Retiring from Education but not Giving Up

By Damaris Rau // February 21, 2022

A new study finds that nearly half of school district superintendents are either considering or planning to leave their role in the next two to three years. I am one of them. I shall tell you why.

I am the Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which serves roughly 10,300 students, 90 percent of whom are students of color and economically disadvantaged. After seven years serving as Superintendent, I plan to retire at the end of this school year.

Many of my colleagues are leaving because of the pressures that COVID-19 exerted on education. New teaching models had to be rolled out, technology had to be bought, and teachers needed to be trained in our new normal of remote teaching and learning. Superintendents had to navigate conflicting guidance from the government and medical institutions, putting us in impossible positions. The debate over masks became a matter of politics rather than safety. We were told to follow the CDC guidelines, but governors passed anti-mask mandates. These are all valid reasons, but some of us have other reasons, too. We are leaving education because we are tired.

We are tired of inadequate and inequitable state funding for school districts that serve primarily economically disadvantaged children of color. We are tired of fighting for sufficient resources to prepare our students for college and career; tired of not having the funds to renovate schools and to ensure safe learning environments for our students and staff. We are tired of a system that discriminates against children of color and creates schools that are still separate and unequal.

We are tired of watching our students hurting as they hear the reports of so many Black men like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery murdered every day. How do you explain racism and racial injustice to our Black and Brown students, especially our boys? How do you explain why innocent children like Travon Martin are killed because of their skin color?  How do you explain to them the fear their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunties and uncles have every day, wondering if their child will come home? We are tired of attending memorials for our children, our friends, our neighbors, and our family members who were killed by gunfire.

We are tired of the raging culture wars that continue to divide our country. We are tired of defending the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are tired of the history of race in America being whitewashed, and of anti-racism being attacked. We are tired of government leaders writing legislation that urges students and parents to spy on teachers suspected of teaching about race or gender issues in their classrooms, and of teachers’ fears of losing their jobs because they teach about race and equity.  We are tired of people claiming that discussing holistic views of multi-ethnic heritage is a racially divisive view of American history.

We are tired of people calling for banning books by Black and Brown authors about Black and Brown people and other marginalized groups that they haven’t even read, asserting that teaching anything about race reflects a dangerous ideology. We are tired of the ridiculous dogma that teaching about Black leaders and civil rights hurts White children. When we deny children the opportunity to learn about Martin Luther King, Ruby Bridges, or President Obama, we deny them the opportunity to know and understand about the culture and histories of leaders who were Black, Latino, and from other marginalized groups who have helped shape our nation and our culture.

We are tired of the backlash against our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and its negative impact on their mental health. We are angry that restricting access to certain books, sports, locker rooms, and bathroom access for LGBTQ+ children has led to significant increased risks for depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts by these children.

We are tired of fighting every year for the right to vote. Since the 2020 election, 19 states have passed bills erecting barriers similar to those of the Jim Crow era that make it harder for Latino, Black, Asian and disabled citizens to vote. Meanwhile, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is at a standstill.

And we are tired that the attack on the U.S. Capitol by extremist far right groups was characterized as “legitimate discourse by patriots,” but the Black Lives Matter protests for racial and social justice were branded “riots by thugs.”

I am tired, but I am not giving up.

Even once I retire, I will continue to stand up for people who are not in the room, and I will continue to support people doing the hard work for all of us. People like the attorneys at the Public Interest Law Center, the Education Law Center, and the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, who are fighting on behalf of six poor school districts (including mine) against legislators, state education officials, and the Governor to ensure equitable education funding in Pennsylvania.

I am also grateful for those who dedicate their lives every day to removing obstacles faced by all our brothers and sisters and who support the least of us. I am thankful for the people who show up every day in our schools – from building leaders to bus drivers, teachers and custodians, specialists in all areas – despite of the difficulties and stress.

I am thankful for the POWER INTERFAITH Lancaster Education Justice Team that has been a consistent partner in demanding equitable and adequate funding for children across Pennsylvania.

I am thankful for organizations like the Southern Education Foundation that is committed to advancing equitable education policies and practices that elevate learning for students of color and students from low-income families by training executive leaders in education, like me, to address persistent disparities in their system.

I am thankful for organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, that is fighting to protect and expand Americans’ right to vote, and the Southern Poverty Law Center that is fighting to dismantle white supremacy and advance the human rights of all people. I am thankful for organizations like GLADD that is fighting for equal rights for our LGBTQ+ community.

I am thankful for organizations that stand up, decrying legislation that limits classroom discussions of race, racism, and other threats to suppress teaching and learning about racism. That includes more than 60 scholarly and educational groups, including the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Counseling Association, American Educational Research Association, African American Intellectual History Society, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, American Association of University Professors, and the American Historical Association, among many others.

Finally, I am thankful for businesses and other organizations that take real action to support equity, diversity and inclusion and do the real work of antiracism. That work goes beyond writing opeds and issuing internal memoranda; it means acknowledging that racism exists in the company, encouraging race talk – even when it is uncomfortable – hiring diverse people and ensuring equal pay. It means having leaders at all levels who represent the diversity of the workforce.

It is OK to be tired, but it is not OK to give up. To quote the great Dr. Martin Luther King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  We all need to stand up now.

Damaris Rau is a Racial Equity Leadership Network alumnus and the Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster