By Bettina L. Love
Education Week Feb. 6, 2020
The overwhelming majority of teachers in this country want to help young people reach their full potential. Making that kind of difference is rewarding. And yet most teachers struggle to find joy.
A 2017 survey focused on educators' quality of work life revealed that 61 percent of teachers found that their jobs were always or often stressful, and 58 percent cited poor mental health as a result of job-related stress.
Teacher burnout is a significant problem, and research concerned with teacher wellness tells us that educators are also experiencing secondary traumatic stress, as they take on the wounds their students bring to the classroom every day as a result of poverty, abuse, toxic masculinity, immigration struggles, racism, family mental illness, transphobia, and homophobia.
To add more to teachers' already full plates, progressive school districts striving to be more equitable are asking teachers to understand how racism functions in their classrooms and to fight for social justice inside and outside school walls. It may sound counterproductive to ask educators to do this work when they have so many issues to tackle every day, but many of their students' traumas are a direct result of oppressive systems and ideologies. Simply stated, teachers' work lives will not improve until educators enter the fight for equity. Smaller class sizes or professional learning communities will help. For the long term, however, the most important step is active anti-racism.
Teachers need more professional development for understanding inequality in order to confront it. But teachers of all backgrounds also need healing because they are trying to fight the biggest problems in this country one student at a time, with little to no emotional support. Yes, educators who are people of color feel the ever-present pain, weight, and torment of racism and need therapy, too, but White teachers have a different task: Many must first win the fight regarding racism within themselves.
When I travel around the country talking to White teachers about educational justice and anti-racism, I am met with tears by many White educators who understand how racism preys on the bodies, minds, and communities of all their students, but especially their students of color. They know they need to do more, but the question is what does more look like? The "more" is anti-racist therapy and healing moving toward anti-racist actions.
White teachers need a particular type of therapy. They must learn how to deal with what Cheryl E. Matias calls "White emotionalities" and what Robin DiAngelo has termed "White fragility." Emotions of guilt, shame, anger, denial, sadness, dissonance, and discomfort boil up when issues of race and racism challenge their sense of self. Too often, we think the work of fighting oppression is just intellectual. The real work is personal, emotional, spiritual, and communal.
The shift to anti-racism does not happen overnight or after one professional development session: It happens through a process of self-discovery, healing, and learning to reject and call out racist ideas, people, and structures. Anti-racist teaching is not a teaching approach or method, it is a way of life.
In her new book, The Racial Healing Handbook, Anneliese A. Singh writes: "Healing means you begin to unlearn the stereotyped racial messages you internalized about your own race and the race of others. It means you as an individual learn to recognize the wounds that racism creates in you, whether you are White or a person of color."
Thus, we need therapists who specialize in the healing of teachers and the undoing of Whiteness in education. We need school therapists and counselors who are trained to help White educators and students process their emotions and their fragility. With healing, teachers will better manage their stress, improve their interactions with students, and be able to continue fighting for justice. Teachers should be offered this type of therapy free of charge.
As I am writing this, I understand education and mental-health systems often lack the resources to offer teachers anti-racism therapy at schools. Still, there are things we can do. Individuals can seek their own therapy provided by professionals who specialize in anti-racism. Teachers can listen to anti-racism podcasts. Another approach is to form racial affinity or book-study groups focused on healing from racism. (See below for resources.) Teachers can become part of anti-racist social movements such as Black Lives Matter at School, United We Dream fighting for justice for immigrants, or Land Rights Now promoting the land rights of indigenous people.
I have also found the work of Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, a professor at Teachers College, helpful. In a process she calls "Healing Through the Archaeology of Self," Sealey-Ruiz asks teachers to dig, reflect, and discover their identities in relationship to their students, systems of oppression, and how teachers can be interrupters of the status quo.
The work of anti-racism cannot wait. For ourselves as educators, our families, and our students, we must heal.
Bettina L. Love is an associate professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia. This is the fourth in a series of essays she is writing about race in America for Education Week.