How Trauma Impacts the Well-Being of Black Women Educators

Research Commentary | Mental Health

How Trauma Impacts the Well-Being of Black Women Educators

Sarah was a participant in our Voices of Change research project on the classroom experiences of Black women teachers. She shares her experiences as an educator and how trauma impacts her and other Black women educators.

By Sarah Wright and Mi Aniefuna     Jan 31, 2024

How Trauma Impacts the Well-Being of Black Women Educators

This article is part of the guide: Exploring the Classroom Experiences of Black Women Educators.

In the fall of 2023, EdSurge Research invited Black women educators to engage in a community-based, participatory research project and tell their own stories about their classroom experiences. All first-person accounts in this article belong to Sarah Wright and the participants of this study, with research support from Mi Aniefuna. You can find out more about this research project in the first article of this series here.

Navigating school spaces is a journey and students’ needs are ever changing. While educators are leaving the field at unprecedented rates, many districts are scrambling to meet the needs of all their students.

As a parent, I felt the impact of the departures when I had to guide my then seventh-grader through math without a consistent teacher after a mid-year exit. School districts, colleges and government-sponsored programs are dedicating time and resources to diversifying their faculty and staff pipeline, but are we spending enough time focused on policies and programming that aid in retaining quality faculty and staff? Are we getting to the root of the departures and career pivots? The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these longstanding workforce issues and blanketed schools in extreme stress, grief and trauma that aggravated existing teaching and learning issues.

It is not lost upon me that schools are complex organizations with a wide variety of experiences, yet there were many similarities shared among my peers who co-created the healing circles with EdSurge Research and the Abolitionist Teaching Network.

This article unveils prominent themes that were uncovered during our time together along with implications and further considerations for research regarding Black women’s experiences and trauma-informed leadership in the classroom. Relating my experiences as a Black woman teacher who recently became an administrator with the experiences of my peers and fellow Black women, we contend with the ways that trauma shows up for Black women educators and how school leaders can support them.

Understanding the Prevalence of Trauma Among Black Women Educators

When I look back over my journey as a Black educator, there were many unforgettable, challenging moments. I specifically recall a time when I was the only Black teacher on staff, and a family challenged my ability to teach their child English. I’ve also had extreme highs, like seeing a family’s face light up from their child experiencing their first Black teacher. These peaks and valleys molded me into a resilient educator and established my why as a teaching professional.

I discovered that having a love for children isn’t always enough to keep someone in the classroom or even the school building. If a community hasn’t cultivated a space where individuals feel seen, heard, and valued, it will cultivate dissatisfaction among educators and we will continue to lose teachers.

After participating in an EdSurge Research healing circle and being in community with other Black women educators, I realized that others in the group had similar experiences. Specifically, I noticed a recurring theme of trauma among my peers.

In the school setting, trauma can take various forms: only being supported in private, having someone take credit for your contributions, working in a competitive school or being in a setting that’s not culturally responsive. Other Black women in the healing circle shared the challenge of balancing self-care with the emotional labor of loving their students in a system that’s subtly and overtly discriminatory toward us and our students.

Professor of public health and African American Studies David R. Willaims has produced an abundance of research on racism and health, highlighting how everyday discrimination and anti-Blackness calcifies in the psyches and limbs of Black people. Research by Barbara C. Wallace also illustrates how people tend to employ racial coping skills like positive affirmations and advocating for themselves and students, these defense mechanisms eventually fail if the root cause is untreated. Wallace asserts that trauma responses, like hypervigilance and martyrdom, then have long-term health consequences.

Of the many definitions of trauma, the concept that guides our analyses of trauma in this research is one that acknowledges that anti-Blackness is traumatizing. Coupled with gendered stereotypes placed on Black women, especially within school contexts, the endurance of sexism and anti-Blackness has unique long-term implications on health, well-being and retention in the education workforce.

