“When did you first have a Black teacher?”
The question pops up online from time to time and sparks many discussions. The answers tend to vary across socioeconomic lines and regions. Some people encounter Black teachers in elementary school, while others didn’t encounter a Black educator until college.
Personally, I didn’t run into a Black teacher until high school. Even then, I wasn’t enrolled in any of their classes. The Black educators taught in the vocational programs that were still available at the time. In a separate building, as far removed from formal education as physically possible, the Black teachers and their predominately Black students did their thing.
Let’s think about this from another perspective. Close your eyes now and imagine a classroom. I bet your description would include desks and bright colors. Maybe even paper, pencils, and crayons. Fresh faced little ones might be sitting on a carpet. Your imagination might even include a teacher in that classroom.
Pull over here and let me ask a quick question: What does that teacher look like in your imagination? Most folks envision a white woman without thinking. Despite Black women being one of the highly educated groups in America, society still plants education squarely into the hands of white people. Which makes sense seeing as how many of us were subjected to the same treatment as we went through school.
If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it is that representation matters. Little Black children need older Black people to look up to. They need to see people that look like them achieving in life. These kids need to know that there can be more to life than the circumstances that they were born into. This is why so many young Black children want to be ball players, pop stars, or superheroes (Thanks, Chadwick!) when they grow up. Black people are most prominently seen in these areas of mainstream media.
However, there have been some significant strides in representation over that past few years. Barack Obama showed kids that there can be a place for them in politics. Kamala Harris is showing little Black girls that they can have a place in the highest offices of the nation. Amanda Gorman is showcasing the talent and ambition of young Black creatives. Billy Porter is showing queer Black kids that it’s okay to be who they are. These are just a few examples of the positive role models that Black children have now.
Having that positive role model does not have to be on a grand scale. The rising number of Black educators lends kids a more accessible goal. You don’t have to be rich to make a difference. Black educators have the added responsibility of caring and supporting children in what can be the most troubling situations of their young lives.
Black teachers serve as a model for Black students in many positive ways. Students can learn how to persevere in the face of adversity, the importance of education, and various other skills from Black teachers. The teachers in question would not have to create any lessons to get their point across either. By showing up for and supporting Black learners, the teachers are modeling positive behaviors that some students do not see anywhere else in their lives.
I’m always amused to see the look of surprise and eventually relief on Black parents’ faces when they find out I’ll be working with their students. It’s almost like, “Okay, it’s safe here.” Classrooms are not always the safest places for little black kids. It is almost daily that we hear about another egregious tale of indignities forced upon Black students. Just being a presence in the classroom can be a great source of peace for parents and students alike.
The kids appreciate it too. They are quicker to build that relationship with someone who slips out of that teacher voice and into that “mama ain’t playing voice” with ease. They can have conversations about cultural happenings easier with someone that looks like them. I can help a little Black girl with her English essay and her Double Dutch game. Little things like that make a world of difference.
It is easier for Black students to relate to a Black teacher. Any good educator can tell you that the key to creating a positive classroom environment are the relationships between the teacher and their students. It is nearly impossible for a student to learn from someone they believe doesn’t care about them or their problems. Black teachers can share some lived experiences with their students such as the racism and inequities that exist and hinder so many Black lives. Someone who hasn’t lived through growing up Black in this country can not possibly relate to the pain and trauma of a child going through it now.
Plus, the familiarity of a shared race can open some relational pathways that would be inaccessible for a white teacher. For example, a Black educator would be more likely to understand the slang and jargon of Black youth. Behavior that could be considered violent or threatening to a white educator could be understood to be common horseplay to a Black educator. Misconceptions like this can often lead to stricter discipline being doled out to Black students instead of their white counterparts. Harsher discipling is just another part of the school to prison pipeline that plagues Black students in America. The cultural understanding of Black educators can erase a lot of unnecessary problems.
It’s time to change our perception of Black people in education. We are here and we are mighty. There is already a shortage of teachers in America and the number of Black educators is even less. Encourage Black kids to have careers in education and make learning a priority in the home. It is time to uplift, celebrate and support Black educators for fulfilling such a vital role in the lives of our Black youth.
Tangela Williams-Spann is a mental health activist and mother of an autistic person. She has worked in special education for 15 years. She is the author of Sad, Black, and Fat: Musings from the Intersections scheduled for release August 5th, 2021