From Philly’s 7th Ward: Black Men, White Boards

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Much has been said about the need for more diversity in our teaching force. I have written about it here, here and here. The US Secretary of EducationHBCU presidents and others have also pushed our country to diversify. Also more readily acknowledged is the need for more Black men in particular. However, even when more Black men are hired, they often leave the profession at a faster pace than their counterparts.

Some, however, question the notion of even hiring more Black men as an intervention. They argue; increasing the number of Black men in our schools is a cop out to solving other entrenched problems. We believe the argument is a false dichotomy and the ideas are not mutually exclusive. Recruitment, retention, and support undergird our work at The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice. They are interlocked, just as our collective success is inter-dependent.

Education Trust recently published a report capturing the voices of 150 Black teachers discussing the challenges of choosing to stay and the reasons so many Black teachers leave the profession. They speak of the “invisible tax”: less support and being typecast into non-academic roles. Recurring themes we also hear from our members.

We want to share why some Black teachers choose to join (and stay in) the ranks of what should be the most vaunted profession. Four short vignettes of founding members of The Fellowship follow. All four men are teacher leaders and represent more than a change we have been waiting for; they represent the change our communities are demanding. The lack of equity is one additional disadvantage that our students must and will overcome, but they shouldn’t have to fight this battle alone.

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Many men of color are in close proximity to our schools and classrooms, yet with a few more deliberate steps, more of these mentors, coaches, and disciplinarians can serve communities from within the classrooms, leading through content expertise and social justice and equity lenses.

A MENTOR CHALLENGED ME TO TEACH

If I had been asked what I wanted to be when I was young, I would have said a doctor. Ultimately, wanting to become a provider for my future and extended family, football became a more tangible career choice. Having earned an athletic scholarship to attend Lock Haven University, and starting as a defensive back, only fueled my desire to make the NFL.  A career ending injury sustained in my 5th collegiate game forced me to make some serious decisions about my future. Having developed a passion for service, I studied community health and began teaching gang prevention in the Williamsport, PA.  In a search to continue doing this type of preventive work, after graduation I found myself doing truancy case management. Quickly growing frustrated with the judicial system, I accepted a position managing Special Education data for the School District of Philadelphia. Still trying to create a transformative impact in the lives of young people, a mentor challenged me to go teach. Having ignored that call, I was eventually laid off, but quickly hired to work with Birney Preparatory Academy.  Even as the Assistant to the Chief Academic Officer/Director of Operations, I was also encouraged to enter the classroom. Five years ago, I completed my Master of Arts and Teaching in Elementary Education and entered the classroom, where I have been teaching ever since. Raymond Roy-Pace, Teacher Leader

Black men tend to view themselves as mentors for their communities and look for ways to be more effective as mentors. Some may find mentoring as teachers gives them more access and higher levels of efficacy.

THIS IS WHY I CHOSE THE CLASSROOM

Moving to Philadelphia was a huge culture shock for me, having come from a small, country, predominately white town in North Carolina. I was always passionate about education, even as a student, but never found my place in it until I served as a Big Brother for BBBS program in North Philadelphia as a college student. The experience in the urban school in which I was placed showed me how necessary it was for students who looked like me to see more teachers who look like them. My major had nothing to do with education, however, at that moment, I began to seek experience in schools that would show me how my passion for education could be utilized to empower urban school students to be their better selves, using mentorship to push the academic expectation in the classroom. I’m considered an “unconventional” teacher of sorts as I deem it more important to push students to see themselves as successful than it is to enforce upon them the idea of learning to pass a test. At times, our students lack motivation and direction, even from some of their teachers, to not only succeed in their academics but to apply their learnings to real life experiences. THIS is why I chose the classroom…to show them that the more you apply yourself to invest in yourself as a person (using life skills and real world experiences) the more you’ll be able to find your “place” in the classroom. Kevin Gold, Teacher Leader

Teachers found a  sense of purpose, and their commitment to our youth is rewarded. The intellectual stimulation of planning and teaching is difficult to match in any other profession. While people often lament what “kids these days need”; others provide, concretely, the support students need today and tomorrow.

