Diversity, Equity, School Community, Well at Work

Addressing Racism in the K-12 Workplace

The impact of racial trauma on Black and non-white educators

Students have been subject to some of the most egregious and gross forms of racism that no one should ever experience, much less a child. In Ontario, two fairly recent examples of racist violence that students face have been documented in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and the Peel District School Board. On June 15, 2020, the CBC reported that Anne Stewart,1 a teacher at Notre Dame Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, used the N-word in class while teaching students. Stewart was reported to the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), which concluded that the teacher had indeed used the N-word. However, Stewart only received a verbal reprimand and her case was not sent to the OCT’s discipline committee. The second case worth mentioning happened in 2016, when staff at an elementary school in the Peel District School Board called in the Peel Regional Police to address a situation where a six-year-old Black female student was in mental distress. The two white officers who arrived proceeded to shackle the hands and feet2 of the little girl. She remained shackled and placed on her stomach for 28 minutes. The case was referred to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and, in 2020, the Tribunal ruled that the girl’s human rights were violated and that race was a factor in the way the police responded.

What we must understand is that both of these cases were traumatizing events for the students involved; they will likely require mental health support for a long time as a result of the racial trauma they experienced. The same can probably be said about the many students who have also come to be aware of too many of these stories in which Black and racialized students, friends and family, experience racist violence in the school system. Students and their families are also re-traumatized when they find out that those who committed these racist acts are rarely held accountable for their actions.

Since school districts are in the business of serving students, we can understand why we need to address these issues so that students can have the opportunity to be successful and not be under the threat of racial violence when they are expected to be learning and getting an education. But there’s another part to this conversation that often does not get the attention it deserves: the racism that Black, Indigenous and racialized staff experience in school districts across the country. The system of anti-Black racism that Black students are fighting against and resisting is the same anti-Black racism that Black staff have to contend with and navigate while they are expected to be teaching at a high level. A report titled The Voices of Ontario Black Educators, covered by the Toronto Star in 2015,3 stated that one-third of the Black teachers, principals and vice-principals who participated in the study indicated they were passed over for promotions because they were Black, 27 percent indicated that racism at work impacts their day-to-day work life, and 51 percent believed anti-Black racism impacts who gets promoted.

School districts that want to take up the work of dismantling systemic racism to enhance student success and address the disparity in student outcomes must also address and dismantle the racism that Black and racialized educators are experiencing in the K-12 workplace. This can only be done by taking a comprehensive approach to staff mental health and well-being, and by drawing the connection between systemic racism, racism and anti-Black racism in the workplace and well-being in the workplace. The premise of this discussion must be that our education system, and by extension our school districts, are all inherently racist and anti-Black. The conversation should not be about, Is racism operating in our school district? The evidence and research detailing a variety of ways that racism and anti-Black racism impacts the education system is too strong and comprehensive for us to still be looking for more proof to establish its existence. The conversation must be about, How we can gain a better understanding of how racism is operating in our sector or school district so that we can address the disparities that Black and racialized staff are experiencing?

It is important to note that although all racialized groups experience racism, not all racialized groups experience racism in the same way. When we examine outcome data, what we clearly see is that anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism, across all sectors, produce the most significant negative outcomes among non-white populations. Disaggregated race-based outcome data is what should drive where and how school districts focus their attention and resources when doing anti-racism work. Anti-Black racism and systemic racism is a deeply entrenched problem in the education sector across the country, which has roots in the legacy of enslaved people in Canada.4 This is a very important point, because it is through a comprehensive understanding of colonialism and Canada’s participation and relationship with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that you will understand how all of our major institutions, laws, social norms and such have been built on this foundation and reflected in present-day realities. However, as serious as the problem is, it is not readily understood in terms of its impact on stress, anxiety, trauma and overall well-being in the workplace. If school districts are serious about addressing anti-Black racism and systemic racism, then they must see it as one of the most pressing mental health challenges of our time that requires concentrated effort, attention and resources if our schools, classrooms and workplaces are to be safe and nurturing work and learning environments.

