The Network for Public Education’s racially clueless Tweet highlights the struggle to get black men into public schools

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Being a black leader in public education has it’s challenges.  For those leading or teaching in charter schools, it’s doubled. They are constantly reminded that they have a target on their backs drawn by a dedicated mix of ideological citizens, school district leaders, unionists, and union sympathizers who pray daily for the failure and demise of charter schools and those who run them.

You’ll know these antagonists when you see “save,” “reclaim,” “defend,” or “protect” before “our public schools” in their mission statement. These are the nastiest people in education.  Their singular focus in life is to amplify any study, report, or article that proves charter schools are worst than measles.

Frankly, there are cults I trust more.

The Network for Public Education (NPE) recently reminded me of this when they leveled up their cultural insulation and tweeted this:

The story that NPE is calling a scandal isn’t one. Someone dug for and found this man’s 12-year-old criminal offense and leaked it to the media.

The media, as they always do, ran with it.

And thus, you have the picture of another black man attached to something criminal. In this case it’s a real person with a real story that makes NPE’s tweet baffling.

His name is Koai Matthews and he is an interim principal at a Memphis area charter school called Lester Prep.

When hired by Lester Prep’s charter management organization Matthews went through a thorough process that revealed a felony criminal conviction. He never hid it. He was straight up about it. Took responsibility. He had to produce character witnesses and a written personal statement explaining his journey after the conviction.

Since his 2005 conviction Matthews earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Urban Education and Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education and Teaching, and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and Administration.

By most standards that’s considered a successful story.

The charter school’s management company determined his offense did not involve violence, drugs, or sexual misconduct. He was hired legally with full due diligence.

So why is this important? Because we are having two conversations nationally that provide useful context. This context should have prevented NPE from tweeting something so clueless, so insulated, so full of privilege.

In the first conversation we debate strategies for getting more black men like Matthews into public education.

Studies show black male teachers can “can improve Black boys’ schooling outcomes,” but, unfortunately, fewer than 2% of pubic school teachers are black men. We are not doing  a good job of attracting black men to the field, or retaining the ones who are there already.

In research conducted by Travis Bristol from Boston University black male educators reported being “loners,” the only ones in their buildings, and cast as behavioral managers instead of educators. Schools hire them to manage Black children, not transform the system so Black children don’t need managing.

The second, a different conversation finds many of us promoting “fair-chance” policies meant to stop criminal records from being a barrier to employment for people who want to turn their life around – especially black and brown men.

The National Employment Law Project estimates there are 70 million Americans with some sort of criminal record.

Matthews could be a role model for both of those goals, so why is he the subject of a NPE tweet calling his hiring as a fully credentialed black educator a “scandal”?

It’s not because of him. He’s done his fix-your-life work. It’s the NPE and others like them that are out-of-pocket here.

Spend any time in the education wars and you’ll realize that once you associate with a charter school all rules of human decency evaporate. All progressive boundaries of race, class, and diversity fade. Scandalizing black charter school leaders, especially men, is a sport for teachers, their unions, and their middle-class sisters in the public. They see Matthews as a charter school person, which by itself is an”attack” on all their cherished political virtues.

Not to be rude, but these people lack the social awareness and racial sophistication that God gave to gnats, bats, and infants.

Matthews’ story isn’t uncommon. We’ll see it again. But, as a community, we shouldn’t allow this type of shaming to go unchecked.

It’s hard enough to be a school leader working every day to help kids beat the odds against them, and to model a path toward success in places where there is too little of it. We should build these leaders up and not allow a swarm of internet busybodies to take them down by digging through their trash looking for information to smear them.

I spoke with Matthews yesterday and found him to be an inspiration. He takes the highroad, makes no excuses, and works hard to deserve his place in education. Happily, after the story broke about him there was an immediate outpouring of support from friends, family and community members.

He wrote this on Facebook: “My past is my past, however, it does not define me. I use my past as fuel for the work I do. I walk in the shoes of students who make mistakes and desperately need to know the value that an education can have in helping them navigate those mistakes.”

NPE doesn’t the value in that for our community and that’s the real scandal here. Matthews shouldn’t be shamed, but the NPE should.

Black Teachers Feeling Tolerated, Not Celebrated.

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Where are all the black teachers?

This is a question I’ve asked myself and others for the last few years now. But it wasn’t until recently that the answer to this burning question finally came to me.

Education Trust recently released a moving and qualitative report called Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers. The report summarizes the unfiltered perspectives of black educators from all across the country. After reading the report in its entirety, I had to wonder if I’d been asking the right question. I had wrongly assumed that the teacher stress I was seeing and feeling was related to changes that came after Hurricane Katrina. But this wasn’t a NOLA report. It turns out, teachers from coast to coast are feeling plagued.

