Lost Joy is Driving Black Educators Away from the Profession

Apr 12, 2024 5:54:13 PM


In the song “Don’t Take Your Joy Away” by Kirk Franklin and the Family, the soloist's verses express a need for God not to take His joy away, even though this person may have sometimes fallen below the mark. This song popped into my mind after talking to many educators at the Teach Indy Educators Conference on Saturday, March 2, 2024.

Many educators expressed their joy in educating children, but that has declined. The conference did help them recapture that fire, but it also made me think back to my journey to the classroom.

Once I decided that education was my path, I had all of these dreams about the fun I would have, sparking joy and knowledge into the hearts of our youth. Instead, education became a place of bureaucracy, spreadsheets, and data-driven standardized assessments.

With each mandate, joy has been chipped away as if by a sculptor working with clay. Those mandates molded me into a being who followed the rules and stayed in line. If I had the time to enjoy the profession, great. If not, too bad.

Without Joy, Can This Profession Be Sustainable?

Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, delivered the keynote at the conference. He shared research that included interviews with high school students. When asked why they were not considering education, they shared that one reason was how they saw some of their teachers being treated, especially the Black ones.

The erosion of joy in education doesn’t only impact teacher wellness; it also takes a toll on students' mental and emotional well-being. The relentless emphasis on grades and rankings fosters a culture of anxiety and stress, where students equate their self-worth with academic achievements. The joy of learning is replaced by a constant fear of failure, sowing seeds of self-doubt and insecurity. As a result, students may develop negative attitudes towards learning, viewing it as a source of pressure rather than pleasure.

When teachers are constrained by rigid curriculum guidelines and standardized testing requirements, they find themselves trapped in a cycle of teaching to the test, sacrificing creativity and innovation. Bureaucratic demands and administrative burdens overshadow the joy of teaching and the thrill of inspiring young minds. This leads many educators to experience burnout and disillusionment, their passion for teaching extinguished by the oppressive weight of educational policies.

I don’t believe … I can’t believe this situation is hopeless. Burned-out teachers lead to less successful students. When I go back to the song, the lyrics later say:

“Shape me and make me

Hold me and mold me

Choose me and use me

Chastise me, revive me”

The person pleading with God is asking and begging for help. From the educators’ lens, they ask for direction (shape me and make me). They ask for comfort and support to endure (hold and mold me). They are asking for affirmation that they should be in this profession and are being useful (choose me and use me). Last, they want to know when they made a misstep, but they also want help being restored to the best educator they can be (chastise me and revive me).

El-Mekki’s presentation focused on Black educators, and I will do the same with my commentary.

  • Black educators, just like all educators, want to be good at their craft; unfortunately, they may be shifted to a disciplinary role to help manage Black children. It is hard for them to have joy when in a role they don’t want to be in.
  • Black educators need affirmation that education is for them. During his keynote, El-Mekki shared that Black males usually don’t get approached about being teachers until they are in college or have finished college. He mentioned that getting Black teachers into the profession requires telling Black children they should be teachers.
  • Black educators should not have to be perfect. If they make a mistake, they should be given opportunities to improve and not shown the door quicker than others in the profession due to the push against “DEI hiring.”

Restoring Black educators’ joy in education requires a fundamental shift in mindset. As we strive to build a more equitable, inclusive, and compassionate education system, let us not forget the transformative power of teacher joy. Dr. King once said, “The time is always right to do the right thing,” and it is time to do right by Black educators.

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 gardenershicole.com. To learn more about Shawnta, visit educatorbarnes.com.

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