Confronting Inequity / Where Are All the Black Teachers? - ASCD
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October 1, 2019

Confronting Inequity / Where Are All the Black Teachers?

To recruit more educators of color, improve students' experiences.


I recently participated in a panel discussion on cultural competency in education at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Towards the end the conversation, a teacher in the audience posed a familiar question: "What can we do to get more black male teachers in schools?"

I get a version of this question after nearly every speaking engagement I do, often from earnest-seeming white educators who appreciate the value of diversity in schools. Many of them cite research that highlights the positive impact of black and brown teachers. Just as often, I sense that there is an implied "right" answer expected of me, one that is often tacked onto the question itself. I'm expected to say dutifully that we have so few black male teachers because our profession fails to support the ones we have.

I can understand why this response is expected. For one thing, it's true. While many teachers feel unfulfilled by their professional development, teachers of color have additional reasons to disengage. Few PD facilitators look like us, or seem to understand the emotional, psychological, and spiritual impact that our racial background has on our teaching experiences. Because our existence in schools is rare, meanwhile, our particular challenges are often treated as an addendum, something tacked on to the stump speech because the facilitator has recently read a good "race" book. So, if we want more black teachers, emphasizing the need for better and more culturally responsive PD for them seems like a constructive place to start.

My Story

But as I sat on this panel, my mind stirred. The better PD = more black teachers formula seemed incomplete, the sort of myopic solution that teases us with its anecdotal successes but ultimately doesn't make a dent in the root problem. Before answering, I started to think about my own experiences as a black educator. "Why did I get into this profession? What does my story have to say to this question?" I asked myself.

Some of the stereotypical narratives about African American teachers don't fit me. For instance, I was an average student who didn't particularly like school. Though I was blessed to have many wonderful teachers whom I loved, I can't point to any single revelatory classroom experience that inspired me to join the profession. I was raised with enough class privilege never to have to cling to my education as the way out of the hood, so the impetus of "saving" young people who look like me was important, but not viscerally urgent.

I became a teacher because my mom, Sherrill Kay, was a public school teacher in Philadelphia for 36 years. Many nights at home, I witnessed the artistry and creativity that she brought to curriculum development. Among other things, I witnessed the cultural food festival she held each year where her 3rd graders introduced classmates to favorite dishes from their ethnic background, explaining their significance before chowing down. I witnessed the unorthodox ways she stoked her students' curiosity despite her school's chronically inadequate resources—supplementing outdated social studies textbooks, for example, with lively discussion and role-play, or arranging a pen pal initiative for her students with a school in a different part of the city.

I also witnessed the way that my mom loved her students. She was old-school, no doubt, the sort of disciplinarian who was always rewarded with the "problem children" come class-roster time. Yet she took on an incredibly personal, individual interest in these same troublemakers. One such student was transferred into her class after multiple angry outbursts, and she quickly noticed that when he was in time-out, he couldn't stop drawing. So she bought some art books for him, handing them to him periodically throughout the year. For all her command-the-room-from-her-chair toughness, the warmth of her hugs was known to calm the quickest tempers in the school.

Improving Student Experiences

Watching my mom, I got the impression that teaching had to be the funnest job in the world. A challenge to my intellect, a tapestry for my artistry, a stage for my performative spirit. All of this, plus a way to make my career about building relationships. This is why I went into teaching.

But I wondered: How many children of color are blessed with a similar inspiration? It seems that, in all our conversations about achievement gaps, many of us have forgotten to ask what I found myself saying to the audience at the St. Joe's panel: "Why would any black kid, even the highest achieving, go into education?"

I've asked around and, anecdotally, many young people of color see school as a thing that one escapes. Black and brown children of the NCLB and post-NCLB era have found themselves over-tested and overdisciplined, with their individual creativity rarely supported and sometimes actively stamped out. Too often, the adult world has implied that the inquiry-driven, project-based learning that my own school has built itself upon is not meant for young children who look like me.

This sentiment does not just come from the "bad guys"—the ethically compromised policymakers and insincere politicians—but even from within the community of educators who ostensibly have children's best interests at heart. Instead of creating engaging learning experiences, we prioritize behavioral "soft skills," often starting from a deficit perspective with students of color. We insist on worshiping at the altar of isolated skill development, sacrificing children's creativity and passions to the imperatives of rote learning and mechanical exercises. If, as a result, many of our students of color perceive school as just a necessary gauntlet to get through, why would they ever return, much less on purpose?

The answer to "How do we get more black male teachers?" is, like all worthwhile solutions, multifaceted. Sure, it includes better PD. It includes more thoughtful support systems for those already in the profession. It certainly includes pay increases! But it must also include systemically changing the experience that black and brown students have when they are in school. Creative, empathetic, student-centered pedagogy, the kind that my mom modeled for me, can't just be something that "special" teachers do behind closed doors, afraid that they will face consequences from the system. And it certainly can't be reserved for the children of white, liberal, upper-class parents.

If we are to truly open up a reliable pipeline of black and brown educators, we've got to convince students of color that teaching can still be the funnest job in the world.

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