Black Educators: When They Tell You to Tone Down, Turn Up.

Jul 31, 2023 4:33:19 PM


“Too stern.” 

“Too loud.” 

“Too sassy.”

“Too aggressive.”

“Too blunt.”

These are phrases that I was called throughout my career by white colleagues.

A few years ago, I shared how a principal responded when I shared that a colleague called me an affirmative action hire:

A principal once told me my tone was too stern when I responded to a colleague. Please tell me what tone to use when a white colleague curses at me and says I’m an affirmative action hire? 

The principal actually answered and said, “Don’t take it personally.” 

These are all ways to say I was “too much” and that something about me made them uncomfortable. Instead of figuring out what was on the inside of them that made them uncomfortable, they provided unsolicited feedback about issues they had.  

Being an educator is already hard enough without feeling like I can’t show up as my whole Black self. I’m talking afro, braids, twists, headwrap, hoop earrings, bold colors, and even bolder actions and words.

It’s recruitment and retention.

School districts may get Black women in the door, but the real question is, “Can they get us to stay?” 

School districts must understand they can’t hire diverse candidates and not expect their district to change. School districts should be prepared for all that comes with having a truly diverse team. Part of that preparation means teaching white educators about two practices with which Black people must contend all too often: tone policing and gaslighting. 

I felt tone policed the most when I became a school administrator.

I worked for a charter network where the principal managed operations, the assistant principal managed discipline, and the academic deans managed their assigned teams. I was an academic dean and co-led the middle school with another academic dean. I was the only Black administrator. Although my principal has a Black mom, she told me she only considered herself a person, not a race. 

Regardless of what occurred, there was an issue with my tone. One time a teacher yelled at me during a recorded Zoom session. After talking to the teacher about the professionalism I expected from my team, the teacher went to the principal to complain about my tone. The principal gave me tips such as the positive sandwich. A positive sandwich is a critique method where you say something nice, then say the critical point, followed by something nice. 

Listen— I’m talking to a grown woman, not a child. 

I didn’t yell at the teacher. I stated the facts, stated what the expectation was moving forward, ensured the teacher understood, and explained the consequence of further behavior of yelling at people. I wasn’t the only person this teacher yelled at. I wasn’t the only person who addressed this teacher, but I was the only person who was told to be nicer. Given the stereotype most Black women are already forced to contend with around being the “angry Black woman” at work, it’s hard not to feel defeated when you do the right thing, by the book, and still get feedback like this. 

I don’t know what’s worse, tone policing or gaslighting. By the middle of my career, I had a colleague report me to human resources. This colleague constantly undermined my work and even claimed that my students’ high test results should be investigated. Anytime I attempted to explain the problematic behavior of this teacher, I was told that I needed to work on not taking situations so personally. 

The results of that investigation found that she was harassing me. I found this out after the investigation of me was concluded. I was asked why I didn’t reach out to HR. I told them I didn’t think I would be believed because no one at the school building level took me seriously.

I want to go to work and do my job. I don’t want the burden of these situations. School administrators can help by not being dismissive of complaints leveled by Black educators. One administrator told me there were no problems until I started pointing out issues. The administrator did not want to accept that the school was a toxic environment that was threatened by people from different backgrounds and experiences. 

Principals really need to consider if they are up to the task of supporting staff members who point out issues. When those issues are addressed, the school environment is better for everyone.

As a Black woman, I’m not seeking to assimilate and leave part of myself at the school door entrance. Instead, I seek to bring my whole self to school and add value.

Some questions non-Black principals and administrators can consider:

  1. Am I actively seeking to understand the unique challenges and experiences Black educators face in our institution?

  2. How can I create a safe and supportive environment for Black educators to voice their concerns and share their perspectives?

  3. Have I examined the diversity and representation among the leadership and staff in our school or organization? How can I work towards a more diverse and inclusive leadership team?

  4. Am I advocating for equitable professional development and career advancement opportunities for Black educators?

  5. Have I taken steps to address and eliminate any implicit biases in recruitment, hiring, and promotion processes that may impact Black educators negatively?

  6. How can I ensure that Black educators are not burdened with the sole responsibility of addressing racial issues in the curriculum and classroom?

  7. Am I actively listening to the experiences and feedback of Black educators without being defensive or dismissive?

  8. What support systems can I implement to address any mental health and well-being challenges Black educators face in the workplace?

  9. How can I incorporate diverse perspectives and experiences into the decision-making process within our educational institution?

  10. Am I providing resources and opportunities for Black educators to celebrate and integrate their cultural backgrounds in the classroom?

  11. How can I facilitate opportunities for Black educators to collaborate and share their expertise with their peers?

  12. Have I engaged in professional development or training to improve my own cultural competency and understanding of racial dynamics in education?

  13. Am I actively working to dismantle any systemic barriers that may disproportionately affect Black educators' professional growth and job satisfaction?

  14. How can I encourage open conversations about race and diversity among all staff members?

  15. Have I sought feedback from Black educators on how the school or organization can better support them and their students?

  16. What actions can I take to ensure Black educators are not overlooked or excluded from leadership and decision-making roles?

  17. Am I using my position of influence to advocate for policies and initiatives that promote racial equity and inclusivity in education?

  18. How can I leverage community partnerships and resources to provide additional support and opportunities for Black educators and their students?

  19. Am I holding myself and others accountable for promoting an inclusive and anti-racist culture within our educational institution?

  20. What steps can I take to continuously educate myself and others about the history and experiences of Black educators and students in education?

If Black teachers are in similar situations, they need to document what is occurring. I used to blind-copy my personal email, especially when another colleague got out of pocket via email. Also, teachers should be cautious and consider all possible outcomes before running to Human Resources. HR is responsible for protecting the interests of the organization. This means HR has to consider the implications to the school organization as your concerns are being addressed. Last, be direct about your concerns. An elder once said, “A closed mouth don’t get fed.” This may not stop the issues, but it could lead to mutual understanding, especially if the teacher that has caused harm really wants to mend the situation.

As a Black woman, I’m not seeking to assimilate and leave part of myself at the school door entrance. Instead, I seek to bring my whole self to school and add value.

Shawnta S. Barnes

Shawnta (Shawn-tay) S. Barnes, also known as Educator Barnes, is a married mother of identical twin boys. She navigates education from not only the educator’s perspective but also the parent’s perspective. She has been an educator for nearly two decades. Shawnta works with K-12 schools, universities, & education adjacent organizations through her education consulting business Blazing Brilliance. She is an adjunct college professor, supervises student teachers, Indy Kids Winning Editor-in-Chief, Brave Brothers Books Co-founder, & CEO, and Brazen Education Podcast host. She holds five education licenses: English/language arts 5-12, English to speakers of other languages P-12, library/media P-12, reading P-12, and school administration P-12, and she has held a job in every licensed area. Previously, she has served as a school administrator, English teacher, English learners teacher, literacy coach, and librarian. She won the 2019 Indiana Black Expo Excellence in Education Journalism Award. In 2023, she completed her doctorate in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education with a minor in Learning Sciences. She is an urban gardener in her spare time and writes about her harvest-to-table journey at To learn more about Shawnta, visit

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