I WANT TO GIVE MY STUDENTS THE SAME THINGS I NEEDED AS A CHILD

I studied political science and Spanish in college with every intention of working for the federal government. I’d worked on several political campaigns and did a short study abroad program which led me to a stint with the Department of Homeland Security working with US Citizenship and Immigration Services. After a few months, however, I knew my passion wasn’t there. I had been approached by Teach for America in my junior year but didn’t give it much real thought until the fall of my senior year. I was trying to put options on the table and that one made sense. I’d spent the last four summers doing leadership training for middle and high school students so I already had experience with facilitation, planning learning units and being in front of kids. A two-year stint—that I told myself I would have to extend to three in order to beat the “I’m just in it for law school” rap—seemed like a path I could at least consider. I completed the online application and over the next few months I continued to move through the process until I was looking at a screen asking me to rank the cities that I would consider as my placement site. I top-ranked every major city on the East Coast, but I would come to learn that anyone with even remote interest in Philadelphia was likely to end up there. And so, I did. My two-year commitment was spent teaching at a middle school and it was there I learned I had a knack for this work. I realized there existed within me a passion for giving my kids more than what was in front of them. Exposure, opportunity, challenge—the same things that helped me determine a path for myself. And despite my intentions of eventually moving back to DC, I’m currently in my sixth year at my placement school. As I seek out my next steps, the one thing that keeps me in the classroom is the fact that I get to directly impact the things that my school (in the abstract sense) can’t accomplish. Content aside, I spend my days problem-solving, challenging my kids and prepping them to take on the world. Doesn’t get much better than that for me. Sterling Grimes, Teacher Leader

SHE PULLED ME ASIDE, “YOU SHOULD BE A TEACHER”

When I graduated college in 2007, I had a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management and Economics from West Chester University.  The job market was extremely low at this time, and I opted to volunteer with students from the Pathways PA program who were in foster care placement.  One Saturday afternoon, I was speaking to the students about the importance of higher education, and little did I know that my future employer (principal of the school) was also sitting in the audience among the students.  She pulled me to the side and told me, “You should be a teacher.” Two weeks later, I completed my interview and I was a GED instructor for Pathways Pa working with mothers who received state assistance. While maintaining this role, I picked up part time work as an after-school teacher with the Watoto After school program at Russell Byers Charter School. Based on my performance, I was asked to take on a role as a Site Manager with Watoto as they expanded into three new schools. I was placed at school in southwest Philadelphia, and while there I made an impact that was felt so strongly that the principal at the time asked me if I wanted to be a 3rd grade teacher. I was honored and shocked by the offer, and was overjoyed to accept it.  I began teaching November 1, 2010, remained in the 3rd grade role for two years. During that time, I enrolled at St. Joseph’s University where I graduated with my Masters in Elementary and Special Education. I eventually became the 3rd grade Lead Inclusion teacher.  James Brooks, Teacher Leader

Our work is cut out for us, but we intend to continue to support current and aspiring Black male teachers to affect the changes we desire in our schools and classrooms. Hope, alone, is severely lacking as a strategy. More intentionality must be directed in not only the recruitment, but the retention, support, and validation of our Black male educators. As usual, our schools and classrooms represent ground zero. Who are we recruiting, supporting, and retaining to be the heroes to run towards our ground zero?


This post was republished from the blog Philly’s 7th Ward.

I’m tired of sacrificing for the dream of integrated public schools

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Integration. The idea brought well deserved cheers with Brown vs Board of Education. Many likely assumed that 60+ years later, deeply segregated schools would only serve as a relic of the past and a sharp pivot in the road for equity and justice for communities of color.

Today, there is another push for integration because student achievement in Black and Brown neighborhoods has languished. For the record, although I never attended one, I am not against integrated schools. I do wonder, with all of the energy devoted to it, how will it actually happen, look like, and to what end?

