Survey: Why Some Educators of Color Ultimately Decide to Leave Their Jobs

Winter 2021

By James Greenwood

ISM_TimeToGo_04.jpgIn 2016, biracial African American actress Meghan Markle became a member of the British royal family when she married Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. Almost immediately, Markle was subjected to harsh criticisms, which were undeniably laced with racist undertones. These undertones were all the more evident when contrasted with British media’s coverage of her white sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. In a BuzzFeed article, the online news source juxtaposed media headlines of Markle being lambasted with headlines of Middleton being celebrated when engaging in the exact same activities, frequently from the same outlet. After enduring years of intense scrutiny and harsh criticism from the press, Markle and her husband stunned the media by choosing to resign their titles and duties as working members of the royal family.
So, in 2019, the term “Meghan Markle” took on a new meaning and also became a verb. According to certain popular culture outlets, to Meghan Markle means: “to value yourself and your mental health enough to leave a room/situation/environment in which your authentic self is not welcomed or wanted.”
While the couple was criticized for this decision at large, in certain circles—particularly among people of color—it was unsurprising, understood, and, indeed, applauded.

Reality Check

Despite robust research about the importance of hiring faculty of color and gestures toward more diverse recruitment, racial diversity in independent schools remains elusive. People of color frequently find themselves in a racial minority at their institutions, and it is still entirely possible for some to be the only person of color in their department, in their dorm, or even at the entire school. And they frequently bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to mentoring and advising students of color while still performing their standard roles of teaching, coaching, advising, and maintaining their own personal lives and families. Not only do faculty of color serve as role models for students of color, they simultaneously carry the responsibility of teaching and mentoring majority students as well, often serving as the first or only teacher of color a student may have.
Teachers of color often bear the emotional weight of their students of color, championing them and their causes with colleagues and the administration, validating their experiences with microaggressions, and serving as surrogate parents. Moreover, these teachers are frequently charged with leading diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at the school, regardless of whether they officially hold a formal diversity practitioner role. These roles continue to be ill-defined and part time. Even when the role is well-defined, diversity practitioners still too often find themselves with little real authority and decision-making ability. All of this while enduring their own experiences with daily microaggressions, invalidations, and challenges to their authority and intelligence.

Rather than continue to bang their heads against an indifferent wall, there—too often—comes a moment when educators of color must ask themselves whether it might be prudent to consider another option. Do they look for employment at another institution or perhaps even leave the profession altogether?

Time to Go

In 2020, I administered a survey to independent school educators of color to better understand their reasons for leaving their places of employment. I polled a sample of about 40 educators of color from independent schools nationwide who chose to change schools within the past five years. These respondents were asked to indicate the factors that weighed most prominently in their decision to exit their school environment and to identify the indicators that signaled that it was time to pursue another professional home.
The most-cited primary reason for departure (79%) was the overall school climate and culture. This is contrary to the often-held belief that an institution’s location is the primary reason (only 24% of respondents cited location as a factor). While location may be a factor for some (particularly in more rural or isolated areas), the social isolation people experienced within their school communities was a bigger issue than physical isolation—30% of respondents cited social isolation as a primary factor in their decision to leave.
The second most-cited reason for departure was a lack of professional advancement or growth opportunities. Some respondents spoke of being passed over for leadership positions, while others mentioned promises of advancement that never materialized. As one respondent shared: “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to move forward in my career at the school. I was well-received at the school, but there weren’t any prospects for advancement available.”
Additionally, I asked respondents to offer qualitative feedback by completing the sentence “I knew it was time to go when…” Here are some of their poignant responses:
“… I found myself crying daily about my job.”
“… I was passed over for a promotion that I was qualified for, in favor of someone with less experience.”
“… I was denied a housing assignment that I had previously been told I would be considered for.”
“… my head of school did not defend me when I was being harassed by parents at the school.”
“… I saw only minimal progress after spending decades working at the school.”
“… I saw the trauma being inflicted upon Black and brown students daily.”
“… I was no longer growing at the school.”
“… my boss implied that I was there to fill a quota rather than for my professional strengths.”
“… I felt that in staying, I would be complicit with a white dominant culture that simply wanted to maintain the status quo.”
“… after seven years of hearing the same painful stories while facilitating student affinity groups, I realized I could not spend another seven years listening to the same stories while being marginalized as a leader.”
“… I couldn’t shake the feeling that working there required me to compromise my integrity every day.”
These responses speak to the pain that people of color endure daily in independent schools. In follow-up conversations with survey respondents who wanted to share more or speak in person, some also reported bouts of depression, weight loss, and challenges to their sense of competence and self-esteem—all as a result of experiences in their work environments.
And yet, there is simultaneously often an anguish people experience when deciding whether to leave their school. Many recognize and embrace their responsibility working with students and serving as advocates for students of color. Indeed, for many, this is their greatest passion and what drew them to work in these settings in the first place. They agonize about abandoning students of color and worry about what support will remain for these students and their families if they leave. Some—particularly those who may be alumni—often have a love-hate relationship with the institution and may feel a sense of loyalty and indebtedness to the school despite the trauma inflicted.

Parting Words

As a way to offer some actionable guidance for leaders, respondents were also asked to indicate what—if anything—would have kept them at their schools. While some responded that there was nothing that could have been done to retain them any longer, others offered some ideas for consideration:
“I would have stayed if the salary considerations were fair AND if there was an actual dedication to hiring and retaining more staff of color, specifically, other Black teachers.”
“DEI work was allowed to be omitted by teachers who were uncomfortable with it, and that was not negotiable for me.”
“Provide a confidential feedback structure where I could voice my complaints about my supervisor without fear of retaliation. The senior administrators also could have taken my complaints more seriously.”
“I’m not asking for special treatment, just fair and equitable treatment. And ultimately for people to do what they said they were going to do.”
“If the school bothered to ask me what could be done to retain me, I would have been open to the conversation.”
In a piece studying a similar phenomenon among faculty of color in higher education, University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd offered another solution, which she called “institutional courage” and defined as: 
... an institution’s commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk, and short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution. It is a compass oriented to the common good of individuals, the institution, and the world. It is a force that transforms institutions into more accountable, equitable, healthy places for everyone.
Schools must resist easy answers and “perfectly logical explanations,” which often mask or diminish the impact of racially hostile climates and the true reasons that faculty of color leave. Each of us must determine how we expend and invest our time, energy, and talents. For faculty of color in independent schools, this is a deeply personal decision that must be weighed carefully; self-care and preservation must ultimately be prioritized over any sense of obligation to a particular institution. As writer and poet Audre Lorde said: “Caring for oneself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Independent school leaders must be willing to critically examine the culture and climate of their institutions and commit to making meaningful systemic changes if they are serious about retaining faculty of color in their communities. 


Go Deeper

NAIS recently conducted research using the Jobs-to-Be-Done methodology to explore what contexts are pushing teachers to leave their current jobs and what outcomes they're hoping for when they make a switch. Download the full report, "Why Do Teachers Select Independent Schools?"
James Greenwood

James Greenwood is dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio.