Administrators of Color: Selling Out or Buying In? [From The Vault]

Jose Vilson Jose

Scene from Lean On Me

Scene from Lean On Me

This week, I’m releasing some of the pieces I’ve written that never saw the light of day for different reasons. Here’s the first.

Date: 5/10/12

Someone told me recently, “I think these kids respond better to males than females, especially as teachers.”

That hasn’t been my experience, but I let them proceed. “It’s like, some of these kids need guidance or someone to look up to in school, and there’s a lot of women in school already.” Usually, I let them keep talking because it usually leads to a discussion about becoming an administrator (i.e. me). Thanks to a few conversations I’ve had with some important people in my life, I don’t see myself going into administration yet.

Part of my hesitation stems from the plethora of popular examples of administrators of color. People within certain circles always have to consider the question: do administrators of color sell out or buy in?

The caricature of administrators of color comes from the movie Lean on Me, the story of the cantankerous autocrat Joe Louis Clark, then-principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ played by Morgan Freeman. Many use the images of the bat-wielding bullhorn-blaring authoritarian as inspiration for how they would choose to run their school. The teaching profession is plagued with the White savior complex of movies Dangerous Minds and The Ron Clark Story, but it pales in comparison to the movies like Lean on Me. Where you might think an administrator of color would seek to set positive examples for children bereft of such models, we have people who proffer the Joe Clarks of the world as the paragon.


Outside of the movies, administrators of color aren’t recruited to just be themselves. Not only do they have to work twice as hard to prove their viability, they have to adopt an image of callousness in some form. Some administrators crack down on students, particularly their children of color. Emphasis on crack, like a whip, if you will. Districts presumably allowed principals to treat students as they pleased so long as they controlled them and put their butts in the seats of class, no matter their situations. These principals would not make it past October of their first year in a school with a predominantly White student population, but in these schools, accountability reigns, and by accountability, I mean hammering down on discipline without regards to their academics and passions.

Other administrators have to act tough on teachers and their “status-quo” unions (read: Dr. Steve Perry). Those unionized teachers always come by the clock and punch out punctually. The only teachers in their eyes worth a contract are those that work beyond the means of their union contract (whatever that means). In order to promote their own agenda, they can simultaneously speak well of their own achievements and how good they are for kids while ostracizing the school community that makes school happen. While they profit off the caricature of a small segment of teachers (many of whom made those principals successful), children suffer.

Those are adult problems.

These models all center around developing a callous demeanor towards any one critical entity of our school community. This also benefits districts willing to hire them because they can assuage parents seeking traditional, Civil Rights ideals while never fixing the system that undoes these children. It often works to further the current education reform agenda, too. They can use the same intonations that Civil Rights leaders did as smoke-and-mirror techniques for messages that actually hurt our communities.

Using President Barack Obama’s image and Race To The Top policies for opening and shutting down schools and reopening them under the same conditions, administrators are often implored to buy in. Too bad some of them sell out.

For instance, when people first found out Brooke Harris was fired for teaching her students about the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, they presumed the administrators were White. They aren’t. To wit, the superintendent said she had no problem with the lesson, but the timing hurt Ms. Harris’ cause. The astute reader can deduce two things from this sentiment: the only curriculum that matters is the one prescribed by the district no matter the current events that affect our children and the teacher had to be fired so the other people of color could keep their jobs. If we want to talk about “adult problems,” let’s talk about the fact that a teacher just tried to prepare her students for a world still not ready for true equality and her superiors thwarted it for the sake of a world still not ready for true equality.

It’s a major failure, and a dilemma unresolved by those who go into higher positions of education.

Credit belongs to those who seek to ingrain themselves in the communities they represent. Some principals actually understand that the only way to change the system that sets up our least empowered to fail is to show them caring and respect, both for their intellect and emotions. They work twice as hard for their reputation, and learn how to bob and weave past the oft-constricting regulations of their district for the benefit of their students. In the new century, we need the type of leader that can inspire children to greatness selflessly.

Originally, principals were considered the teacher of teachers. That’s a tradition we can all buy.

Jose, who wonders where Brooke Harris went …