BIPOC teacher illustration
The Equity Issue

Fatigue, Frustration, and Fear: BIPOC Teachers on Educating During COVID-19

While recognition, respect, and gratitude for teachers and educators may seem like minimal repayments in exchange for their contributions, they don't come in abundance for those in the U.S., especially for those who identify as BIPOC.

In the U.S., most children will begin kindergarten as early as age five and will finish high school by the time they reach 18. Depending on their chosen career path, many will find themselves in some form of higher education for another four years or more.

Thirty-one states require 180 days of instruction. While the number of hours spent in school (K through 12) varies by state (and in some cases by grade level), many children can expect to be in the classroom setting for five to seven hours per day.

Considering the amount of time spent with their students, teachers play a critical role in their development. 

Not only are teachers teaching, but they might have to act as a disciplinarian to the fifth-grader who keeps interrupting class. Or, take on the role of confidant for the teenager struggling with something in their personal life. Or, maybe they’re the only person in a child's life who encourages them to reach their goals.

Throughout each stage of your child’s schooling, their teachers, professors, and other educators are there every step of the way.

Now, a little over two years into a global pandemic, teachers are still doing this—and a whole lot more. And, for those who are BIPOC, the additional layer of coping with the trauma of witnessing violence against others that look like them, and navigating the challenges that come with working in a profession that is still predominantly White, makes an already arduous job even harder. 

To gain further insight into how BIPOC teachers have been faring, Verywell Mind spoke with BIPOC educators, who so graciously (and eagerly) agreed to share their experience of teaching during a pandemic.

How BIPOC Educators Feel Right Now

Through ever-changing COVID guidelines, the new variants, the back and forth between remote and in-person learning, and living as a BIPOC person—here’s how teachers described their experiences.

Tired 

“I’ve been tired,” says Angela Brown, a Maryland high school English teacher who’s recently entered her 22nd year of teaching. “I feel like I’m doing the most all the time.” 

In discussions Brown had with her coworkers, she’s not alone in feeling this way. Not only has teaching online been a challenge but trying to keep students engaged has also been a battle.

“We’re competing with TikTok [and] Instagram. We’re competing with everything that’s happening in the [students’] house,” says Brown.

Frustrated

For Alice Scott, an elementary school teacher in Maryland, teaching during a pandemic (and dealing with an election) was frustrating.

Furthermore, the lack of information about COVID and seeing its impact on different groups of people (COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color) was tough for Scott.

Alice Scott

I was watching a certain group of friends of mine get colds, get sniffles, and be OK and say COVID is 'not really that bad.' But then on the other side, I would see some of my other friends, my Black friends, my friends of color, dying.

— Alice Scott

Losing friends—that were her age and younger—took a toll on her mental health.

Anxious

New York City-based high school math teacher, Julie K., says she’s “just trying to get by day by day” and feels the anxiety of not being able to have the answers for herself and her students. 

Julie also recently made the difficult decision to quit teaching. The time this interview was conducted happened to be the final week of her five-year-long teaching career.

Julie K.

The reason I’m leaving is exactly because of my mental health.

— Julie K.

As someone who’s struggled with anxiety outside of her professional life, living and teaching during a pandemic has only exacerbated her anxiety. 

Exhausted

Michele U., a special education and English teacher in Long Island, New York who’s been teaching for just over 25 years, says that in her district, the “pandemic has become politicized just as it’s occurring in this country.” Because of that, she “can’t wait to retire.”

Long Hours & Securing Supplemental Income

The workday doesn’t end when teachers get home. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 1 in 6 teachers in the United States has a second job. Some teachers take on extra work (non-school related) during the summer when they’re off, and others—a majority of which are the same teachers who take on summer work—also take on additional work during the school year.

“My night continues [after work] with grading and phone calls,” she says. She also tutors and chaperones school events for extra money. “Our [teachers’] salaries often cannot suffice to raise a family, especially in New York.” While her itch to retire has nothing to do with the job itself—as it’s one she loves and is skilled at—the politics, long hours, and insufficient pay have been “exhausting.”

