How Being a Black Teacher at an International School Destroyed My Mental Health (and how I survived)
Who I am
I am a black educator employed at a top tier international school. I have built a future for myself thanks to this teaching post. My children go to the school I teach in, for reduced tuition fees. I am
also deeply grateful for the opportunity to teach fabulous students from all over the world. These are some of the reasons why it is a teacher’s ultimate dream to work where I do.
What Happened to me
I joined my current international school post over 10 years ago. It was a breakthrough in my career. Understandably, I did not pay attention straight away to the fact that there were just a handful of
black teachers amongst an overwhelmingly white faculty. At the beginning, all was well. Spontaneously, I became everybody’s ‘sunshine’. Colleagues complimented me on my colourful clothes, my extravagant hairstyles and my commitment to smiling and spreading positive vibes. A feeling of isolation only kicked-in a few years down the line as my fellow black colleagues moved on,
often replaced by white educators. No matter how committed you are to creating relationships wherever you are, the loneliness of having no one who looks like you, starts to take a toll. My
children also brought stories of playground and classroom racism from school but I thought that building my children’s resilience was my one and only option.
Soon I became simply annoyed by the constant need for me to code-switch. The jokes, the news discussed, the experiences shared by everybody, everything seemed to sideline me in one way or another. I felt like an outsider at work. I was a visible and a cultural minority in a context where I shouldn’t have been, at least not so drastically. As a matter of fact, I repeatedly noticed prospective black teachers that I thought would be excellent additions to our team, not coming back after their interviews. Black candidates were hitting the proverbial glass ceiling…
I was torn between enjoying my luck and fearing for my job security if I dared to speak up about the school’s racist recruitment practices. Feeling ‘othered’ at work made me sleep a bit less at night. I was agonising over whether or not I should quit. I decided against it because my children loved their school. I did become more attentive to the racism they occasionally faced there. I no longer hesitated to challenge colleagues or the school administration when my young ones reported incidents to me. tension was building up.
Fortunately, I had access to some black communities outside of school where I was able to feel safe. This is how I kept my sanity. That and the practice of spiritual gratitude. I really tried to keep seeing the good side of things, the light at the end of the tunnel.
What wound up destabilising me was the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact on international education. The Pandora box of my bottled-up feelings was forced open by newspaper articles and blog posts written by courageous black educators working in international education like me.
The texts of professionals such as Proserpina Dhlamini Fisher
( https://www.tieonline.com/article/2725/racism-in-recruiting-the-elephant-in-our-international-education-room ),
Nunana Nyomi ( https://www.cois.org/about-cis/news/post/~board/perspectives-blog/post/international-education-perpetuates-structural-racism-and-anti-racism-is-the-solution ),
Safaa Abdelmajid ( https://medium.com/@mabrouka ), and more, stirred up painful emotions but also, the merciful feeling of not being alone. In that same period, some of my white colleagues who might have read the same articles as me, started critical conversations with me about the relevance of BLM in international education. In meetings, during lunch, in the corridors, some of them were unleashing strings of daily verbal microaggressions with the intent to make me see the other side of the story, their side . As these co-workers were blissfully unaware of the negative impacts on me of their attempts at wokeness, I made crying in the staff toilets my secret routine.
I had always known there was racism at school but I attributed it to ignorance. After the surge of BLM, I would start to notice guerilla tactics, avoidance moves, and resistance to change. I was not ready for that. The school leadership had understood that talking about race could no longer be deferred. Our coloured students were speaking-up about racist experiences at school. Their
parents were joining in. So the institution had to take a public stance. First of all, there was the p.r. on the website and communications, literally inundating the community with proof that the matter was being addressed. Surveys about people’s experiences with discrimination, presentations in staff meetings, sharing groups etc. it looked all good on the surface.
I saw this as my opportunity to speak up too. I did so on social media, and informally, at work, sharing articles, bringing risky topics into casual conversations. I wanted the school community to reflect on so many questions: why are we not recruiting more black educators? What does bias look like in an international school classroom? Why do students need their names well-pronounced? How come black and coloured boys are statistically more likely to be unjustly disciplined by their teachers? I even expressed my interest in presenting to the leadership of the school on the issue of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. I thought my personal story could help make things right. But my messages to the school administration were answered very coldly and that hit me like a closed fist. In my short-lived enthusiasm, I had underestimated white fragility. I started to understand how I could be seen as a problem for the image of the school. I was an angry black woman, my impact
needed to be curbed to leave way to a slow process of awareness, without pressure to deliver anything concrete anytime soon. I often heard the following sentences in discussions. ‘this is a marathon, not a sprint.’ or ‘the most important is to raise awareness. In the meantime I was witnessing the following types of behaviours on the ground:
– A teacher who used the N word in class, and publicly dismissed the importance of racial incidents that happened at school was put in charge of a major anti-discrimination project while parents, students and myself had voiced concerns about the prejudices of this individual.
