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The announcement went out to media outlets and school staff in the predawn hours of Friday, March 25: The three-week Minneapolis teachers strike was nearly over. District officials had reached a tentative deal with the union. The union hailed the “historic agreements” and “major gains.”

At a press conference at district headquarters a few hours later, school officials seemed elated to welcome students back to class. 

But a few miles away, at the Get Down Coffee Company near Patrick Henry High School, English teacher Nafeesah Muhammad and some of her Henry colleagues had a different story to tell about the strike. 

I joined the Henry teachers in a circle of couches at the coffee shop. Brightly colored records lined the walls, and R&B played from the loudspeakers.

Throughout the strike, the teachers said, union leaders had lied to them. They felt that the union had not taken their priorities seriously—particularly a retention policy to protect teachers of color during layoffs. They were exhausted, traumatized, and burned out. And as a result, Muhammad had decided to quit her job.

“I can’t imagine showing up to work on Monday or Tuesday,” she said. “Not still feeling the rage that I feel.”

It wasn’t Muhammad’s first time feeling alienated at school. It wasn’t her first time wanting to quit her job, either. But she felt the strike left her trapped between two predominantly white institutions—the school district and the union.

“We shouldn’t have to separate being Black from our profession,” she said.

As a Black educator teaching mostly Black students, Muhammad feels a deep love and responsibility for her kids. Her eyes light up when she talks about her students.

Yet she’s also been fighting for her entire teaching career: to get into graduate school, to attain tenure, to push back against excessive scrutiny and racism from white colleagues, and now to ensure retention protections for teachers of color in the union contract.

As the three-week strike stretched on and on, the joy Muhammad derives from working with her students felt further and further removed. Only the fight remained.

Muhammad knew how much her departure would affect her school community. “The job that we do, especially Black educators, educators of color: It’s a different job,” she said. “When I’m quitting, I’m not just quitting delivering curriculum and having a classroom community. I’m quitting being a mentor. I’m quitting being a role model. I’m quitting being a counselor. I’m quitting being maybe a food shelf if the kids need snacks and food.”

Researchers have developed a term for the extra work Black teachers take on, providing unpaid leadership on anti-racism and extra support to students of color while swimming against the current of school culture: They call it an “invisible tax.” This tax, researchers suggest, is one of the reasons Black and Latino teachers leave the field at higher rates than white teachers. And during the strike, some Minneapolis teachers of color felt that tax had become intolerable.

In the end, the Minneapolis educators succeeded in winning a layoff protection policy for teachers of color. The contract language includes the protections Muhammad and her colleagues at Patrick Henry High School sought. But Muhammad, and other teachers of color at Henry, say it came at a great cost.

A group of about 50 Minneapolis teachers of color submitted a formal grievance against the teacher chapter union president, Greta Callahan, alleging “racialized harm” and “cruelties” during the strike.

Callahan declined to comment on the grievance. “This divisiveness right now is so harmful to our movement for strong public schools,” she told Sahan Journal. “And at the same time, I understand that people are feeling really hurt for many reasons. I believe the anger is completely misdirected. We need to continue to fight the system that is not serving our children.”

Some of these frustrations boiled over into the union leadership election, which concluded May 13. The Coalition for Truth, a group of Minneapolis educators claiming the current leaders “devalue their members, particularly union members of color,” ran a slate of seven candidates for board leadership positions. One of the seven won election. 

Muhammad had planned to run for president, but decided against it during the strike. Callahan cruised to reelection with a decisive 82 percent of the vote against the Coalition for Truth’s Alexis Mann—a rematch of the 2020 union election, when Callahan received 70 percent of the vote to Mann’s 30 percent. 

I first spoke with Muhammad in February, as Minneapolis teachers prepared to strike. In conversations over the following months, she told me about why she became a teacher and how she’d been fighting the educational system for years. She also shared her internal conflict over the strike; her decision to quit; and her ultimate choice about whether to return to the classroom. 

Her story illustrates some of the tensions—and the invisible tax—that some Black teachers face at work. As the strike dragged on, she felt she had to choose between her humanity and her job. 

‘I saw what Black education is supposed to feel like’

The first week Minneapolis classes resumed after the strike, Muhammad and I met at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on West Broadway. Students were back in school, texting with pleas for her to return.

“I do miss it,” she said. “I do miss being in there with them.”

Throughout her career, Muhammad has worked to cultivate the learning environment she believes her students need—and that can be hard to find in the education system. From an early age, she saw that schools were not always serving Black kids. She grew up in Brooklyn Center, raised in the tradition of the Nation of Islam, she told me. 

At home, her parents taught her about the greatness of Black people. But even in elementary school, she did not see those teachings reflected in the school system. 

A white friend couldn’t come to her sleepover because her dad said there would be too many Black people there. Muhammad noticed that her fifth-grade teacher treated white kids and Black kids differently, and she got in trouble for calling him racist.

In seventh grade, she moved to Georgia with her father. There, she had her first Black teachers. “It was the first time that I really felt smart,” she told me. She finished her schooling in California, where her English teachers encouraged her voice and allowed her to “be controversial.” They also helped her see the power of literature from Zora Neale Hurston to Nathaniel Hawthorne. For the first time, she started thinking about becoming a teacher.

Nafeesah Muhammad knew that by quitting her job, she would be quitting more than providing classroom instruction. She’d be walking away from being a mentor. She’d be walking away from providing snacks for the kids. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Muhammad attended San Francisco State University, known as the birthplace of the ethnic studies movement. She took psychology classes in the Black studies department; some of the protesters who led the ethnic studies movement in the ’60s had grown up to be her professors.

“I saw what Black education is supposed to feel like,” she said. “They showed me this relationship and this partnership in learning that I had never experienced before in my life.”

She planned to become a child psychologist to help kids process the trauma of white supremacy. But she had an epiphany when a professor taught her that Black children in urban areas need teachers who also play a culturally relevant therapist role—where therapy includes community and connection, shared meals, laughing and dancing. She realized that was what she wanted to be.

‘I just had to fight all the time’

Starting her teaching career in Minnesota didn’t come easy. “I just had to fight all the time,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad landed a position at North Community High School. She’d wanted to work at North since she heard the school’s talent shows on KMOJ; it reminded her of her school in Georgia. But right after she started as a 10th-grade English teacher, she found the job “traumatizing.” She was appalled at the way some white teachers spoke about her students, describing them as “little monsters,” and humiliating the students about their grades in front of other kids. 

The first time she wanted to quit followed the murder of a former student, Tyrone Rice. Muhammad had developed a strong relationship with Tyrone, who’d told her about his dreams and plans for the future. That fall, he was shot and killed

Though he’d transferred to another school, his family and friends were still in Muhammad’s class. In their pain, they pushed over desks, hurled hurtful words, and tried to fight each other. By the end of class, Muhammad and her students were sitting on the floor crying and talking about their grief.

“I had to make a decision of what kind of teacher I wanted to be,” she said. “You love the kids, and then they can just be taken away from you like that? I wanted to quit then, but I stayed.”

Muhammad focused on building relationships with students and helping them work through their trauma, putting on a beat in the background as they journaled, allowing them to share their writing through open mics.

But as her lessons catered more to kids’ needs, she says that she received more pushback from her colleagues. During one lesson, observed by some senior colleagues, Muhammad asked students to find connections between the text of Othello and a J. Cole interview. In that interview, the rapper contrasted his education in both predominantly Black and white settings. 

The students excitedly began talking about their own educational experiences. Muhammad thought the lesson was a success. But the educators observing her lesson did not. One told her that it made her feel guilty as a white woman.

“It’s okay, Ms. Muhammad, because you teach us differently than everybody else,” she recalled one student telling her. “And they don’t understand the way that you teach us.”

Supporting the strike—but not feeling supported by the union

By the time the union was talking about a potential strike, Muhammad felt deeply conflicted. She was now teaching at Henry in a program called Community Connected Academy, focused on project-based learning and identity exploration. 

She’d voted for the strike, she told me over the phone in February. She supported the union’s priorities and thought the strike was necessary for the future of public education. Yet she struggled to stand in solidarity with people she did not believe would stand in solidarity with her. 

The two most important priorities for Muhammad—and for many teachers of color I interviewed on the picket line—were higher pay for the district’s diverse educational support professionals and layoff protections for teachers of color. 

Nafeesah Muhammad cried and prayed the night before the strike. “Are you going to be able to do this, Nafeesah?” she asked herself. On March 8, the first day of the strike, she put on her blue hoodie, grabbed a sign, and joined the picket line. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Under the previous contract language, any layoffs or excessing needed to follow a seniority model. That is, the teachers most recently hired, who were more likely to be teachers of color, would be first to go under job cuts. Callahan told media outlets that tenured teachers would not be cut this year because teacher attrition was so high.

But at that point, the union and district had not yet reached an agreement on a policy to protect teachers of color during excessing or layoffs. Days before the strike, schools gave notices to nearly 250 teachers that their positions would be eliminated next year. About 50 of those teachers were people of color, the district said. Thirty of them were tenured.

The district blamed the union for not previously coming to an agreement on protecting teachers of color. Callahan maintains that these cuts were unnecessary. “The truth is they did not have to excess all these people,” she said in a recent interview. “They absolutely have the money.”

Muhammad, though, was stunned to hear about Black teachers who had been excessed after hearing so many promises from the union leadership that they would be protected.

“I’m having nightmares about going on strike and wearing blue”—that is, the official union color—she said. “The night before, I was crying and praying in my bed: Are you going to be able to do this, Nafeesah?

A double fight

On March 8, the first day of the strike, the weather was cold but energy was high on the picket line at Patrick Henry High School. Muhammad wore a blue hoodie under her black puffy jacket. 

“I think that the district and the union have both had parts to play in the lack of retention of teachers of color as well as ESP wages being so low,” Arielle Rocca, who teaches college and career readiness at Henry’s Community Connected Academy, told Sahan Journal that day.

But none of the mass-printed picket signs from the union identified retention protections for teachers of color as a priority. Muhammad and some other teachers of color noticed that internal emails from the union no longer mentioned layoff protections for teachers of color, either. They began organizing their colleagues to demand a policy to protect teachers of color from layoffs.

They circulated a petition on their picket line, and started planning to go to other schools. But they encountered resistance: Union leadership had warned teachers about signing petitions, even from other union members. The Henry teachers pushed back against a planned march at north Minneapolis school board members’ homes—sending mostly white crowds to badger elected officials who were Black women—but the march continued as planned. Some Black teachers, including Muhammad, attended a press conference with the NAACP calling for retention protections and higher pay for support staff. Each day brought a different action and a different fight. As each day passed, they felt further removed from their students and from the union’s priorities. And they still had no retention policy. 

Muhammad’s days became a cycle of waking up, picketing, and meeting to strategize with other teachers of color. Days stretched into weeks. She hardly ate. And as the strike dragged on, the joy she drew from working with her students became more distant. At home, her own children started to worry about her.

Muhammad’s days became a cycle of waking up, picketing, and meeting to strategize with other teachers of color, before coming home and collapsing in bed. Days stretched into weeks. She hardly ate. And as the strike dragged on, the joy she drew from working with her students became more distant. Her own children started to worry about her.

“There are people on strike, and they’re just on strike,” she said. “I’m on strike, and I’m fighting within our union to get this contract language as well. I have to have a double fight.”

On March 17, Henry teachers met with union leaders, including Callahan, to find out more about the negotiation status of the policy to protect teachers of color. After more than an hour, Callahan conceded the policy was “off the table right now,” Henry teachers said at Get Down Coffee a week later. They also shared a transcript they’d made of the meeting.

For Muhammad, it was the final straw. She felt trapped between the union and school district leadership. She could not imagine standing in the picket line for another week.

“In the absence of no choices, I’m going to exercise my right to choose,” Muhammad told me later at Sammy’s café. “I’m just going to quit.” After that resolution, she said, she “felt free.”

‘I have been erased’: A Black teacher reflects on steering the union bargaining team 

Was the retention policy “off the table”? It’s complicated, Callahan told Sahan Journal a month after the strike. The district’s initial proposal would have completely eliminated teacher seniority in layoffs, and the union rejected that. At the same time, the district was not responding to a separate set of union proposals to fight bias in the workplace. So the union stopped negotiating around the retention policy for a time. But union leaders never doubted they would ultimately reach an agreement on it.

Caroline Long, one of the union’s lead negotiators, attended the meeting with Henry teachers. As Long recalls the exchange, after Callahan addressed the status of the retention policy, the teachers cut her off and she did not have a chance to explain the situation further. 

Long, too, has experienced racism from colleagues at school, she said. She’s had to move from one school to the next in order to find a welcoming school climate.

“Figuring out how to protect teachers of color was always our main agenda,” she said.

Teachers of color made up the majority of the union’s teacher-chapter bargaining team. And it was those teachers of color—not Callahan—who decided the strategy for the retention policy, Long said. 

In the end, Long pointed out, their strategy succeeded. The union and district settled on a retention policy that would protect teachers of color during excessing and layoffs, while preserving the seniority system.

But Long feels like the hard work she did and the agreement she secured have not been recognized.

“I feel really disrespected as a Black woman,” Long said. “That I have been erased. The contributions that I have put on the bargaining table, the hours that I spent away from my child.”

A supportive principal

Yusuf Abdullah, the principal of Patrick Henry High School, paused in the midst of the strike when Muhammad told him she wanted to quit.

“I had to take a deep breath and listen to what she was saying,” he recalled later from his office at Henry.

He described Muhammad as an “authentic, caring, knowledgeable, very talented, certainly student-centered” teacher. She plays a “huge role” in the Henry community, he said, coaching other teachers and leading by example. 

“In her classroom, students are learning about themselves, their culture, their place on this earth,” Abdullah said. “She builds them up while challenging them and having high expectations.”

Sine Yusuf Abdullah became principal of Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis seven years ago, the school has increased its percentage of staff of color from 8 percent to 30 percent. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Since he became Henry’s principal seven years ago, Abdullah has worked hard to retain educators of color.  Despite the limitations of the previous union contract, he’s been deliberate about keeping teachers who could have been excessed or laid off due to seniority—including Muhammad—by making cuts in other departments instead. Over 30 percent of Henry’s staff are now people of color, he said, up from 8 percent when he started. Higher numbers of educators of color are key to creating a supportive environment, he said.

Yusuf Abdullah, the principal of Patrick Henry High School, says he’s seen educators of color burn out: “When you’re working in systems that are oppressive, that have systemic racism, the everyday grind tears at you.”

Still, he’s seen educators of color burn out. “When you’re working in systems that are oppressive, that have systemic racism, the everyday grind tears at you,” he said. It’s interactions with other adults, not students, that wear them down, he said. 

Abdullah reminded Muhammad that due to the strike, she was locked out of the district’s online systems and could not fill out any paperwork. He advised her to take a week to think about what she really wanted.

‘That’s why I became a teacher’

On Abdullah’s advice, Muhammad took a week off after the strike to think about her decision. That’s when she met me at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery. As she’d had some time to reflect, she started to change her mind, she told me. 

It was about midway through her week off. Abdullah had offered to take some leadership responsibilities off her plate, so she could just focus on her teaching. Meanwhile, her students, who were back in school, implored her to return.

“The kids were texting me and emailing me: We love you! We need you! Come back, Ms. Muhammad! My heart can’t take it.”

nafeesah muhammad

“The kids were texting me and emailing me: We love you! We need you! Come back, Ms. Muhammad!” she told me. “My heart can’t take it.”

Her substitute teacher left a note praising her students for a thoughtful classroom discussion as they processed the strike.

“That’s why I became a teacher, is to do all of that,” she said. “And I hate that this system just always feels like a barrier to that. But when it’s just me in my classroom with the kids, we’re having a good time and they’re learning and they’re being awesome, that’s what I miss.”

“Yusuf tricked me,” she added with an appreciative laugh for her principal. “He tricked me! He knows that’s how I feel!”

At the time she announced she would quit, she said, she was weeks removed from her beloved students. Now they were once again pulling on her heartstrings. Her colleagues and principal had her back. And she felt some hope from the success of the retention policy for teachers of color, and the news that the superintendent would be leaving the district.

“The students are ultimately what matters,” she texted me the following week, during spring break. “I cannot control these oppressive systems, but I can control what I do in my classroom.”

By Friday, April 15, Nafeesah Muhammad had been back in her classroom for a week. “The students are ultimately what matters,” she said. “I cannot control these oppressive systems, but I can control what I do in my classroom.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘I can’t teach while you talk, my loves’: Back in the classroom

On her first day back in class, Muhammad addressed her 11th grade English class.

“When is your TikTok due?” she asked her students. She wore a green floral headscarf and matching green skirt, large hoop earrings, a nose ring, and a cowry shell necklace. A Dave Chapelle video was paused on a television screen behind her. An easel behind the students displayed a bell hooks quote. 

Low-level high school chatter filled the room. “I can’t teach while you talk, my loves,” she reminded them. Her grin was visible behind her mask.

As they reviewed their assignments—creating a persuasive TikTok on a social issue—students told me they felt happy and relieved their teacher was back.

“When I heard Ms. Muhammad was going to be gone, I was so sad,” said 18-year-old Yasmin Hassan. “She’s a teacher who supports you.”

“She brings snacks every day,” Yasmin says of Ms. Muhammad. “I love how educated she is. She knows her worth, and doesn’t settle for less. I’m glad she’s back. We almost lost a great teacher.”

“I can really feel a connection with her,” said 16-year-old Ivie. “She really cares about her students.”

“And she brings snacks every day,” Yasmin added. “I love how educated she is. She knows her worth, and doesn’t settle for less. I’m glad she’s back. We almost lost a great teacher.”

Muhammad felt happy to see her students, too, she told me. At the beginning of class, she had shown her students a short video in which Dave Chapelle explained why he had walked away from a $50 million deal. 

She told her students why she had thought about leaving, and why she came back. “You guys are worth more than $50 million.”

As we spoke, a student came up to take a granola bar out of Muhammad’s totebag of snacks. Another student, who was not in her class that hour, entered the room.

“Chris, what’s going on?” she asked. “Why are you not in class? You come here to tell on yourself, to tell me you’re not in class?”

“I missed you,” the student told her.

“I missed you, too,” Muhammad replied.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.