As a part of my series on educator diversity, I’m having conversations with educators of color that have expressed an interest in speaking with me about their experiences. The goal of these conversations is to provide voices to the plight of educators of color, and to show how we can not only get more young people of color into classrooms and into education in general, but that investments also need to be made on the back end to ensure we keep really good educators in the work.
For this interview, I have the opportunity to speak with Krista Purnell, an educator and social impact leader. She’s worked with a variety of students in underserved communities and the educators who serve them. She’s demonstrated success in creating innovative curriculum, coaching, assessment, and professional development models and is adept at building and maintaining relationships with diverse audiences.
Malcolm Davis (MD): Hi Krista, thank you so much for making time to speak with me today.
Krista Purnell (KP): No problem Mal, glad we could talk!
MD: So to start things off, let’s talk about some of the reasons why young people of color aren’t becoming educators. You said it’s salary, can you elaborate on that?
KP: As we know, salaries for educators are on average lower than a lot of careers. In my experience a lot of folks of color are a part of communal family dynamics and are taking care of other people, not just ourselves. If there’s an opportunity to make more money elsewhere, they may listen to their wallet instead of their heart.
MD: Why do you think the decision makers struggle to see the validity of increasing compensation for educators?
KP: It’s really hard, the biggest barrier is that people don’t value the profession. If I had a magic wand, I’d say everyone needs to serve in a school for a day to see that it’s a valuable profession. Everyone thinks they can do it, but there are skills involved to teach children that aren’t necessarily easily visible. Doctors need all of this training, and you’re not telling anyone that they can go in and be a doctor, but we tell anyone that they can walk in and teach.
MD: That is 100% the truth, and I think we saw a bit of that during remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic. It seemed like people had a lot more respect for educators once they had to work with their own children at home for an extended amount of time. As far as what is preventing educators of color from staying in education, you said work/life balance, can you tell me more?
KP: Teaching is hard and it’s exhausting and can burn you out. If you don’t love it it’s easy to walk away and do something else. I remember being a classroom teacher, and you bring work home. Is there a way to find a balance where we get outcomes for kids and also allow the work/life balance?
MD: That seems to be the ultimate question at this point, can schools maintain their “rigor” but also find a space where educators aren’t being asked to do 100 different things. I’ve seen it happen in some instances, but overall we definitely need to do more work to address teacher burnout. What are your thoughts on other ways we can better retain our educators of color?
KP: Other pieces to retention relate to the teacher community you’re in. Do you have support from the admin and a coach? Depending on the environment do you have cultural support? If you feel isolated it can wear you down, you need some level of community. The best school settings I worked in were committed to kids and also to each other.
MD: The administrative support and affirming overall school community are integral in keeping our best educators in this work. As a young person you didn’t have many educators of color as a student, how did that affect your sense of culture and pride as a young person of color growing up?
KP: The thing that was the buffer for me was that my parents had a level of awareness to teach me about my culture and myself, I’m so grateful for that. I think about other young people that didn’t have that, did they always feel excluded in school? I had one teacher of color for one semester K-12, which makes me think about how that leads to bias in our schools. If they’ve never met someone like you, never worked with someone like you, they may not think you can do the work and then they lower the bar.
MD: Cultural understanding is so important! And like you said, many times when an educator doesn’t understand our students, it leads them to lower the bar, instead of finding authentic ways to move and motivate young people.
KP: It was important to me to become a Black educator. I loved my kids and they came back later and told me I was the best teacher they had and they knew how much I loved them. I wanted to see them thrive and be someone they look up to.
MD: I’m not the least bit surprised that you made a profound impact on your students, you are such an incredible person and I’m sure you were an incredible teacher. As a former teacher, what’s a piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring educator of color in order to help them make a lasting impact in this work?
KP: Love the kids that’s first and foremost. Take care of yourself, if you don’t do that you won’t have a lasting impact. Lastly, build community and get back to our roots. We need to be at the table for these conversations about education, and I’m always looking to lift someone up. Make sure people’s voices are elevated and that you’re making space for the next generation.
MD: That’s excellent advice Krista, and something I hope aspiring educators keep in mind as they begin their journey into the classroom and beyond. Again, I really appreciate you joining me and for sharing your thoughts on how we make education more equitable.
You can connect with Krista Purnell through her LinkedIn. You can connect with me via my podcast The 3rd Lap Podcast and learn more about The Center for Black Educator Development here. #WeNeedMoreBlackTeachers