Scared

Chris Maverick, an adjunct professor at three universities in Pennsylvania, says that teaching during a pandemic has been nothing short of scary.

“Teaching in person during a pandemic is frightening,” says Maverick. Being in the dark about students’ vaccinations and not knowing if his students wear masks on weekends was concerning.

Even though he believes that teaching works better in person (research shows students feel more engaged in in-person settings) and that “it’s really, really difficult to teach over a Zoom call,” he says. Despite this, he acknowledges that doing so is still “much safer.”

Addressing Race and Racism as a BIPOC Teacher

The way children conceptualize and understand race is often heavily influenced by their lived experiences and their environment. 

The famous “Doll Test” conducted in 1939 by psychologists Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Clark, showed that children internalize racist stereotypes and racism. In this experiment, Black children were given dolls that were identical—skin tone was the only variation. Results showed that while Black children could identify with the Black dolls, they ascribed negative characteristics to them and some even preferred the White dolls.

The results of this study showed just how pervasive the effects of racism are in children. Studies have also shown that when the topic of race is not discussed, biases and stereotypes tend to thrive.

While often uncomfortable for most, talking about race is critical in understanding the lived experiences of people of color.

Some teachers are taking the opportunity to address race and racism in the classroom and believe that they have a responsibility to do so despite its emotional investment. 

Discussing Racism Can Often Feel Like a ‘Double-Edged Sword’ For Those Who Are BIPOC

Regarding her work with BIPOC teachers, Ivy Kwong, LMFT, a psychotherapist, says, “Black teachers encountered pressure during the Black Lives Matter movement to develop lesson plans and DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] talks at their schools about police brutality and racism. They were also pressured to share their feelings, opinions, and personal experiences with colleagues."

Ivy Kwong, LMFT

Many Black educators have reported experiencing 'racial battle fatigue' which is a systemic, race-related, repetitive stress injury.

— Ivy Kwong, LMFT

Those who are BIPOC live with the trauma brought about by racism, marginalization, and microaggressions on a regular basis, yet are often tasked with educating others about what racism is, what it feels like, why it’s wrong, and why it’s so traumatic.

While those who have experienced racial trauma can sufficiently speak on it, they relive the trauma while doing so.

So, who exactly is qualified to teach students or colleagues about the lived experience of BIPOC people in the U.S.? 

“I think it's really hard to decide who is qualified and who isn't,'' says Alice Tsui, a Chinese-American activist and founding music teacher at a public arts-integrated elementary school in Brooklyn, who went viral for her impassioned speech about anti-Asian hate in the spring of 2021. “But I definitely think that it does have to come from BIPOC leading equity sessions, equity training, etc. I think that it’s important to have White folks who are more than just allies and more than just doers of what BIPOC tells them to do but [who also] seek knowledge on their own.”

Creating Space to Talk About Race and Embracing Diversity in the Classroom

Student bodies, as a whole, are rapidly becoming more diverse. While teacher diversity in the U.S. is also increasing, it can't keep up with the growth rate of their diverse student body. Studies suggest that minority students perform better when their teachers are also BIPOC.Another study showed that when schools create an environment that champions diversity, minority students may display better physical health outcomes. Based on these results prioritizing staff diversity is invaluable for students of color.

Moreover, teachers of color can connect with BIPOC students in a unique way. For example, BIPOC teachers are less likely to view minority students through a lens of unconscious bias. White students also benefit from having teachers of color because they can expose them to other cultures.

“I interject race into conversations and that’s why I teach literature, such as 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'A Raisin in the Sun,' as both deal with race relations,” says Michele U.

She uses these discussions to ask her students if we’ve really made progress in addressing and combating racism. Michele U., who identifies as African-American says, “I won’t stop having these conversations because they need to be had."

Michele U.

We have not come far enough in this country and made the progress that needs to be made in order for the next generation to feel secure and be who they want to be.

— Michele U.

Rajita Bhavaraju, PhD, Deputy Director of the Global Tuberculosis Institute at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and adjunct instructor at Rutgers School of Public Health ensures that case studies are representative of different cultures or age groups. “When we're doing things like teaching professionals and conducting case studies or using examples, we really try to make an effort [to make sure] cases are diverse, that the names of the people are diverse [and represent] age diversity.”

Angeline Cheek, who identifies as Lakota/Dakota, is the Indigenous Justice Coordinator for The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and a former paraprofessional teacher. She has a deep understanding of Native American intergenerational trauma and noticed that Native students feel more comfortable with Native teachers. “Native students are more open with Native teachers. It's the connection they feel or knowing we're from the same tribe."

Second-grade teacher Amanda Candelaria, who identifies as Puerto Rican and teaches in a school where the majority of her students are Black or Latino, says she’s intentional about diversifying classroom materials to make sure all of her students feel represented.

“I don’t want my kids to feel the way I felt when I could never find a crayon brown enough to match my skin so I make sure I have multicultural crayons, markers, and paper readily available. I want my students [to] feel welcomed, respected, and appreciated so they can walk into the world wanting to do the same for others.”

BIPOC Teachers and Their Mental Health

Living through a pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing mental health concerns for many, and created new ones as well. A report from the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that, between April 2020 and August 2021, people were experiencing anxiety and depression at a rate four times higher than they were in 2019.

Reinette Arnold, LCSW, MAC, CFVIP says, “Coupled with many BIPOC educators facing personal stressors as they navigate the pandemic and vicarious trauma due to social injustices, violence, and racism seen nationally and locally, many report feeling symptoms related to burnout, anxiety, depression, and other conditions.”

It’s important now, more than ever, that BIPOC teachers are given the space to prioritize their mental health.

Mental Healthcare Inequities Often Result in Inadequate Services

The New York Times reported that there is a therapist shortage across the United States as a result of the number of people seeking care to deal with the mental effects—such as anxiety and depression—of living through a pandemic.

Arnold says, “Many [BIPOC teachers] are looking for relief and support yet continue to face systemic health inequities related to physical and emotional wellness.”

While diversity in psychology is increasing, as of 2018, 84% of psychologists were White and only 16% identified as BIPOC.

Finding a culturally competent therapist is often important to BIPOC patients seeking care. A 2013 study that examined 102 patients showed that non-White patients felt that culturally-competent care was more important to their therapeutic experience than their White counterparts. The study also determined that without cultural competency, BIPOC patients felt that their care was insufficient. 

Dr. Bhavaraju, who identifies as South Asian, says that it might be difficult for South Asians to talk about their culture with a White therapist out of a fear of being judged. “Let’s say a woman is in an arranged marriage, you might feel odd talking about that.”

Following her divorce, she sought out therapy and did not have success finding a South Asian therapist. “I actually ended up finding a therapist who was White. She asked a lot of questions so she could understand how to advise me in my particular situation, which was super helpful.” 

Combined with an overall therapist shortage and a lack of therapists of color, BIPOC teachers will face extra challenges when seeking care to address their mental health concerns. Not only does this impact their own well-being but those of their students. A 2019 study showed that poorer teacher mental health had a negative impact on their students' well-being. 

Few Mental Health Resources

Cheek, who lives on the Fort Peck reservation in Montana, says that finding mental healthcare is a challenge. “We have a lack of resources on the reservation for mental healthcare.” 

To properly show up for their students and provide them with an environment that fosters their intellectual growth, it’s imperative that BIPOC teachers have access to adequate mental healthcare that can address their unique concerns. 

Discussing Mental Health Challenges Is Difficult in Some Cultures

Even though the majority of people are more aware of and more comfortable with discussing mental health concerns, some groups are more hesitant to disclose the extent of their mental health troubles.

As a Cantonese-American, growing up, Julie K. said she was taught to only rely on herself. While she has, however, made the effort to try and unlearn those teachings, it sometimes feels natural to tackle problems on her own. “If I'm dealing with emotions, I usually keep it to myself until I have some sort of solution.” 

The Model Minority Myth: An Asian-American Stereotype

The "model minority" myth plays a role in the perception of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) mental health. In the AAPI affinity space in her workplace, Julie K. and her coworkers discussed its impact and how it made them feel the need to “chug along” at the expense of their well-being. 

Dr. Bhavaraju, says that talking about mental health in her culture isn’t so common. “Going to my parents and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been so overwhelmed’ or bursting into tears in front of them is not something that’s comfortable. It’s not something that we do.” 

Mental Health Support in Schools

In response to the psychological and emotional fallout of living and working through a pandemic, some schools have implemented programs to provide mental wellness support to their faculty and students. 

Affinity Spaces & Counseling Services

“The AAPI community collectively experienced the trauma of being targeted, under threat of attack by a stranger, and blamed for COVID, intensified by inflammatory comments by the president at the time,” says Kwong. 

The Power of Safe Spaces

To process the complex emotions after witnessing violence and hate against Asian communities, Julie K. feels “ever grateful” to have had an AAPI affinity space in her school where she could discuss her mental health concerns openly.

Another way schools offer mental health support is through counseling services. In Brown’s district, mental health support is a priority.“ [The school district] is trying to get more mental health resources for the kids and for the staff. In my particular building, we do have a mental health clinician and a mental health practicum student in the building,” says Brown. 

Mental Health Days

Some districts across the United States have allowed both students and staff to take days off to prioritize their mental health. There were approximately 3,145 mental health-related school closures in the 2021 school year.

While teachers aren’t allotted official mental health days in her school, Brown says that her principal is really understanding when teachers need a break. Sometimes, her principal will allow teachers to post an online assignment that students can complete on their own time so that they can end their workday early. The students, however, do get mental health days. “The kids have a mental health day a quarter.” 

Why Taking a Mental Health Day Isn't Always Helpful

Teachers note that taking a sick day or calling out for mental health reasons isn’t easy because work piles up and they’re forced to catch up upon their return. Also, due to an understaffing of substitute teachers, teachers may not be able to take the day off on the day they need it most.

Chris Maverick

If I take the day off from teaching, there’s no class that day. So, the problem with taking a day off from teaching is, it actually makes it worse. If I get sick and have to cancel a class, I’m still grading papers while I’m at home in bed.

— Chris Maverick

Self-Care Is Critical

A journal article describing the experience of two mental health practitioners, one Black and the other Asian American, says that self-care is critical for BIPOC professionals.

“A foundational strategy I provide to all BIPOC educators who receive services focus on creating an active and effective self-care plan with cultural considerations,” says Arnold, LCSW. “By creating a self-care plan, educators can identify resources and skills that promote resiliency.”

How Teachers Are Supporting Their Own Mental Health

Upon being asked about which strategies they use to support their mental well-being, here’s what some of these teachers had to say:

Amanda Candelaria

The ‘self-care shower,’ as I like to call it. [I] shower first, then soak in the tub. I like to use my favorite bath bombs, salts, and light a candle.

— Amanda Candelaria
  • Angeline Cheek: "I visit with our elders in the summertime where we gather sage, medicines, and sweetgrass."
  • Chris Maverick: "I have a podcast that I do. It’s more work, but it’s fun for me. I make 3D-printed figures. I also have a whole bunch of Legos that I’ve been putting together."
  • Alice Tsui: "I am a musician. So, I play [the] piano. That's a really big part of my healing."

How to Support BIPOC Teachers

As the pandemic continues, more people are advocating for their own mental health and that of others. It’s imperative that BIPOC teachers feel supported and cared for in a way that makes room for them to properly heal from and process their trauma.

Making mental health days commonplace and ensuring that teachers have access to mental health services should be a priority.

Finding ways to address understaffing (especially substitute teachers) in schools can help alleviate stress and allow teachers to take much-needed time off—rather than having to give up their lunch breaks to cover another teacher’s class (an issue that's afflicted many teachers).

“There is no blanket, one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the mental and emotional health of BIPOC educators," says Ivy Kwong. "Specialized support is needed for BIPOC educators affected by racial injustice and the pandemic. I sincerely hope this need will be acknowledged and met with sensitivity, care, and compassion."

Artwork by Alex Dos Diaz

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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