For example, I recall a time I was seeing a therapist weekly, desperately seeking tools and strategies to navigate my work-related experiences. There were moments when I would sit in my car before work, ridden with anxiety, trying to pull myself together before entering the school building. I felt unsupported and undervalued. I hadn’t processed the adverse impact the previous school had on my health until I left that school. I often wondered if other folks had had similar experiences within school environments, and sadly, I learned that I was not alone.

As you will see from the following themes that emerged from our research study, the trauma Black women educators experience in schools is generational, systemic and indicative of the longstanding issues that plague teacher retention and well-being for Black women.

How Trauma Shows Up in Black Women Educators

During the healing circles, other Black women and I consistently mentioned how being an educator is more than a job; it is a vocation that is a salient part of their identity. While reflecting on her decision to take a long-term leave of absence, an elementary teacher from Minnesota rhetorically queried: “If I cannot teach, who am I?”

This sparked conversations about balancing family and work responsibilities, combatting performative whiteness in schools, and ultimately, losing oneself in work. Our participants noted how these issues chronically show up as stress, trauma, hypervigilance, and the difficulties of divorcing these typecasts of Black womanhood.

Balancing Work and Family Responsibilities

“I am mother's milk and sleepless nights figuring out the un-figure-out-able, managing the unmanageable, achieving the unachievable, raising all five on my own, doing what needed to be done.” - 15-year veteran teacher and instructional coach at an international baccalaureate school

No one wants to be in an environment that wasn’t set up for them to thrive. Yet many, like myself, have found themselves in school settings where they are trying to survive, only to then have to make the hard choice between their love for children and their own mental and emotional well-being. Several participants discussed how they negotiate the inherent responsibility of othermothering Black children and radically caring for their own children.

In the quote above, a 15-year veteran teacher and mother of five expressed the urgency of disconnecting from the added emotional labor of her work to remain emotionally available to her children. She added, “I try so hard not to take it home.”

Several participants described how this labor of love is connected to who they are as a Black woman. They shared several insights that illustrate how radical care is inextricably tied to how they were taught how to be a Black woman – either by explicit or internalized notions throughout their lives. One middle school English language arts teacher and department chair in Georgia, she is aware of the competing demands and need to find balance, but has yet to find that sweet spot:

“I'm that teacher that's always having hallway chats with somebody. Somebody's crying on my shoulder. I might start crying, too. But it takes a lot out of you. And I still have to have some left when I come home because this little girl, who is laying on the couch on the other side of the room right now, I have to have it for her. And I don't know what that sweet spot is. I haven't found it yet.”

This same middle school teacher then went on to discuss how she negotiates time for competing responsibilities and is finally prioritizing self-care:

“Sometimes we just need to stop. Like now, I literally have four assignments due tonight, and I'm here with you guys because I wanted this and I needed this. My baby just fell asleep under my arm. Like something ain't going to make it tonight. And I have to be okay with that. I have to stop.”

It is clear from these quotes that the personal lives of Black women often bleed into our professional obligations. And when you consider the variety of other factors that could impact the teaching experience of Black women educators, the burden becomes heavier and heavier.

The Heavy Burden of Whiteness

“The culture discontinuity that we see in a lot of science classrooms…Black kids oftentimes are able to give examples of scientific phenomena and explain it in their own way, but because they're not using certain terminology, then it's wrong.” - 15-year veteran science teacher

In each session, participants rarely shared examples of explicit acts of racism and discrimination from their colleagues or leaders. However, there was a shared sense of understanding when discussing how whiteness shows up in their work that the intersections of racism, sexism, and classism are an omnipresent force of domination in their school buildings. An ESOL teacher at an elementary school recalled a time when her principal, a Black woman, commented on the permeating power of two white men at her school, despite their lack of decision-making authority in the building:

“We would always laugh then say that there was this invisible white man at the school because we only had two white men, neither of whom really had any power, but there was this invisible white man. My principal, she was a black lady – biracial – and very much shucking and jiving for this white man who we could not see. He was really the regional superintendent, which I found out later on, but it was like the white man was here even when he wasn’t here…the whiteness just permeating this space.”

