WEST MILWAUKEE — Black teachers are leaving the classroom at a higher rate than their white counterparts and schools are having a tough time recruiting more.
Educators and administrators in the West Allis -West Milwaukee School District say challenges surrounding the recruitment and retention of black educators boil down to one thing: support.
"They find themselves being more of a social worker than an educator," said Melvin "Biko" Johnson, Assistant Principal at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis.
He goes by the name Biko. It's a surname he carried over from a job at a previous school district. He was given the name because of how his qualities and personality align with South African freedom fighter Steve Biko.
TMJ4's Ryan Jenkins asked Biko why he believes Black teachers are leaving the profession more often than white teachers.
"A number of reasons," he said. "Not feeling supported in their spaces."
Now, Biko is part of a district trying to address a challenge that is impacting nationwide.
A 2019 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that 42% of Wisconsin's Black public school teachers leave their schools after just two years, compared to 23.3% of their white counterparts.
Biko believes it is because today's black educators are taking on a unique responsibility helping students of color deal with social and environmental trauma. Things like the impacts of COVID, gun violence and poverty are added onto their day-to-day teaching duties.
"All of that pressure falls on teachers and, in many cases, teachers are reaching this burnout extremely early," he said.
So, what does the support teachers need look like? Deidre Roemer, the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District's Director of Leadership and Learning, says it all starts with listening and adjusting to staff's lived experiences.
"Being willing to look at our teaching staff, or our leadership team, and say OK that's what our people need right now and try to do our best to try and support them so that they can be successful in front of our learners every day," said Roemer.
Roemer says the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District's works hard to include diverse pools of staff in all curriculum and professional development within the district and she says when there's public pressure - on topics such as "Black Lives Matter" in the classroom, or critical race theory - they as a team prepare to meet the challenge.
"We are OK taking some of the challenges on. Why would you teach this in a classroom? Why would you have this in the classroom," she said.
And the reason they're willing to take on those challenges is because Roemer and Biko both say, "representation matters."
TMJ4's Ryan Jenkins: "There's a lot of people out there who say, 'who cares what color the teacher is as long as they're teaching the curriculum.' In your experience why does it matter to have Black teachers in the classroom?"
Biko: "Research will tell us that Black students who have had Black teachers are less likely to be suspended, more likely to graduate... All of these positive attributes and the impact of having this cultural congruence seems to be a no-brainer for me."
As Black History Month comes to a close, Roemer adds that she hopes these important conversations continue outside of the month of February.