Black teachers “get” Black students. We “get” students, in general. We “get” a lot of things because of our nuanced and varied experiences being Black in America. Having a Black teacher is especially beneficial to students of color because that deeper level of understanding that we have affords our Black students a greater opportunity to have their voices heard, as well as a greater chance of getting selected for gifted and talented programs and Advanced Placement classes.
For the record, White teachers — the ones who’ve endured struggles in their lives — “get” Black students too. In my own life, especially in undergraduate school, it was my Jewish professors who “got” me. I didn’t have a Black teacher until I was in ninth grade. She was the only Black teacher I had from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The only one.
My son had his first Black teacher when he entered eighth grade. Even rarer, his new teacher was a Black male. I remember him coming home the first day he met that teacher; he was so excited! I was happy for my son, but I felt sad too. It took nine years of formal education for him to be taught by a Black man? Were there really no men of color on Long Island to teach the growing population of Black and Latino students?
My daughter didn’t have a Black teacher until she went to a private Christian school in her seventh-grade year. She graduates from high school this June and has never had a Black teacher since then. How is that right? How might her educational experiences and opportunities differed if she had a Black teacher? I can’t help but wonder.
If you think that these are just the isolated experiences of my children and me, think again. According to Greg Toppo and Mark Nichols in USA Today,
U.S. schools have made “very little progress” in recruiting and retaining minority teachers over the past three decades, said Anna Egalite, a researcher at North Carolina State University’s College of Education. When she began looking at the statistics, she said, “one of the most stunning things” was just how little had changed since 1987, when the proportion of white teachers was 87%.
Egalite’s own research has shown “small but significant” positive effects in math and reading, especially in elementary school, when black and white students are assigned to teachers of the same race. Low-performing students seem to get particular benefit, she and colleagues noted in 2014. All of which shows that the USA’s teacher/student racial disconnect isn’t just a curiosity. It’s holding back millions of young people.
I know there are efforts underway to recruit more Black teachers — particularly more Black, male teachers. Are these efforts enough? I don’t know the answer to that question quantitatively. Instinctively, I don’t think so. The various entities that are recruiting Black teachers are not hearing from Black teachers or Black students to really know what we need or how to recruit us. It’s like most things in education — the teachers are the last to know and the last to be heard.
I’m willing to lend my voice towards a solution for this problem, and I know a slew of other teachers of color who are willing to lend theirs, too. State education department heads, are you ready to listen?