A 15-year public school and assistant principal also explained how she observes and rejects whiteness in her daily work life:

"Some ways that whiteness shows up is agendas, ways of having to have agendas at meetings all the time, that's a problem for me; ways of knowing, using Eurocentric beliefs, values, and judgments; critique of others who are not assimilators of these values, beliefs, or judgments; language; evaluation systems; policies; perfectionism; lack of humanity, sense of urgency; defensiveness; worship of traditions; power hoarding and fear of conflict; and centering whiteness as the essential guide for value."

This ubiquitous influence ultimately dictates how and what they teach, and how the racial and gendered power imbalances permeate their lives. This suffocating smog is beyond microaggressions and can lead to chronic stress and hypervigilance, which are responses to trauma.

Losing Oneself in the Work

“If you don't listen to your body whisper, your body will shout. I think it was 2011 maybe, and I kept saying, ‘Oh my God, I need a break. Oh my God, I need a break. Oh my God, I need a break.’ And I never took a break. I literally broke my foot and was laid out for two to three months.”- 15-year veteran elementary school teacher

My personal experiences and my peers’ stories were aligned with the steadily growing body of evidence that links racism to stress and adverse health outcomes. Several of us shared internalizing stress and trauma as an immutable part of the job. Furthermore, research suggests these negative experiences compound, especially if they continue over time.

One participant, a 3rd-year teacher from Houston admitted that the stress of teaching has impacted her ability to take time for herself:

“Outside of teaching, I'm going to be honest with you, I don't really think I know who I am. I'm 27, I spend a lot of my time focusing on that. I spend half of my summer worried about going back and what I'm going to do and how it's going to be this year.”

Adding on to this experience, an elementary teacher at a predominantly Black freedom school suggested that part of the stress and trauma she experiences as a teacher came from her mother:

“My mom never rests, ever. And that is something that she passed on to me. You always have to be working, you always have to be grinding, your house has to be clean, you have to be the meal provider. So you’re just constantly going. There's these constant messages, patriarchal, some of them, that are being passed down from generation to generation, and it makes it that much more difficult to rest and feel like rest is okay.”

In the following sections, we discuss the implications of this work-related racialized, chronic stress for Black women educators and how they negotiate their personal responsibilities and well-being while trying not to lose themselves in their work.

New Considerations for the Trauma-Informed Approach

Not only do these findings affirm what we know about the phenomenon of othermothering among Black women educators, but it also shows how deeply traumatizing the teaching experience can be for Black women, and ultimately, the need for radical care.

The recent push to prioritize social-emotional wellbeing for teachers begs the question: what is the role of leadership in aiding in the mental and emotional safety and well-being of their faculty and staff? Asking educators to do things to fill their own cups certainly doesn’t seem to be the answer.

After recently becoming an administrator, I’ve implemented a trauma-informed leadership approach, and so far, it’s worked well. During my transition into school leadership, it was important for me to have a deeper understanding of how workplace trauma and racial trauma impact educators. I continue to be fully invested in ways to decrease it, and as a trauma-informed practitioner, I’ve seen positive outcomes from applying the same lens as an administrator. Notably, it has allowed me to enter with compassion while also paying close attention to the impact my school’s community is having on our faculty and staff.

Rosetta Lee challenges educators to ask themselves if all their students can answer the following questions in the affirmative. I’d like to challenge school leaders to ask themselves the same question regarding their faculty and staff:

  • Do you see me?
  • Do you hear me?
  • Will you treat me fairly?
  • Will you protect me?

While I’m not sure we will get this 100 percent right all the time, I believe we can create a transparent space where dialogue and feedback are welcomed — a space where you are aware of your intentions and take full accountability for your impact. Our students deserve teachers, faculty and staff who feel seen, heard and valued.

For a selected list of peer-reviewed articles, research and data studies referenced in this story, click here.

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