The struggle to gain more black teachers is real

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An article in The Hechinger Report discussed the lack of Black teachers in the nation’s poorest cities and schools.  As the article says, we really do need people who look like us, come from our neighborhoods and desire to serve as role models for the youth in our communities.

I was born and raised in North Philadelphia during a time when a few, older Whites still lived in communities with low and middle-income Blacks, and I agree that Black teachers are necessary to improve learning in low-income, underperforming schools.  Over 20 years ago, I noticed that young, mostly male scholars from my community were not as engaged in learning as they should have been.  I started an after-school, tutorial program that helped increase the scholars’ confidence and subsequently, improved their academic performance.

My sister and I did this work voluntarily, in the basement of my sister’s home, because we had high expectations for these scholars and because their families were our neighbors.  We knew that by helping the scholars, we were, in fact helping our community.  At a time when many Black and Brown students are not receiving the education that they deserve, more community members are needed to reinforce the importance of learning.

Read all of this blog post by Quibila A. Divine at Yo Philly Ed.

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.

Why I chose to teach

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My fervent desire to serve my community is what led me to a career as a teacher. But, it was anything but a straight path.

I have previously alluded to one of the main reasons I ended up choosing teaching as my desired profession and mission. Teaching is, by far, simultaneously, the most challenging and most rewarding career out there.

Although I had a social justice framework in my upbringing, had positive relationships and experiences with many of my teachers, and grew up in a household with a mother who taught, I did not initially consider teaching as my role in society. Even when my martial arts teacher would tell me that I should strongly consider becoming an instructor with my own class of martial artists, I would quickly demur and change the subject.

CHANGING MY SELF-VIEW AND MY ROLE IN MY COMMUNITY

I just didn’t see myself as a teacher (of any kind). But, something changed.

I wrote about being shot here and here. That traumatic, near death, experience led me to teaching, but not directly.

After 12 surgeries and several weeks in the hospital, teaching was still far from my mind. After briefly contemplating law school, I decided to do some social work, which led me to a position as a counselor at the Youth Study Center (YSC).

My thinking at the time was that I needed to help kids like the one who had tried to kill me. Where else could I find youth who might struggle with trauma and tempers, who may have far too easy access to drugs and guns, who dropped out of 8th grade? This seemed like the place to help youth who had lives that mirrored the kid’s who shot me. I believed I could find and support them at the YSC-a holding place for kids waiting to be adjudicated.

The YSC is where I would make my mark in the community and how I would serve those who were in need of support, guidance, tough love, and compassion.

I didn’t make it through orientation.

Although the youth at the YSC desperately needed help, I yearned to find them before they entered such a place. I felt myself falling into depression at the thought of seeing kids as young as 12 in what would constitute as a kiddie jail. When I spoke with a few counselors at the YSC and educators, including my mother and some of my former teachers, they strongly encouraged me to join teaching to make the impact I envisioned. I didn’t just want to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by working within the system, I wanted to join people working hard to dismantle it by ensuring our youth had a great education and great opportunities to match. I needed a proactive way to fight for justice and equity. I needed to be in a school.

I knew the children at the YSC needed gifted and committed counselors and staff; however, I also knew I needed to find another way to make an impact. I didn’t need to look far because at that very time of my mental and spiritual meandering, the School District of Philadelphia was looking for Black men to engage and instruct youth in the classrooms of Philadelphia-before they ended up in a YSC. The District was partnering with an organization called Concerned Black Men, and a concerned Black man, I was.

FINDING THE RIGHT SEAT ON THE RIGHT BUS…

So, in the fall of 1993, I began my life’s work in southwest Philly at John P. Turner Middle School as an 8th grade Literature and Social Studies teacher. I knew I was in the right place, doing what I was destined to do. I could not have predicted it, but the intersectionality between my love for learning, my commitment to social justice, and my personal north star pointing to serving my community were the magnets that drew me to teach.

Twenty-four years later, I remain immensely grateful to have the opportunity to serve our city in such a capacity. In an effort to honor those who encouraged and supported me, I recently helped found an organization, The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, that can trace its ancestry to the Concerned Black Men who helped launch my career. The Fellowship, similarly, was established to support aspiring (and current) Black men who want to serve in the capacity that marries academics to social justice-teaching.