Research indicates that teacher stress is directly linked to student performance and effective class management strategies. Teachers who are under chronic stress have been shown to have less effective classroom management,5 lack clear teaching instruction for students and have a lower ability to create safe and nurturing classrooms for all of their students. Research also shows that teachers who view and experience the demands and stress of teaching as outweighing the resources and support provided to them, are less likely than their peers with lower levels of stress to say they would still choose teaching if they had the chance to choose their career again.

Now, imagine you layer the stress and anxiety that comes with managing a classroom with the stress, anxiety and trauma caused by anti-Black racism and systemic racism that Black and racialized educators experience in the workplace. Racial violence can lead to racial trauma. Dr. Erangler Turner defines racial trauma as “experiencing symptoms such as anxiety, hyper-vigilance to threat or lack of hopefulness for your future as a result of exposure to racism or discrimination.” The impact of racial trauma shows up not only as anxiety and stress but also as depression, low self-esteem, poor concentration and irritability.6 Research on racial trauma also indicates that as a result of anti-Black racism, Black people experience less sense of control over their own lives, as well as internalized racism and avoidance of valued action. Chronic stress related to anti-Black racism predisposes Black people to a variety of health problems, including memory impairment, neural atrophy and heart disease. Some research has also pointed out that anxiety can be more persistent among Black people compared to their non-Black counterparts, which researchers attribute to the intensity of anti-Black racism. The impact of anti-Black racism and racism in the workplace also has negative physical impacts on Black and racialized staff. Most notable is that chronic and prolonged stress related to racism can lead the body to release high levels of cortisol, which can impair the body’s ability to reduce inflammation. This in turn can impair the body’s ability to heal. This is what Black, Indigenous and racialized educators are having to contend with in the workplace, and much of these negative mental health and well-being outcomes are directly connected to school districts’ refusal to see racism as a mental health and well-being issue, along with their inability to effectively address racism for both staff and students.

Anti-racism is integral to staff well-being

Most school districts have some form of well-being plan. This might include a paid staff role that is responsible for coordinating and rolling out mental health and well-being programs and initiatives. There may also be a well-being committee made up of staff who help to direct the school district’s well-being initiatives.

Although many staff well-being initiatives have value and help to improve the mental health and well-being of educators, the fact is that the vast majority of these programs take a race-neutral approach. Racism tends to not be factored into program design, and this type of approach only serves to further entrench anti-Black racism and other forms of racism in the workplace. By making anti-racism work a central feature of mental health and well-being plans, school districts will be centering the voices of those most vulnerable in the system and keeping the conversation about racism in the workplace at the forefront. These are both seen as best practices when doing anti-racism work.

It is well established that better mental health leads to positive outcomes for organizations. When educators experience high levels of well-being and low levels of stress, this not only results in higher student well-being and educational outcomes, but it also improves:

  • employee productivity
  • employee health behaviours
  • rates of absenteeism
  • recruitment and retention efforts.

School districts may roll out a variety of services and training opportunities, such as benefits programs that provide health supports like mental health counselling, massage or physiotherapy, or workshops that help educators communicate better, create a healthy work-life balance, and so on. From a mental health and well-being perspective, these initiatives are important and have value. They can and do have a positive impact on staff mental health and well-being. However, the problem with looking at workplace well-being solely through this lens is that it puts the onus of well-being on the staff, which fuels the idea that if staff can just learn a new skill or develop better coping mechanisms, then they can achieve optimal mental health and well-being. This approach lets school districts off the hook.

Anti-Black racism is systemic and operates in every aspect of school districts’ operations, policies and programs. This can and does have a detrimental impact on Black and racialized staff. If your plan to disrupt racism in the workplace is to essentially develop programs that aim to help Black and non-white staff deal more effectively with their oppression, then you do not have much of a plan! (See “Anti-Racism Basics” below.) School districts that take this approach are complicit and perpetuate racist violence against Black and non-white staff; the onus of disrupting anti-Black racism in our K-12 workplaces falls on the shoulders of school district leadership. It is also not enough for districts to devise ways to address the racism that students face while neglecting to turn their attention towards how Black and racialized staff are also impacted by racism. All students can see the racial hierarchy of school settings, where Black and racialized educators are scarcely in positions of leadership such as principal and vice-principal. They can see what bodies are in positions of leadership, they can see what bodies are not in leadership roles, and they can see what bodies are less present overall in school spaces. They can see what bodies are valued and what bodies are not.

