On Friday, I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, NYC with student activists Xoya David and Joshua Brown and writer-friend-luminary Nikole Hannah-Jones. When I got the invite from Brian Jones, I was in the midst of finishing one of my more triumphant performances in service of the profession. I was also shaking off the uncertainties of having a teacher improvement plan the prior school year. I’m holding the tensions of being a “national education leader” with the constant disappointment in my school district and negation of my professional decisions. Even a week before this event, I had no idea what I’d have to say. I struggle with systemic issues outwardly and battle with personal issues inwardly. But I was given the opportunity to tell New York City about itself in a week dedicated to liberation of the African diaspora in a space dedicated to that effort.
When someone asks me whether only Black teachers should teach Black children, I said, “It depends.” The person seemed to mock my response and ran out of the event. I didn’t lie.
The pros are plentiful. There’s more research showing the positive effects of Black teachers on all children, but especially Black children. Of course, white teachers (and others) may feel agitated by inference, but Black teachers are one antidote to the proliferation of white supremacy in our classrooms through pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. Having a teacher who wholeheartedly empathizes with students who look like them, a teacher who adjusts their relationships in accordance to social norms they (we) already recognize, and a teacher who more readily observes intelligence in Black children matters in a big way. It’s deeper than implicit bias when so much of what we consider “normal” casts so many of our children to the side.
Adults who already come with a set of experiences that align with the children in front of them and can help them expand those experiences are critical to all this work. But it’s not enough.
For one, I’m increasingly concerned with internalized respectability and white supremacy with some of my colleagues. Never mind the number of people calling themselves educators who have rarely been to classrooms as adults. Too many of my colleagues stick lean on blaming parents for their plight and demean our children for mimicking the unhealthy elements of their own environments. The tropes about rap music, drugs, and sexual expression still get perpetuated across the “color” spectrum. Social media videos spark thousands of comments demanding for the imprisonment of children, with educators of color usually the recipients of the abuse and often the escalators of the conflict.
For too many of my colleagues, black students’ lives don’t matter. Some of my skinfolk don’t always have skin in the game, so that’s why they’re not my kinfolk.
But for the majority of teachers of color who leave at a quicker rate than their white colleagues, I more readily see how the system is designed to dispose of us. Our policies and practices have made it so educators of color across the country work in less-resourced schools where children of color are more likely to attend. These are the spaces more susceptible to inspection in the form of high-stakes testing, resources in the form of more adults with deceptive checklists, and the eventual take-over / shutdown / privatization with the dismissal of its staff. So many of us come into the profession with the optimism of righting wrongs that have been done upon us, our families, our friends, our communities, our people.
They come into a profession that reminds them that their lives don’t matter, either.
This is not a “don’t come to this profession” piece. This is a “we need a set of people that truly love our kids, and a profession that loves these people back” piece. I prefer to tell truths in the hopes of systemic change. I’m encouraged by the work so many of my Black colleagues (and others) do in the service of working with our most marginalized children, whether in public schools, alternative education spaces, or prison spaces. Without changing the critical consciousness within the education field and the people who run it, our uses of the words equity, access, and liberation are vacuous at best, regardless of who they come from. I remain hopeful because, without that hope, I have no reason to be in front of students daily.
Changing the color of the faces staffing the boat does not automatically change the boat’s course, but we probably need a whole new boat for the course we’re on.