As a kid, what I remember most about attempts to integrate were bricks being thrown at school bus windows. Through the windows, white hurlers could plainly see Black children. Public regard for “separation is inherently unequal” was damned-we saw it in housing, the creation of suburbia,distribution of school funding, and resistance to Affirmative Action.

As most schools remain segregated today, even without Jim Crow laws, one has to wonder:  1) Does America really want integration and 2) How will it improve life outcomes for those who are left behind?

A ONE-WAY STREET

Yesteryear, many conscious Black folks were concerned about integrated schools because of the impact it would have on the slowly growing Black middle class. They knew, with certainty, that even if some Black kids were sent to a predominantly white school, their parents would not be able to “ride the bus” with them to work in same schools.

We saw something similar with integrated dollars. Black folks were not allowed to shop in certain stores. As a kid, although Woolworth’s was downtown and looked like a great place to eat, my Mama would never go in there because of how she said it used to be segregated.

Once Black people were able to use their purchasing power in Macy’s, for example, the smaller, Black-owned shops lost business. There wasn’t a major push from white folks to patronize the Black owned stores (besides entertainment) and so, when integration came about, Macy’s benefited, not the Black community’s entrepreneurs.

American integration tends to be like a one-way street, heading in one direction. It tends to mean “join us or continue to perish.” Black folks also know that, with white students, schools will get resources. America will make sure of that. There doesn’t appear to be a great push to integrate school funding. Pennsylvania, for example, has some of the worst examples of school funding inequities in the country.

MY BIGGEST CONCERN

My biggest concern about integration can be read in-between the lines of Chief Justice Warren in his brief about Brown vs the Board of Education:

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group…Any language in contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

I used to read this and wonder, why is there even a term of “separate but equal”?  Where exactly are the separate but equal Black/Brown and White schools? Is injustice only damaging to Black and Latino kids, or does it damage white children’s character and life outlook too? How much of our continued problems are because too many white children grow up to wield power over people they only saw on television?

When I ponder these words, I also think of a country not really wanting equity and justice to become pervasive. Yes, “separate but equal” has no place in public education, but any Black and Latino family can tell you thatseparate and unequal not only has a place, but a strong, unrelenting foothold.

Are segregated communities inherently detrimental to the Black child, or is the stark and persistent inequity of funding for our schools what is actually detrimental to their well-being? Will parallel play within an “integrated” school actually help develop the Black child’s psyche? If I attend a mostly white school, but I have no access to rigorous courses and I am regulated to the least experienced or most ineffective teachers, is that an integrated experience? Do my feelings of Black inferiority or white supremacy suddenly dissipate because of the sprawling school lawn and unlimited resources?

When, instead of holding ourselves accountable for what and how much children of color learn-regardless of where they attend, I fear that we are waving the lure of integration as the panacea for the educational injustice our children experience daily. Buyer beware, it will lull you into a 62-year coma.

I’M TIRED OF SACRIFICING

I wonder if the push for integration as the sole fix for the lack of safety and achievement in our neighborhood schools will have a detrimental effect on the psyche of Black children. To be told that your dilapidated building, scarce resources, and teacher equity won’t be fixed, but you will receive the equity and justice you deserve as a human being if you attend a white school, can be damaging to the Black child’s psyche.

Any assault on the idea of Black excellence in a predominately Black space is detrimental and unacceptable.

I agree that if all things are equal, having an integrated school can provide benefits to children growing up in a multi-cultural society. But, I also grow weary of Black folks needing to do the sacrificing in the face of resistance in order to achieve integration. It is like when people of color have to carry the water for cultural context incessantly, while white people get to groan about how uncomfortable it makes them feel.

As in a lot of spaces, siloed attempts to integrate public institutions are devoid of meaningful cross-sector integration. Folks may want their schools integrated, but will it result in just more parallel play? Will the same people who point to segregated schools as the main reason for decades-long failure in predominantly Black and Brown public schools jump at a chance to integrate, say, a neighborhood without gentrifying it?

WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE TO OUR STUDENTS

I work in an overwhelmingly Black school. We are holding ourselves accountable for our students’ education and well-being. We demand excellence from ourselves, and we support and push our students in striving for excellence. Do I believe if our students attended a white school they would get better resources? Yes. Do I believe that they will automatically receive a better education? No.

Out of all the negative by-products of No Child Left Behind law, one silver lining was the disaggregation of data. It illuminated that, too often, these very schools that we want to integrate our children in, have similar results for poor Black children. I would imagine it would be a double whammy to be low achievement in a sea of whiteness. And, that is not to say we should not integrate. What I am saying is, regardless of where Black and Brown kids attend school, let’s demand equity and justice and hold people accountable for the education of students of color -regardless of where they live and attend school.

Many people still view poverty and racial segregation as the only reasons for low student achievement. While I know that poverty has an impact, it is surmountable with high standards, rigorous coursework, thoughtful and sustained interventions and systems, the development of positive racial identity, and accountability for all to ensure this is all happening.

It is unfortunate, that too many folks would rather send a bus of Black and Latino kids to predominantly white schools instead of holding themselves accountable for pursuing excellence in children’s neighborhood schools.

To communicate to communities that they are only deserving excellence when they attend white schools is as insidious as the doctrine of separate and unequal itself.


Sharif El-Mekki wrote this post for the blog Philly’s 7th Ward.

The student who inspired me most is the one who tried to kill me

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I was recently asked which of my former students most inspired me. I have literally thousands to draw from for both good and heart breaking reasons. One of the kids who has inspired me the most is now dead. The other young man who I draw inspiration from actually tried to kill me.

Michael Cole. Charming, bright, hilarious, and witty. I had a monthly lecture for him about coming to school consistently. When he and other students met academic challenges, we’d have Tecmo Bowl video game binges.

I promised him that if he could be a consistent scholar, I’d take him and a few other students who were on “motivational contracts” to Pittsburgh to meet some friends like “Big Play” Willie Clay, who were NFL players . They earned it, so we headed to Pittsburgh so they could attend Will’s football camp. Cole was a gifted athlete and impressed folks there. At the basketball all-star game the night before, he had the typical nerve to challenge Jerome “The Bus” Bettis to a game of pickup basketball. Jerome Bettis played against Cole for 20 minutes, cracking up at the irreverent 8th grader’s incessant trash talking.

I HAVE TONS OF STUDENTS THAT I DRAW INSPIRATION FROM

I couldn’t wait to see what Cole became. He had such boldness, intelligence, and a cool confidence I never could muster. But, Cole was murdered while he was in high school. He was my first murdered student. I still grieve him. And, there would be more.

I tried to build a forbidding wall around my emotional attachments, but new students removed those bricks. One by one.

There were many others; students who defied all types of odds to show they were experts of every type of grit imaginable. They encountered, survived, and defied things that would break the will of many men and women.

There were the Iraqi refugees who battled all types of challenges; displacement, murdered relatives, utter shock, adjusting to life in two different refugee camps in two different countries before making their way to the new and unfamiliar challenge of being immigrant Muslims learning English in west Philly.

There’s the student who scored a 5 on five different AP exams. We didn’t even offer one of the courses. He taught himself. He’s studying at Oxford this year.

There are the recent alumni who started a non-profit to tutor younger students at their alma mater.

As I said, there are plenty of students for me to draw inspiration from.

SOME OF MY INSPIRATION COMES FROM THE YOUNG MAN WHO TRIED TO KILL ME

But, the youth who inspires my life the most, on a daily basis, is the one who attempted to take my life. Despite always having a deep sense of commitment to social justice issues, this young man likely had the largest influence on why I eventually chose to be a teacher.

As an educator, when I think of being shot by this youth a couple of weeks after my 21st birthday, I see an angry kid from southwest Philly.

I see a student who may have had all types of challenges and hardships, a quick temper, and far too easy access to guns.

But, I also see a student who attended a struggling school. A student who struggled to find support amidst all the challenges he faced. I see a student who experienced what it was like to have adults give up on him early. Often. Consistently.

I was blessed with a network that helped me overcome my wounds, but I often think of what internal wounds did my assailant suffer from. What untold trauma was he battling? Instead of only wondering what was the matter with him, I often wonder what happened to him.

There are plenty of students who face similar circumstances. And, we know, that even the most struggling students have a better chance of navigating their situations with mentorship, support, listening ears, high and consistent expectations, and engaging school communities.

There are myriad reasons for us to do this work. Inspiration is all around. Embrace it.


Sharif El-Mekki wrote this post for the blog Philly’s 7th Ward

Let’s not pretend teachers aren’t part of the very system that kills us

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More Black and Brown men have been lynched by the state. It is the American way. And, too many educators look away from and are silent about the carnage.

Whether lynchings occur on the trees that led to “Strange Fruit” (sung by Billie Holiday), by the Tallahatchie River, on railroad tracks, in a gated community, in a bedroom, or in front of stores, it is one and the same. It is terrorism, sponsored, condoned, and defended by the state and, far too often, ignored or explained away by too many educators.

THERE IS AN INTERSECTIONALITY BETWEEN POLICE VIOLENCE AND EDUCATORS’ SILENCE

There is an intersectionality between the police violence on the Black community and the silence of too many “educators.”

Imagine a road called Police Violence and another road called Educator Silence.  What do we imagine happens at the intersection of these two streets?”

When our educators are silent about institutionalized racism and state-sponsored violence, they are complicit members of the system. When educators are muted about what students and their families encounter, they are partners in the oppression. Teachers and principals are leaders. The positions inherently demand leadership. Leaders must speak up about injustice-especially the type that is being waged against the very students and communities we serve.

Jawanza Kunjufu remarked that he was amazed that we live in a capitalistic society, yet schools weren’t teaching Black children about capitalism. It sets them up for failure and a trap. How can schools, that purport to educate students for the future, ignore something as huge as the financial system they are a willingly (or unwillingly) a part of?

Our students and communities interact with a system that was established to prey on them. Some educators have decided it is not within their locus of control to address it.

Even “half woke” educators know the racist system and police brutality that Black youth will encounter. How often are these issues addressed in our schools? Yes, communities should educate their youth about this form of oppression, but it does not absolve schools and districts, education non-profits, and educators to be involved and vocal allies.

ARE EDUCATORS ALIGNED WITH POLICE UNIONS OR COMMUNITIES?

Too often, not only are district administrators mum about police brutality and institutional racism, our school-based educators are also passive and silent about this form of violence.

Some organizations like New Leaders New Schools, Teach for America, and union leaders have recently taken a more vocal stance against systemic and enduring racism and oppression. And while some teacher unions and principal associations take very public stances about police brutality, others ignore it and believe their solidarity must be with the police unions instead of the communities they serve.

Just as police unions are structured to defend the murderers of black youth, teacher and principal unions are keenly positioned to defend the liberation of their Black youth. But, unfortunately, the blue code of silence is often erected within schools by educators. And, far too often, after all the talk, not much is done.

LIBERATORS OR OVERSEERS?

As educators, we must take stock on our worth to communities daily. Start with the question that William Hayes, founding member of The Fellowship asked at our inaugural Black Male Educators Convening, Are we liberators or overseers?” Students must be taught to have their eyes wide open. Anything short of that is not setting them up for success in that “real world” that educators love to talk about.

I feel like an elder. I won’t see widespread and systemic justice during my time, but the folks who will need to continue the fight are being educated right now. How they are prepared to resist and dismantle, the current systems of police brutality and create new systems of community, policing and accountability will largely depend on educators.

If one views education as a means of pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, it must also help students identify and abolish the very systems created to deny them the same. In a future post, I will share some ideas of what educators can do to support students and remain vocal and active allies-liberators– in this aspect of the struggle.

In the meantime, if you are an educator, ask yourself, “Am I a liberator or an overseer?” You’ll know the truth. If you are prone to lie to yourself, ask your students.

They already know the answer.


Sharif El-Mekki wrote this post for the blog Philly’s 7th Ward