ongoing stress for teachers was far higher than that of the general population—78% compared with 40%).

Fatigue due to racial stress

For all the attention paid to teacher stress and shortages during the pandemic—perceived and real—too few people are talking about the special strains on teachers of color, says El-Mekki, including pushback against the teaching of racism in America. “So many are speaking of COVID-related stress, but we should strongly consider the ramifications of COVID-related stress on top of racial stress fatigue for teachers of color,” he says.

RAND’s study found that Black teachers were more likely than 23% to quit their jobs by 2021. “That is concerning from a workforce diversity perspective,” says Elizabeth Steiner, the co-author of the report. “It’s crucial that school and district leaders address it.”

Talbott spent 12 mostly happy years at Lusher before the pandemic. After starting as a substitute in 2007, she was hired as an elementary teacher in 2009, drawn by the school’s racial diversity and stellar record in academics and the arts. Lusher enrolls students from kindergarten to 12th grades in two buildings.

Talbott said that she sometimes was the first Black teacher at Lusher for her sixth-grade students. This happened even though she started teaching sixth grade social studies in 2013. It meant a lot to Talbott to help students feel self-recognition, and be affirmative. The Black Student Union was started at her middle school. She made lasting friendships with many colleagues and Lusher family members. One of Talbott’s daughters graduated from Lusher in 2021; the other still attends the high school.

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Talbott suffered from microaggressions. When teachers expressed concerns nearly a decade ago about a new textbook they’d been told to use, Talbott says an administrator told her, “I just feel Like you like being difficult and contentious.” (Among other things, Talbott says the book contained grammatical errors and introduced instructional ideas that teachers did not think supported students’ needs.) It was frustrating and exhausting to teach during a pandemic, especially when Talbott needed to work remotely.

“I’m a teacher who thrives on connection,” she says. “The camera didn’t allow me to make the connections like I’m used to. That did something to my teaching spirit.”

She never thought of leaving school so early in her career, until 2020. Talbott began to push for meetings with administrators shortly after George Floyd’s murder by a white Minneapolis cop officer. This was to talk about the importance of more open dialogue on race at Lusher where white student numbers have increased in recent years to close to 60%. White students account for less than 10% of the city’s public school population overall, and they are concentrated at a handful of selective admissions schools like Lusher.

<strong>“I think my voice was heard at Lusher—until it was something they didn’t want to hear.”</strong>The teachers wanted to discuss the need for more anti-racist professional development at Lusher and the possibility of increasing diversity among Lusher’s leadership, including on the board of directors, whose seven members include two people of color, according to school administrators. School officials should also send clear messages to the community to show that Lusher is a supporter of Black Lives Matter.

Mariana Sheppard; Shaquille Dunbar—T.O.D PhotographyChrista Talbott, Jake Gleghorn

The majority of the time, they encountered silence. Officials told us “they were not there to talk but only to listen,” according to Talbott. “They sat there stone-faced. It wasn’t a conversation—it was more us trying to encourage a conversation.” Over the next several weeks, the teachers tried to follow up but say they were stonewalled.

“They didn’t think we deserved an explanation,” says Jake Gleghorn, 33, who is Asian American and worked alongside Talbott. “They didn’t think we deserved a conversation. They didn’t think we knew anything they didn’t know.”
Talbott and Gleghorn say they believe some administrators were sympathetic to their concerns but ultimately took direction from the school’s long-time CEO, Kathy Riedlinger. (Riedlinger did not reply to a request for comment on Talbott and Gleghorn’s statement.)

Not long after the meeting, Talbott, Gleghorn and other colleagues created an anti-racist working group aimed at helping the school’s teachers become more knowledgeable on subjects of race and equity. Talbott claims that administrators called the meeting secretive and instructed teachers to not communicate with the group via Lusher email.

“I think my voice was heard at Lusher—until it was something they didn’t want to hear,” Talbott says.

Many in the school community wanted to change the name of their school. Robert Mills Lusher was a Confederacy tax collector and had quit as Louisiana state superintendent for schools to ensure that the system would be not kept 100% segregated. (In the fall of 2021, Lusher’s board agreed to change the name, although a new one has not yet been selected.)

As school began, things became increasingly stressful. Talbott began to think about quitting throughout the autumn and winter. She didn’t have a job lined up. “Ultimately it boiled down to me being a Black woman who had a voice and things to say that could make us stronger, and that not being valued and appreciated,” she says.

Talbott was just one of many teachers of color who were questioning their school’s future. Gleghorn was removed from two important school committee leadership posts, which are focused on diversity and learning, after he agitated for change. “I was told they didn’t trust me,” he says, “which I’ve since interpreted as them not thinking I was loyal.”

“Because I was speaking my mind—and not white—they didn’t know how to work with me in a way that made them feel comfortable,” Gleghorn adds. “Had I been a white teacher, I think that there would have been more direct communication.”

Principals are weighed in

Several of Talbott’s and Gleghorn’s concerns were corroborated in a grievance letter to the board sent by former Lusher High principal Steve Corbett, which was obtained by the The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.

The letter, written in December, 2020, said Riedlinger told administrators they were “not to engage in any dialogue” when teachers, including Talbott and Gleghorn, brought forward their concerns in the wake of Floyd’s death. The letter also states that Riedlinger instructed administrators at one time to cease speaking with Anti-Defamation League officials; and told Corbett cancelling a book club meeting for staff to discuss. White Fragility about white people’s discomfort discussing race; and expressed concern that Lusher had provided teachers with a resource library of antiracist materials.

Although Riedlinger was not specifically addressed by a Lusher spokesperson, she did detail the steps the school had taken to achieve racial equality over the past year. “Corbett’s allegations were fully investigated by an independent firm and found not to merit any action by the school,” a Lusher spokeswoman said in a written statement.

Corbett has since left Lusher and now serves as CEO of New Orleans’ Audubon Schools.

Gleghorn as well as Talbott are all gone.

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Gleghorn said that up to the 2020-21 school years, he had been considered for an administrative post at Lusher. “The events of the summer and fall of 2020 really cleared up for me that I didn’t want to work for these people,” he says. Gleghorn was offered a job with the New Orleans Career Center. The nonprofit provides training and support for adults and high school students.

Talbott made the announcement at April’s community meeting that she was leaving the school at the close of the school year. She made the specifics public—particularly the fact that she had no new job lined up—because she didn’t want school leaders to dismiss the departure by implying she left for something “bigger” or “better.”

<strong>“I was tired of being quiet. I was tired of sitting back so that white people could feel comfortable.”</strong>“Real change would be open and honest conversations with all of the stakeholders in our school,” Talbott said at the meeting, reading from a prepared statement. “Real change would be immediate feedback to our students that have the courage to share their experiences. Real change would be me feeling that my voice, as a Black woman, is important.”

In a written statement, a Lusher spokeswoman, Cheron Brylski, described Talbott and Gleghorn as “quality and valued teachers” and said both had expressed a desire to leave for other opportunities before the pandemic. Gleghorn, Talbott and Talbott also denied the claim. “There was no plan prior to the pandemic, prior to George Floyd,” she said. “I had talked to no one about leaving Lusher, period.”) Gleghorn and Talbott had numerous leadership opportunities, the statement said, but it did not address Gleghorn’s concern that he was removed with little explanation from leading the learning and diversity committees.

Brylski denied that Lusher leaders obstructed teachers’ efforts at open conversation of race at the school in the months after George Floyd’s murder. “Our administration listened with respect and consideration, and no follow-up conversations were stonewalled,” she said, portraying the teachers as demanding “immediate action” while Lusher leadership adhered to a slower, “well-established and proven process.”

<strong>“If I’m not going to be the one who … centers conversations on George Floyd or Stop Asian Hate, no one else is going to do it.”</strong>As a result of that process, administrators sent a school-wide communication in July 2020, which read, in part: “We affirm that Black lives matter (sic).To that end, we have defined an initial set of target concerns and action steps…We will continue to refine these as we hear and learn more.”

NEA FoundationTakeru Nagayoshi

Takeru Nagayoshi, the 2020 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, says it’s not surprising that teachers of color are feeling especially strained these days. They have long faced an “invisible tax” that for many has steepened over the last two years, says Nagayoshi, who’s known as TK. “When you work or navigate predominantly white spaces, you feel the need to unpack race and racism,” he says. “If I’m not going to be the one who brings up DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) or center conversations on George Floyd or Stop Asian Hate, no one else is going to do it.”

Nagayoshi (30) decided to quit his position as an Advanced Placement English teacher in New Bedford in August in order to take a job with an educational technology company. Although he still loves many aspects of teaching, he said that he was burned out by several factors. These included increased hours and responsibilities; dealing with decreased morale in a community traumatized; low wages; and an unstructured schedule making it hard to exercise and maintain personal relationships.

“The balance of what was acceptable wasn’t there for me anymore,” Nagayoshi says.