Rather than asking where are all the black teachers, it may be more worthwhile to ask this:

Do our black teachers feel empowered and supported enough by their white leaders and peers to remain within their roles?

The report left me feeling grateful and sad. While it validates my own feelings and shows me I’m not alone, it also hurts me to know that so many black educators, like me, are struggling.

And reading about their personal experiences really hit home for me. It had me thinking about the veteran teachers feeling burnt out as well as the totally green college graduates who will enter the field as excited new teachers and inevitably develop some of the same negative feelings described in the report.

This is their reality.  These are their voices.  We need to listen.

EdTrust’s report also deals in numbers and reveals that teachers of color represent only 18 percent of the teaching population in the United States; black teachers make up 7 percent. Is it any surprise that so many black teachers feel alone in their buildings?

Bringing it closer to home, I thought it made perfect sense for me to work within the New Orleans school system as a black professional. Black students dominate the city’s public schools, yet white educators dominate most teaching staffs. I thought I could be an advocate for what our kids need.

I think it’s fair to say that white folks aren’t the only ones who are guilty of having a savior complex.  Blacks do too. Or at least some form of one. I for sure had–and still have–ideas of somehow, some way, “saving” our kids.

But since entering the school system, I must admit, more than ever, I feel significant pressure to be perfect, to stand out. But I am also fearful that my efforts will be in vain because, at the end of the day, I am black. And being black means most often means being overlooked. History has certainly shown that.

Perhaps it’s my own self-defeating and oppressive thoughts, but being a black professional within the school system probably leaves me with feelings similar to those the students have when they enter the school building and don’t see many (or any) teachers that look like anything like them. Maybe that’s why I totally ‘get them’.

Inferiority. Anxiety. Little room for error. Pressure to be perfect and be more in line with the culture of the majority. And in my case as an adult, fear that expressing disagreement or opposition will lead folks to doubt my “professionalism”.

I have spoken with several local black teachers about this topic.  Some have taught for 15+ years, others for less than five.  But nonetheless, the same sentiment exists.  All share the feeling of being undervalued.

The report summarizes,

“The dismissal of Black teachers as experts and professionals (beyond discipline) led Black teachers to feel they were passed over for advancement opportunities, despite being just as — or more — qualified than their colleagues.”

The ability to connect with black students, manage classrooms, and deliver content are hugely important skills and they are being overlooked as valuable skills. That is a problem.

Rather than be acknowledged for hard work that is wrongly perceived as “easy” or “natural” for black educators, we are overlooked. And on the contrary, white teachers are praised when they make an effort to tackle racial barriers and reach their black students.

Because that takes work right?  That takes intense planning, thinking and reflection to figure out how to help black kids see past race right?

The assumption that working with black children doesn’t require work or reflection for black educators is a dangerous and false assumption.

And I can attest that simply being in an environment that leaves you in constant thought about who you are and why you are there is work.

Through Our Eyes goes on to summarize,

“The need to work harder in order to be seen as adequate and professional also made Black teachers feel pressured to police their own behavior so they could be seen as more professional. Assumptions about their demeanor — that they were too loud or too harsh, for instance — often required teachers to “code switch,” or regulate their behavior based on context in order to fit into their school. By trying not to fulfill other’s stereotypes of them, teachers hoped that meeting a particular standard of professionalism would remove any distracting idiosyncrasies and allow them to be recognized for their work.”

It’s a defeating to feel tolerated rather than celebrated.  To watch the fleeting glimpse of praise and growth pass you each year and instead falsely smile at the progress of your white counterparts.

All the reasons I wanted to work within the school system are all the reasons that make being an employee within the school system so very hard.

This is the hardest job I’ve ever had.

Most black educators go into schools thinking they’ll be an asset, but much like the teachers featured in Education Trust’s piece, there are times I have felt unsure that I will be able to stay long enough to even believe I’m good enough at my job. To feel like I’m having enough of an impact. To feel recognized for the important skill set that I bring to the work.

Having said all that, I’m not giving up.

 


This piece was originally posted here on the Second Line Education Blog.

Communities of color don’t need educational double-talk

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It hit me during a union meeting I attended this spring. There was a discussion underway about the opt-out movement (which I completely understand, even empathize with, but don’t really get down with) and how supportive our local association should be of it. An elementary teacher stood up and asked about the implications of students opting-out on building wide scores. For those not in education, students who do not test are counted as a zeroes when calculating building scores, as demonstrated in this image from a release from OSPI today.

nategraph

After her question, there was some murmuring in the room and then someone stood up, walked to the mic, and said something (very thoughtfully and passionately) that basically came down “it is worth the collateral damage to the school if it helps get rid of the toxic tests.”

It hit me again on Tuesday night when I attended the Tacoma Branch of the NAACP’s Education Committee meeting. There was an obvious and palpable frustration with what they perceive as the lack of progress in our city in academic achievement and they were strategizing about how to activate the community in upcoming school board races.

