Podcast: An Inside Look at the Exodus of Some Black Teachers and Why They Choose to Leave the United States
It’s December 12, 2020 and I’m leaving Dubai to return home to Alton, Illinois. “I’m glad it wasn’t me this time.” I said to myself as I giggled about the intoxicated man asked to leave the plane. That’s when I removed my journal from my bag and placed it in the seat compartment in front of me. I wanted it handy once airborne because part of my flight routine is making time for reflection. I’ve been an avid journal writer since the age of 12 and when I’m high in the sky, I get the perfect view of God’s Matchbox Car Set. You know those car sets that children play with? They set up a whole town with cars, trees, and buildings; from the sky, that’s what the world looks like to me; God’s Matchbox Car Set. Writing in my journal while looking down at that view makes reflection feel like a grounding mantra to express gratitude for my life experiences.
“Today, gratitude is for the Sheik Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy and Research.” I planted that thought in my mind and planned to come back to it after I got settled. I removed my shoes and placed them under my bag on the floor. Since my body is aging, feet swelling is an issue that I have to prepare for long flights like this. Today I have three layovers: Dubai to Amsterdam; Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan; and Detroit to St. Louis, Missouri. A total of 27 hours. And, when I land in St. Louis, I’m gonna quarantine in a hotel for a week. This virus is real and with all of this international travel, I need to take extra precaution before I see my family.
As the flight safety video began to play, my mind drifted back to memories of South Africa; the impetus for this nomadic lifestyle of mine. I was 20 years old when I left America for the first time. Actually, study abroad impacted the trajectory of my career as an international teacher. I was a junior in university at the time and what was supposed to be a six week program examining the vital role of education in South Africa, turned out to be a trip that changed my life. During the entire six weeks, schools were closed, and teachers were out in the streets protesting. Civil servants were demanding a 12% pay increase and better resourced schools and refused to go back to work until the government compromised. I still remember those broadcasts on South African news channels.
There is no doubt that the civil servant strike significantly impacted my study abroad experience. But, what was even more significant was the vast reshaping of my identity. As an African American in South Africa, there were so many contradictions. With my micro braids and blending skin tone, at first glance, folks didn’t even realize that I was American. Conversations initiated by South Africans in Zulu is what blew my cover. When I talked, my flat English accent revealed that I was a guest in their country; I didn’t belong there. Being with a group of study abroad students, majority of who were white, blew my cover too. But, honestly, I had no idea that were worlds, outside of America, where the default was Black. Black folks on billboards, Black folks on food and hair products, Black folks in high professional positions, Black folks on money, all those Black civil servants protesting in the streets. In America, I was taught to believe that being Black meant being a minority, but South Africa flipped that thought right on its head.
When I returned to the States after that trip, I say I kind of “fell into the teaching profession.” I actually wanted to join the Peace Corps and get back out in the world. But eventually that’s where I went, right into the classroom. What I found out quickly though, was the five years that I spent gaining my bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Studies and that study abroad experience, wasn’t enough to prepare me for the two years I spent teaching in Illinois. Understanding pedagogy and philosophy, how to create lesson plans, and even how to assess student outcomes provided no prerequisite knowledge for how to be a Black teacher at an all-White school. That’s why I left the position. And I left the profession. And I’m not the only one who left. Many African American teachers leave. But see, I don’t care to understand notions of teacher shortage, my research is about developing questions to understand why African American teachers choose to leave the US PK-12 system for teaching opportunities abroad. That’s what drove me back to the UAE, to interview African American teachers and find out why they chose to leave the US.
This question is directly connected to my personal experience and it’s also connected to the long history of teacher attrition for African American teachers. See Beverly Cole (1986) said that, in 1950, half of all Black professionals in America were teachers, compared to less than a quarter of White professionals. Scholars also say that before the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court Case, approximately 82,000 African American teachers were responsible for educating the nation’s two million African American public-school students (Hawkins, 1994). A decade later, over 38,000 Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs (Ethridge, 1979; Holmes, 1990). Between 1975 and 1985, the number of Black students majoring in education declined by 66%; and another nearly 22,000 Black teachers lost their jobs between 1984 and 1989 (Smith, 1988). Linda C. Tillman (2004) said as Black segregated schools closed, Black students integrated into White schools but, for various reasons, Black teachers did not. And the unintended consequence of Brown was that thousands of Black teachers lost their jobs.
So, in 1986, when Beverly Cole said, Black teachers were an endangered species and at risk of being eliminated from the school systems in this country, she was right. According to statistics from the 2017/18 school year, of the 3.8 million US teachers, African American teachers only represent 250,000. And, when compared to our other marginalized counterparts, while Asian and Hispanic teachers continue to increase in representation and proportion, African Americans continue to decrease and have decreased from 8.2% in 1987/88 school year to 6.7%. Teaching is an interesting profession; particularly for Black teachers in America. Salary increases are important, but in my opinion, there isn’t enough conversation being had about teacher identity. There are severe intersectional components of being a Black teacher in America. Even now, nearly 14 years after my study abroad experience, after teaching in Casablanca, Morocco and in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and even with travel to over 36 countries, I continue to tell myself, my career as a teacher didn’t begin until I left America.
The sound from the loud roaring aircraft engines interrupted my thoughts and brought me back to my flight. It is time for takeoff. Once airborne, I reached for my journal and began to write.
December 12, 2020. 2:53 am, I wrote. I’m finally on my way home after 14 months in Ras Al Khaimah. Even though I spend a significant amount of time outside of America, I always return home. It’s like I’ve created normalcy living in a state of temporariness. A bit of time here, a bit of time there; that’s how I’ve spent my entire adult life. It’s funny because when people describe me as an expatriate, I try to resist it and instead embody the stance of James Baldwin. He is known as the Black Expatriate. Yet what many people don’t realize about him is that he never claimed to be an expatriate. He was very adamant that he was not (ex)patriating America. With consistent commutes over the Atlantic Ocean, back and forth between America and countries like France and Turkey, he described himself as a TransAtlantic commuter. This commute from the UAE back to America makes me realize the parallels between my life and the life of James Baldwin. I’ve become what I like to describe as a transnational commuter; same genre, but different generation. And in addition to the Atlantic Ocean, my commutes have also spanned across other oceans and seas.
I remember reading a 1970 interview with James Baldwin in Essence magazine. He talked about how Paris had little to do with his decision to leave America. Oh wait, I think I have it in a file on my phone. Here it is. Let me write this in my journal.
“I didn’t come to Paris in ’48, I simply left America. I would have gone to Tokyo, I would have gone to Israel, I would have gone anywhere. I was getting out of America… here, I was in danger of death; but in America it was not a danger, it was a certainty. Not just a physical death, I mean real death… the death of working in the post office for 37 years; of being a civil servant for a hostile government. The death of going under and watching your family go under.”James Baldwin (Standley & Pratt, 1989, p. 84)
Oooh, even as I write those words I feel butterflies in my stomach. James Baldwin’s words are so meaningful to me because the trajectory of my career, as a US teacher, was sure to be that type of real death. I wonder if other American teachers feel that way. Like, we enter the education system with passion and aspiration for education. We believe we’re educating the nation’s most valuable commodity: the youth. But the price of teaching is that you’re constantly grinded down by a system infested with institutionalized racism, capitalistic practices, and disposability politics that create a lack of care for teachers. There is a hidden expectation that I’m supposed to sacrifice my life for 35 years and then, only in retirement, I can actually start living. I didn’t want that. I wanted to teach. I wanted to be able to show up in a classroom with autonomy and as my full self and just teach.
Me leaving was my personal fight against racism and the undervalue of not only American teachers in general, but Black teachers in particular. When I went to Morocco in 2011, I finally felt what it feels like to be an American. It’s like I had access to a type of psychological freedom and my thoughts about race, class, gender, and nationality were simply for comparisons; comparisons between my life the US and my life abroad. For me, being a Black American abroad is much easier than being a Black American in America. In Morocco my Black Vernacular English was not corrected, children who were different from me actually wanted to learn from me, the parents of these children didn’t question my expertise because of my race. It was like I finally had the opportunity to teach. I always say with my time abroad, I’ve had the privilege to be taught by five and six-year olds.
I was awakened by the over illumination of the cabin lights. I noticed my journal in the seat compartment in front of me. I guess I managed to place it there before I dozed off while writing in my journal. A flight attendant announced that we were preparing to descend so I grabbed for my shoes and put them back on. I had a short amount of time between this flight and the next. I’ve been to Schiphol Airport many times so first, I need to find a restroom and then, I’ll find my boarding gate.
I arrived at the gate area and spotted a set of empty seats off to the back. The seat I had my eye on faced the open window; a good view of the guys loading luggage and stocking the plane with essentials. The amount of effort that goes into providing comfort and safety on airplanes always amazes me. I was sitting there for about 15 minutes when a random man approached me. I could tell he was American by his American accent. He said, “Excuse me, are you Tiffany?” Now, I knew I didn’t know him and I was surprised that he recognized me with my mask on. “Yes,” I said. As he slowly sat down in the seat next to me, he lowered his voice and said, “This is going to sound awkward, but my wife is hiking in Ras Al Khaimah with a friend of yours.” “My wife told me to look for you in Dubai because she knew we were on the same flight.” “Now, she did tell me that you were African American and when I saw you sitting over here, I figured I’d ask if you were Tiffany.” I giggled. Of course, I giggled. Right before I turned around and took a glimpse of the other folks in the gate area. He was right, of the nearly hundred folks sitting around, I was the only Black person. We began chatting and I was very surprised to find out that he works for an elite family in the UAE. Equestrian clubs; training horses for horse races. He mentioned that he and his family had been in the UAE for nearly 20 years and although several times they thought about returning to the States, they never have.
I boarded the aircraft and found my seat. His seat was further back in the plane, so he and I split ways. Once seated, I started thinking about the plethora of opportunities that UAE has to offer. Who would have thought that someone could make a salary training horses in the UAE. I guess it’s the same for schools though. A result of the globalization of education is the substantial increase of English-medium international schools. These schools not only provided me with an opportunity to teach abroad, but also the teachers that I interviewed in my study.
In English-medium international schools, the curriculum is delivered in English but the schools are outside of English-speaking countries. They offer an English-medium curriculum other than the country’s national curriculum (International Schools Consultancy (ISC), 2020). The best way I describe these types of schools is, imagine a school in the US or in the UK, pick it up and drop it down in another country. Expatriate teachers hired to work in these schools often times come from countries like the United States, the UK, countries in Europe, Australia, and primarily other countries from the global north. Many of the students in these schools are the children of expatriate parents working for multinational businesses, government officials with an embassy or consulate, or children of well to do local national families. Most interesting about these schools is that the market is booming; approximately six million students across the globe attend these types of schools and revenue, these schools produce a revenue of nearly $54 billion in fee income (ISC, 2020). There are discussions that can be had about the problematic impact that these schools place on particular societies and globally, but there is no doubt that the market is growing. In the year 2000 there were approximately 2500 English-medium international schools and in the year 2020, there was nearly 11,500 schools (ISC, 2020).
In 2018, China ranked first as the top ten leading country in possession of the most English-medium international schools. Of course, the UAE ranked 2nd. This is why my dissertation research uses the UAE as a case study. In 2010, when the educational reform urged that each school in the UAE have an internationally accredited teaching staff, thousands of teachers from Western countries migrated to the UAE to fill those positions. And I’m not talking about private schools. Private schools are usually tuition based and for-profit institutions. I’m talking about government schools; like public schools that local national students attend for free or at a low cost.
But schools, whether government or private schools, are not a significant factor for the retention of some African American teachers in the UAE. When I interviewed many of the life historians in my study, for them, societal factors had a much more viable role in why they chose to remain there. Yes, on the one hand, teaching opportunities at such schools can be viewed as a pull factor that attracted folks to the UAE, but on the other hand, schools play a small role in what motivates them to stay. For instance, in an interview with Camille, a selected pseudonym, she had spent nearly seven years in the UAE. When I asked her, what made her remain there for such a long time, she said:
“I like the way of life here, to be honest… safety is priority. Especially in the last four years with everything happening and the attack on African Americans in the US. I feel safe here and I don’t feel the pressure that I felt at home.”
This notion of safety in the UAE is a recurring theme that came up in several of my interviews. Safety is also significant for me because it’s one of the reasons that my stay was prolonged in the UAE. When I arrived to the UAE in September 2019, I was scheduled to return to the US in May 2020. Yet when COVID-19 hit and borders began closing, flights back to America became limited. By the time May came around, I became fearful for my safety. I was literally scared to return to the US. The global response toward the ill-treatment of Black men and Black women in the US and in other countries spread across the world stage and I was witnessing it all from the UAE. The images of protests revolving around the public murder of George Floyd made me worry, not only for my family and not only for my own safety, but mostly for my friends in Minneapolis; overnight, the city had burst into flames.
See when people began describing the pandemic as a double pandemic— the widespread of the virus COVID-19 and the global fight against white supremacy— for African American EDpats, we understand this differently. Marilene Shane (2020) describes it best in her article The Black Expat: Living Abroad as your Country Burns. She’s also lived in the UAE for nearly seven years. In her article she wrote,
“Being an expat unable to come home to the States due partly to COVID-19 and job obligations it’s even harder to watch from the sidelines, feeling torn between being thankful for the blessing of where you are and the fire inside to get engaged in the fight first hand. You watch as you see protests carried out on television that you know you would be a part of if only you were there.”Marilene Shane (Para. 5)
A friend of mine describes Marilene’s feelings as survivors guilt. Possessing a sense of happiness for not being directly in the trauma while also possessing a sense of guilt for having survived it. This sense of duality not only touches on the myriad of the factors contributing to why some African American EDpats left America, it also touches on why they choose to stay in the UAE.
It was finally time for the last leg of my long series of flights; Detroit, Michigan to St. Louis, Missouri. “I’m almost home,” I thought to myself as I boarded the plane. I sat down and thought, “With the large amount of sleep that I got from the previous two flights, there is no way I’m gonna sleep on this one.” So, as the safety video began to play, I grabbed for my bag to remove my iPhone. To make time pass, I decided to listen to an episode of my podcast, (A)Broad in Education. When I finally created this podcast in January 2018, it was an idea that I had been sitting on for at least a year. I was scared. Scared to put my voice out in the world. Scared that folks wouldn’t even be interested in what I had to say. Oh yeah, it was that course I took with Dr. Barbara Kappler, Dynamics of Intercultural Communication in Education. In that class, I learned about intercultural communication, which Stella Ting-Toomey says is about the study of cultural differences that really “make a difference” in intercultural encounters (1999). It’s about acquiring conceptual tools and skills to manage differences creatively. My integration project for this course was the idea about the podcast. Since then, the 53 episodes have been downloaded over 7500 times in over 80 countries.
See, the mission of (A)Broad in Education is to (dis)cover routes through conscious conversations about EDpats— expatriates working in education in schools outside of their home countries. When I say routes, I don’t mean— roots— I mean, routes— routes— meaning pathways; mobility. Whether social mobility, economic mobility, generational mobility, and even geographic mobility, there is something significant about the vast shifts that occur through intercultural encounters. My vision for the podcast, in the spirit of bell hooks, is to decolonize imaginations through migration stories from diverse educators.
See, I’m reminded about that article written by Andrea Collier (2019), Why Telling Our Own Story is so Powerful for Black Americans. She writes about the imperative need for Black folks to tell our own stories. How Black Americans come from a long lineage of storytellers and not only is it our purpose to tell our own stories but also for other folks to bear witness to our stories. See, in each of the episodes, it’s an attempt to grapple with folks about their intersectional identities and how those identities informed their decision to migrate and engage internationally. But like Andrea Collier alluded to, it’s also to hand the mic over for folks for them to tell their own stories. Like Leslie Rebecca Bloom and Petra Munro (1995) said, these folks are life historians. Life historians who are choosing to narrate the intimate details of their own lives.
The complexity between my research and this podcast is that oftentimes, I don’t know where one stops and the other begins. From these attrition and migration stories, I learned that the decision for some Black American teachers to leave the US is highly influenced by intersectional components, neatly wrapped up in their comparisons between their lived experience in the US and their lived experience abroad. For instance, the episode I’m listening to now, Episode 46: Going Global with John David Lewis. We’re discussing his chapter in the book Going Global. He talks about his motivation for moving to the UAE.
After attaining a degree in higher education, progressing the US education profession, and even opening up his own business in the US, he said, “I did all of this in the States to come over here [in the UAE] to find the American dream” (Smith, 2020). You know, following and performing the societal script doesn’t always guarantee success. Which is what makes stories like John’s, even more complex. And you know, that’s the point that I’ve been trying to get across in this episode. There is a dire need for Black American teachers to tell their attrition stories. For teachers in the UAE and other countries abroad, for them to tell their migration stories. Why they chose to leave. And, educational leaders, policy makers, and even scholars in academia, we need to bear witness to these stories because it’s one of the few ways that we can identify and address the complex issues within the US education system. Too many conversations about educational issues focus solely on the student. But my question is, what about the teachers? Where are the teacher centered conversations being had?
With a final descent, I was relieved when I landed at Lambert Airport. “Lord, thank you for your traveling grace to St. Louis, Missouri.” A silent prayer I thought to myself. After I deboarded the plane, I quickly headed to the baggage carousel to collect my bags. My two 50 pound’ers were still intact; another relief. I learned a long time ago, to receive your bags back in the same condition they were in when I checked them, is a miracle. Missing wheels, broken straps, scratches on the surface, yep, I know all about that. Even the instances when I found that little note from TSA, informing me that one of their staff members rambled through my luggage when I wasn’t looking; I don’t even mind that anymore. This is travel. These are the hidden parts of the itinerary.
With both of my bags in tow, I removed my phone from my purse and ordered an Uber. My reservations are at The Last Hotel. It’s supposed to be a posh and comfy type of place and with a name like that, The Last Hotel, there has to be something special about it. Especially since I’m gonna be staying there for a whole week. When the Uber driver arrived, he didn’t even offer to help me put my luggage in the car. The hospitality that I had been accustomed to, literally a little over 24 hours ago, was now gone. I’m back home; in America. The Uber driver and I got in the car, in silence, and he drove me to my hotel.
During the short commute, the word that came to my mind was layovers. There’s something significant about layovers, I thought. My route, my itinerary, from Dubai to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Detroit, and Detroit to St. Louis, Missouri, even with an arrival, my journey is not finished. Being here in the States is a layover; you know, a space of being between one’s departure and one’s arrival. Like, you’re on the route, you’re on the right path, but you’re not quite there. (Dis)covering routes, the title of this episode, reveals yet another layover. There will be another departure, another arrival, another itinerary, and another journey. This is the epitome of research; asking questions; not only on a quest for answers, but also on a quest to (dis)cover the route of how one arrives at an answer. Be sure to share this episode.
(A)Broad in Education is created by Tiffany Lachelle Smith. Lady Justice, the song that you’re listening to was written and produced by Reallionaire Jream. You can get his Post Cards album on Sound Cloud. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to (A)Broad in Education on iTunes or wherever you download your favorite podcasts. Let’s keep the conversation going and follow me on Instagram and Twitter @abroad_in_ed and you can also access the website at www.abroadineducation.com
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Sound Effects and Music
Airplane sound: Soundbible.com.
Music Mitsubachi by Smith The Mister. Smith The Mister. Free Download / Stream. Music promoted by Audio Library.
Reallionaire Jream. (2015). Lady Justice. Post Cards.
Epidemic Sound. Elementary school; Airplane announcer; Flight attendant.