Today, the Youth Study Center still houses too many of our youth. And, we need far more educators-especially men of color-willing to enter the teaching profession. Our communities need educators to serve as “railroad switch” operators, supporting our youth in changing the trajectories of their lives and to help establish social justice in our communities.

Youth, like the one who shot me, are counting on this to happen.

Chicago teacher gets creative about welcoming his 4th grade students back to school

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Dwayne Reed is entering his first year of teaching in the most special way. Instead of sending an email or newsletter home to parents he decided to record a song called “Welcome To The Fourth Grade,” and even made a video too. It’s a touching display of enthusiasm we all could learn from.

The video led one YouTube user to comment “where were the teachers like this 25 years ago.”

Mr. Reed’s response: “I was being born. ’91”

Even if teachers aren’t in it for the pay, they should still be paid well

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A good family friend recently told me about a $175 steak offered at a high-end restaurant in Las Vegas. I wondered what kind of magic cow could produce such a piece of meat, and who are the people willing to fork over that kind of cash to devour one?

This is America. We pay 4000% mark up for a good cup of coffee. We add several hundreds of dollars to the cost of a two-hour flight for the pleasure of sitting in first class which includes a couple of drinks, and a few extra service touches that make flying civilized. We pay extra for lounging chairs in movie theaters. We believe in the power of money and the promise of premium, meaning, we pay more for things we assume are of better quality.

Except for teachers. They’re screwed.

We expect high quality, but we aren’t willing to pay the cost of being the boss.

John Fensterwald from EdSource has a Huffington Post piece about the problem, based on a new report from the Economic Policy Institute:

Pay for teachers has stagnated nationally over the past two decades, and fallen behind earnings of other workers with college degrees, the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank, concluded in a report released Tuesday.

In 1994, teachers earned on average 1.8 percent less than other comparable workers; by 2015, they earned 17 percent less, adjusted for inflation. Factoring in total compensation, including health benefits and pensions, teachers earned the same as other workers with college degrees in 1994 but 11 percent less by 2015, the report found.

There is never a good time to under-pay teachers, but this time might be the worst. According to the report mentioned from the EPI, “At the same time [that teacher wages are depreciating], many factors are increasing the demand for teachers, including shrinking class sizes, the desire to improve diversity, and the need to meet high standards…In short, the demand for teachers is escalating, while simultaneously the supply of teachers is faltering.”

We want high-quality teachers capable of teaching students of color, the new majority in public schools. We want these teachers to be talented and connected to the communities in which they teach. But we’re making them a lousy job offer: work hard, eat little.

We want smaller classes and outsized gains in student achievement, but the pipeline of new teachers is too weak to meet the need.

All put together, shouldn’t that spur premium pricing for teacher salaries?

Nobody gives teachers and their unions a harder time about quality and results than I do. It’s to the point that people believe it’s personal with me (it’s not). I just can’t see how the question of quality teaching is disconnected from the issue of pay.

Yet, when we discuss connecting teacher pay to quality and expectation for results we enter a peanut gallery of conflicting interests. We fall down a dark and cold mine shaft of arguments about the definitions of those ends, the ways we are to measure them, and, in some cases, whether pay and performance should be connected at all.

No blog post will solve that one. Still, wherever you sit in the education wars you have to admit that great teaching is probably harder than what you do. You can’t be serious as a citizen about investing in subsequent generations if you aren’t willing to reward the people tasked with facilitating the intellectual development of children.

Teachers often say they don’t enter the profession for the money. It’s a rejoinder meant to express they have noble intentions for pursuing teaching. I appreciate the thought, but I think they should stop saying it. Whether you like it or not money matters to Americans and it will always be difficult to entice new entrants into the field if it is widely known that doing so means vowing to poverty and being viewed as the one profession least valued in terms of compensation.

If we’re willing to splurge on premium costs for things that aren’t essential, like steaks and chairs on planes or in movie theaters, it’s inconceivable that we would continue to depreciate the people we expect to be caring, competent, and committed when they stand before our children in classrooms.