It hit me a third time this morning while reading an loooong Twitter thread sparked by this post from @RealTalkGwenS (Gwen’s bio: “I am a PARENT lobbyist advocating for the Constitutional rights of parents. I do not negotiate the safety, education and overall well being of children.”)

I encourage you to read the resulting thread. It’s very illuminating of where I am going next.

Communities of color and people in poverty are more open to and interested in “substantial change in current educational practices and policies**” within public education because they feel a disproportionate burden of the inequality within the system. I believe this is why within the black community particularly, there are higher levels of support for things like testing (which I’ve written about here, here and here), charter schools (which I am indifferent to) and vouchers (which I strongly oppose). These communities do not see the achievement gap as a statistic or a talking point–it is a reality that often condemns their children to adulthoods filled with chronic un or underemployment, minimum wage jobs, an austere lifestyle and often incarceration.

Conversely, the vast majority of the educational establishment: teachers, principals, professors, non-prof EDs, legislators, their staffers, etc, come from middle class white families and have emerged from a system that largely a. valued them on their own terms, and b. met their cultural needs and expectations. People within the ed establishment have emerged successfully from a system designed by people like them, to create more people like them and often times they are blind (willfully or otherwise) to the rampant inequality within the system. Therefore, they are often strongly, sometimes vociferously, opposed to “substantial change in current educational practices and policies”. You don’t have to agree with what you just read, but it is with that understanding that I ask you to consider the following:

Meetings and conferences about education are consistently some of the most white spaces in our society. There’s more diversity on a country music singer’s tour bus than there is at most rallies, conferences, and workshops that I attend as a teacher. The few exceptions to this that jump to mind are the following:

  • Meetings put on by organizations created by people of color: the (aforementioned) NAACP education committee and Tacoma Pierce County Black Collective on a the local level come to mind
  • Events catering to classified (secretaries, office professionals, etc.) rather than certificated (teachers) staff
  • The annual NWTSJ Conference, a social justice educational conference that migrates up and down the I-5 corridor each year, here in Cascadia
  • School board meetings here in Tacoma, where there is a core of very involved parents and advocates
  • Meetings about charter schools

I want to focus on that last bullet for a moment.

Last year, my local union encouraged members to go out and speak at a public meeting at the local library where the state charter committee was hearing presentations from the applicants to open the first round of charter schools here in Tacoma. I am a charter agnostic: Charter supporters exaggerate their successes and opponents exaggerate their shortcomings. I work in my neighborhood public school, and have for the last six years, by choice. For a civics teacher and general government nerd, it was amazing theater. I couldn’t help but notice the dichotomy in the room: On one hand we had a very angry, verbose group of educators making very pointed (and accurate in most cases) critiques of each of the charter applicants and more often charter schools overall. On the other hand, there was a room full of parents, mostly of color, looking for alternatives for their children. They were looking for an alternative to a system that I am a part of–a system that they felt was not meeting their needs or the needs of their students. It was a sort of out of body experience, but one I am having with increasing regularity.

Too often for my tastes the self-proclaimed champions of public-ed are actually champions for the status quo, a status quo that is not serving communities of color, but has served them (the champions) and people from their class, neighborhood, listservs very well. This is particularly true in conversations about student data, where people long for days of yore when, when the achievement gap (particularly the performance of black students) was obscured by the power aggregate data. As someone who went through the same school system in which I now work, I can attest that students in school now are graduating at higher rates, having taken more rigorous coursework and receiving more academic support on career and college planning and transition than they did before the current “reform era”. However, most of the credit for these improvements is a result of the work of largely anonymous, but ever present people in the community demanding change to the system–not a national reform agenda.

Conversely, the reformers try to impose their agendas, solutions and policies on communities they themselves haven’t and wouldn’t dare step foot in. In many cases the reformers are right about many of the problems in K-12, but communities don’t trust them or their pre-fabricated (one size fits all) solutions: standardization, reducing protections for teachers and ed tech quick fixes (techno-triumphalism).

I say all this because as an educator of color, one who is passionate about justice and improving outcomes for my community, the US (“public ed advocates”) vs THEM (“reformers”) dynamic is unhelpful (at best). It creates factions and is destructive of trust within the profession and causes the vast, vast, vast majority of educators stay on the sidelines. At least once a month (often more), I talk to amazing, highly regarded and thoughtful educators who “just can’t be bothered with the whole (ed policy) thing” because it is so polarized and toxic. But, if thoughtful, solutions oriented educators are discouraged from engaging in the ed space, what are we left with?

It’s the worst kind of negative feedback loop imaginable.

**I am intentionally not using the term “reform”, which has become a pretty specific and predictable brand.

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This post was originally published on “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind,” the blog of Nate Bowling. Find more of his writing at www.natebowling.com.