“When did you have your first black teacher?”
For me, it was my 6th grade reading teacher. Part of her independent reading library was her son’s old X-Men comics, a perfect hook for a budding nerd like myself. After thinking of her, I thought of all of the black teachers I had throughout my time in public school. Each of them provided a sense of familiarity I could never quite comprehend as a kid. I counted through 9 black public school teachers before I saw a different question.
“When did you have your first black male teacher?”
My only black male teacher in public school was my 10th grade social studies teacher. I’m not sure if he realized it, but he made me critically think in ways I had never considered. He asked our class why a course called World Civilizations had a textbook focused so heavily on Western European history. I’ll never forget the feeling of stunned silence in his classroom on September 11th, 2001. He told us that America would never be the same after that day.
Have I ever said anything to my students that will stick with them for 15 years? Moreover, did that stick with me for 15 years because the only teacher I ever had who looked like me said it? Did those deep questions influence me to become a social studies teacher?
I’m not sure when you had your first black teacher or if it meant anything to you when or if you did. However, through my own personal experience and through recent research, it’s evident there is a dearth of African-American teachers and their presence in schools makes a difference.
During my first year teaching, I was outside of a colleague’s classroom talking with some other teachers. A student passed by us and asked if we had decided to have a meeting. We realized that the six of us standing there was the whole group of black male educators in our school at that point. We were roughly 6% of the staff at the time. In the United States, black males only make up 2% of the teaching workforce.
In Jefferson County Public Schools, 16% of the teachers are minorities and 36% of the students are black. Black students accounted for more than 65% of suspensions in JCPS during the 2017-2018 school year. JCPS’s Racial Equity Policy was created, in part, to address these issues.
Research in recent years has shown:
- Black students who have one black teacher are more likely to go to college
- Teachers of color help lower suspension and drop-out rates of students of color and help raise their graduation rates
As research continues to develop our understanding of the positive effect teachers of color bring to our schools, we have to work harder to recruit and retain teachers of color. The local HBCU, Simmons College and JCPS have created a partnership to introduce Simmons current students and recent graduates into teaching careers. I hope these initiatives can create a pipeline for long term black teachers within JCPS.
As we move towards more equitable staffing of our schools, we have to ensure we retain teachers of color. My black male teacher left our school the year after he was my teacher. I don’t know his reasons for leaving, but I do understand the continuous pressure that comes from being a black male teacher through the “invisible tax.” As JCPS embraces racial equity, we also have to change our mindsets on what to expect from black teachers. We cannot expect black teachers to have some inherent abilities to communicate with black students with behavior issues.