– When my name was proposed in meetings to lead anti racism efforts, the school management remained silent. In the meantime other institutions came to me for support in the exact same domain
– After making it clear to the school leadership that I am very enthusiastic about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, I saw another person recruited on this mission without it being previously advertised. The person was less experienced than me and not black, and therefore less ‘threatening’ maybe?
– A group of disgruntled parents came together to hold the school more accountable on racism. The school created hurdles to silence them, while keeping the dialogue going on the surface, then officially turned to another anti-discrimination group with no black members and a ‘less angry’ tone ( weaponizing people’s anger when the school caused it in the first place)
– One of my posts promoting antiracism in international schools was re-shared by my school on their own page. They were seemingly endorsing me, while sidelining me in reality.
As a black educator in international education, receiving the cold shoulder from your superiors during the development of the BLM movement is particularly upsetting. Overall, these were strange
times at work. Colleagues were kind enough as a whole. On the surface, I also remained my chirpy happy self but I could not help notice that my new activist posture inconvenienced some of my
co-workers though. A couple of teachers seemed to be avoiding me, others challenged me for being ‘divisive’. Some of my colleagues did sense I might be struggling behind my mask of happiness as my mental health was slowly but surely deteriorating. I was, unknowingly, developing racial battle fatigue. One weekend like another, I broke down at home, in the presence of my family. I was
hospitalised in a psychiatric unit. I am currently still recovering.
Why I am Talking Today
I am writing this testimony anonymously because I fear for my job. However, another reason why I am not giving my name here is because I want international schools around the globe to face the
mirror when they read these words and assess where they presently stand. I have told my own story here but I am certainly not the only one to have experienced what I have described. I want to say to fellow black and BIPOC teachers in international education who have gone through the same grief as me, that they are not alone. Racism in international education is particularly hurtful because it is out of place there. When highly regarded international institutions choose to discourage black teachers from expressing themselves, when they drown our voices through tactics from politics , when school leaders make the choice to work on inclusion at their own slow pace, smiling all the way while we suffer, the people who pay the price are non-white members of the community. The isolation of black teachers is mirrored in the injustice BIPOC students experience due to lack of role models for them, it is exemplified in insufficient curricular representation for non-white children at top international schools.
How we can stop this from happening to black teachers
International schools have been, in the past, spaces where white privilege has prevailed. This status quo is being challenged today by the BLM movement. This momentum should be understood as an opportunity to become even truer to the idealistic missions of international education. There are, in my view, 3 ways to navigate this change positively:
– Embrace racial inclusion without hypocrisy. It is no longer time to focus solely on protecting your school’s reputation through p.r. Instead, you must move forward, courageously, now.
– Empower the BIPOCs who step forward to help lead change in that domain. Rebalancing justice, agency and voice is the way to go. This journey can no longer be about white people showing how woke they can be, or sticking to their racial fragilities.
– Restore trust through a clear long-term vision for diversity equity and inclusion. Educators of colour do not need a temporary band-aid on our traumas and discriminations. We deserve to work in a safe space where regularly reviewed recruitment policies and educational practices confirm that we will never again have to be the voiceless tokens.
How can isolated black teachers keep sane in such toxic, gaslighting environments?
– Don’t despair, instead reach out to others like you across the movement, for, there is an active movement for racial inclusion within international education. Reach out to organisations like ODIS (Organisation to Decolonise International Schools), AIELOC (Association of International educators and leaders of Colour) or International Teachers of colour. They have conferences, resources and safe spaces for you.
– Self-care: racism will not end tomorrow but you could if you keep experiencing high levels of stress
– Share your experience: our voices need to be heard, even by those who are trying hard not to grasp the full picture of what racism looks like in international education today. Our voices are also precious to comfort each other. The echo of us speaking up in turns is in itself an antidote to isolation
Here at the hospital, thankfully, there is only me and my wellbeing. The doctors say they want me to relax, for, I arrived here, distraught and exhausted, even sleep-deprived. I must rest. And yet, a knot is forming in my stomach at the thought of going back to the international school. The idealistic school that rejected my black voice, ignored my pain, disregarded my experience, in such a casual way. I am not sure that I will be able to go back , even though one of my life goals was to grow professionally here, in one of the best international schools in the world!
As I look through my room’s tall windows, I see swallows circling above city rooves. One building seems to particularly appeal to them. It is one with a high steeple. The dark birds are flying around it in a majestic dance, as if they are looking for an opening to get in, but cannot find one. I feel serene here, far away from the tensions of the real world. My expectations for my international school do not seem to matter here. I must say I received a couple of ‘get well soon’ messages from work. People do like and respect me there. There is no shortage of kindness; that has never been the real issue .