A better way to go

Although schools may struggle more than ever in retaining teachers of color due to the pandemic, there have been some instances when recruitment has increased for diverse candidates. Mississippi, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are among states that, fearful of teacher shortages and facing hiring challenges due to the pandemic, temporarily removed or changed some barriers to entering the field—such as extending emergency licenses or adjusting test score thresholds—that often disproportionately hurt Black candidates, who are more likely to face barriers such as less access to college prep curriculum at their high schools.

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One year and half ago, Mississippi officials temporarily lifted some of the licensure exams requirements for new teachers. They also waived test score requirements for students enrolled in teacher-preparation programs. Mari Williams, a Black woman, was allowed to start a teacher-preparation course. For years she worked as a tutor, then an assistant teacher in Mississippi. Despite her ACT score falling one point below the required minimum to qualify for a teaching job, she was still able to get a degree. Her dream to run her own school was rekindled by the waiver.

“One of the things that convinced me to go back is that we have such a low number of African American educators across the board,” she says. “This is something I can do to bring diversity to the classroom.”

According to preliminary data, the waivers that ended in 2021 have significantly increased diversity among Mississippi’s teacher candidates. The number of students of color entering teacher preparation programs increased by over 400% between 2018 and 2020. (The increase in the number white candidates was around 44%.

<strong>“This is something I can do to bring diversity to the classroom.”</strong>“We were already looking at a huge teacher shortage and we did not need to compound that crisis more with COVID,” says Debra Burson, the director of educator preparation at the Mississippi Department of Education. “We opened the gate rather than closed the gate.”

Kelly Marzoni GardnerMari Williams

But, without an action plan for supporting new teachers who are coming on board, diversity in teacher ranks is not likely to increase in the long-term. “We talk about cultural competence, and many Black educators are trying to navigate their colleagues’ and supervisors’ cultural incompetence on top of everything else,” says El-Mekki.

The report, released in autumn 2021 states that white teachers and school leaders must support educators of color. They “are not expecting perfection, but they are expecting a commitment and plans to do better—and that it’s not just on them,” El-Mekki says.

The report advises putting in place curriculum rooted in students’ cultures and life experiences, and ensuring that Black teachers have access to affinity groups and mentorship. Schools have long been held accountable for all manner of data—everything from student test scores to suspension rates and number of hot school lunches served. The report states that schools must be publicly held accountable for the recruitment and retention teachers of color. That includes school districts’ establishing, and publishing, clear goals when it comes to teacher diversity, and releasing school-climate and teacher-exit surveys, with results broken down by race.

“Very few districts have goals as it relates to teacher diversity,” says El-Mekki. “You can’t move forward if you don’t know where you want to go.”

In July, Lusher families sent the school’s board a letter—now signed by more than 250 parents—pushing for the exact things that El-Mekki encourages. “We are dismayed with the administration and board’s response to student and faculty calls to confront racism within our school community,” it said in part.

Lusher, through its spokeswoman, has repeatedly insisted on the school’s commitment to diversity, equity, and staff well-being. Fewer than 9% of Lusher’s academic staff has left since the start of the pandemic, Brylski said in her statement. Only two out of 33 African American teachers have left. Two out of the three principals and more than half of all new hires in America are of African descent. Lusher’s recent efforts, according to the statement, include the adoption of a K-8 antibias curriculum, development of a “micro-aggression reporting system”and a partnership with a Louisiana State University professor to shore up the school’s approach to diversity and wellness.

When it comes to the recent teacher departures—including Talbott’s and Gleghorn’s—the school says it “encourages all staff to pursue career advancement.”

Both Gleghorn and Talbott are happy in their new jobs but say it wasn’t career advancement that precipitated their decision to leave.

Talbott started to overhaul her after she had given notice. résumé, which hadn’t been updated in 20 years, and she met with a job coach. In the early summer of 2021 she began work for a company to create a new curriculum in social studies for districts and public schools. “My hope is to center the voices of the indigenous, of women, of Black people,” Talbott says. “Normally, when you are looking at history, the voices that are centered are those of landowning white men.”

Talbott doesn’t regret her job decision. “It’s a selfless profession, but I had to be selfish,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in a job where I dreaded getting up every day and going to work.”

She cried the first day last August of the 2021-22 school school year, as she watched students from New Orleans return to school. They were her life. They were not the reason she was leaving. It had been about following her mother’s lifelong advice: Go where you feel valued.

The Hechinger Report was the source of this story. It is an independent, non-profit news organization that focuses on inequalities and innovations in education. Visit for more information.


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