If school districts are serious about staff well-being in the K-12 workplace and truly desire to have better student outcomes, then they must see anti-racism work as mental health and well-being work. School districts’ anti-racism work must include both staff and students. It is clear that when staff have lower stress and anxiety levels, they perform better as educators, which leads to better student outcomes. But workplace racism inflicts an additional level of stress, anxiety and racial trauma on Black, Indigenous and racialized staff. We know that racism and anti-Black racism has significant mental, emotional and physiological impacts on Black and other non-white educators in the workplace. This additional “tax” can and does lead to teacher performance being negatively impacted, which ultimately will impact student outcomes. Only a systemic approach to doing anti-racism work (that includes the needs of both students and staff, frames anti-racism work as a mental health and workplace well-being issue, and includes accountability) will turn our schools and districts into spaces where learning can happen and where Black and non-white staff can bring their whole selves to work – without having to shoulder the weight of systemic and anti-Black racism.

Illustration: Diana Pham

First published in Education Canada, September 2020

Anti-Racism Basics

A comprehensive discussion of effective anti-racism programs for school districts would require a whole other article. But as a starting place, they should feature:

  • Acknowledgment that our school systems are inherently racist due to the legacy of colonialism and slavery. We also have mounds of data and research that prove that anti-Black racism and systemic racism is a problem in education, and that it has significant impact on Black staff and student mental health. If we don’t acknowledge the problem that racism exists, how will know what problem we are trying to solve?
  • Community Partnership and Community Leadership Any efforts by school districts to do anti-racism work and disrupt anti-Black racism must be done with community, staff and student partnership. The voices of those most impacted must have a leadership role in developing the solutions.
  • Accountability Any plan to address systemic and anti-Black racism that does not have accountability measures is grossly incomplete. School districts that take anti-racism work seriously must have accountability measures in place for the district as a system and for racist behaviours when committed by staff.
  • Disaggregated Race-Based Data Collection Any anti-racism work, strategy or plan should be informed by disaggregated race-based data. The collection methodology and analysis of the data must be done by those who have expertise utilizing an anti-racism intersectional lens.
  • Transparent Monitoring and Reporting All policies, programs and initiatives must have a transparent process and transparent reporting mechanism. The community and staff need to know, clearly, what work the organization has committed to, what impact it has had and what the challenges have been.
  • Policy Development and Implementation To support the needed structural change to disrupt and dismantle anti-Black racism and systemic racism, the necessary policies need to be put in place. This helps to ensure that as staff change roles and new officials are elected, the work does not stop. Additionally, all existing new policies should be reviewed and developed using an anti-racism and anti-Black racism lens.


1 Shanifa Nasser, “High school teacher who used N-word in class allowed to keep working after apologizing,” CBC News (June 15, 2020). www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/brampton-teacher-notre-dame-n-word-1.5607961

2 “Race was a factor in handcuffing of 6-year-old black girl in Mississauga school, tribunal says,” CBC News (March 3, 2020). www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/human-rights-tribunal-peel-police-girl-handcuffed-1.5483456

3 Louise Brown, “Black teachers still face racism on the job in Ontario,” Toronto Star (May 29, 2015). www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2015/05/29/black-teachers-still-face-racism-on-the-job-in-ontario.html

4 Natasha Henry, Anti-Black Racism in Ontario Schools: A historical perspective (Turner Consulting Group Inc., Research and Policy Brief No. 1, May 2019). www.turnerconsultinggroup.ca/uploads/2/9/5/6/29562979/policy_brief_-_no_1_may_2019.pdf

5 Sarah D. Sparks, “How Teachers’ Stress Affects Students: A research roundup,” Education Week – Teacher (June 7, 2017). www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2017/06/07/how-teachers-stress-affects-students-a-research.html

6 Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, “The Little-Known Health Effect of Racial Trauma,” The Cut (June 7, 2017). www.thecut.com/2017/06/the-little-understood-mental-health-effects-of-racial-trauma.html

Meet the Expert(s)

Rohan Thompson

Workplace Equity Manager, Peel District School Board

Rohan Thompson is the Workplace Equity Manager with the Peel District School Board in Ontario.

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