Prior to publishing my last post, “How Are These White Teachers At A Long Island High School Helping Black Kids Achieve Above- Average Graduation Rates?,” I asked my editor if my position was clear or if I appeared to my readers to be flip-flopping from my original, previously proposed position that the profession needs more teachers of color. (See here and here.) She assured me that I was remaining steadfast in that vein, while deepening my perspective. Still, without fail, some managed to malign my words to support their twisted, racist rhetoric.
I’d like to set the record straight.
The premise upon which I stand is that there is a dire need for and significant benefits to hiring more teachers of color. The premise upon which I stand, firmly rooted in my own experiences as a Black student-turned-educator, coupled with that of researchers, is that all students, particularly students of color, benefit in multiple areas of their academic and social-emotional lives when they have meaningful, ongoing, daily interactions in and out of the classroom with teachers of color. This is a topic that I’ve written about on numerous occasions and shouted from the summit of many an educational mountain top that I’ve climbed as a Black teacher-leader.
As too often is the case when discussing education — or anything for that matter, in America — the warped perception of race reared its big, ugly head in response to my post praising my alma mater, Elmont Memorial, which fosters a generational expectation of excellence no matter the student-teacher demographics. I will not stoop so low as to pander to the racist comments that have already detracted from the purposefully positive angle of my post. However, I will, as I vowed to do from day one of this blogging journey that I’m on, use my platform and my God-given talent as a writer to call out, probe, and be a spoke in the moving wheels of change against institutionalized racism and inequity, just as those who came before me paved the way for me to do this work have done, just as my dear teachers at Elmont Memorial High School taught and empowered me to do.
We’re all in agreement, based on the 3,100+ page views that my last post received, that hiring the best teacher for the job is the primary focus of any reputable school’s hiring protocol. But in a state and nationally-recognized high-achieving school that has an over 95% Black and Brown student population, why haven’t more teachers of color been hired to teach at Elmont Memorial High School (EMHS) in the 25 years since I’ve graduated? Have no qualified teachers of color applied for teacher openings? What outreach, if any, has been done to procure highly-effective Black and Brown teachers to teach the highly-effective Black and Brown students that proudly graduate from EMHS each year? Why is it that the demographic of the student population has changed, but the demographic of the teacher population has not also changed?
I told you all before: In my entire K-12 education from 1980 to 1993, I had one Black teacher in the Elmont Union Free School District and the Sewanhaka Central High School District. One. While that never bothered me and as I’ve made quite clear, I loved my teachers then and still love them now, the Vivett of today, with all of her higher education and own experiences as an urban educator to all Black and Brown boys and girls, knows that my education and that of my Black, Brown, and White classmates would have been even richer if we’d sat under the tutelage of even one teacher of color during the course of those thirteen years. The Vivett of today knows that, just like my multi-cultural, first-generation American classmates and I benefited from being educated together, we would have also benefited from having a multi-cultural staff of teachers teach us.
Those interactions with people that come from diverse walks of life, especially when they are in positions of power the way teachers are, really helps students deepen their critical thinking around what it is to walk a mile in another person’s shoes — a person who is different from you. Having a teacher of color helps White students see and own their White privilege before they go out into the world and exact it upon others, unknowingly or otherwise. Those interactions with people outside of our prescribed racial and gender radii, provide a human context that just can not be fully garnered from a textbook or a video.
It is those multicultural, authority-shifting exchanges that eradicate that poisonous “that person” or “you people” thinking and rightfully replaces it with humanity, empathy, and an amicable, solutions-oriented mindset. That Black youth who has been gunned down unjustifiably at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve now resonates with you because he may remind you of the Black guy friends you had in High School or the Black male teacher who helped you learn how to solve algebraic equations. That random immigrant being paraded across your t.v. screen and admonished to go back to his/her country on the six o’clock news as you sit with your family to partake of an evening meal may remind you of your High School friend from Central America in whose home you ate your first plate of rice and beans. That fight for human rights for the LGBTQ community may now become your fight as well, even though you’re a heterosexual WASP male because your Black female teacher in high school, Mrs. Dukes, introduced you to James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, members of the LGBTQ community and two of her favorite American authors whom she didn’t learn existed until her freshman year in college in an African-American literature course.
Making a point of hiring teaches of color is not about affirmative action or reverse racism. Such thinking sends a message that Black and Brown teachers are only hired because of the color of their skin. Such thinking doesn’t take institutionalized racism or systematic disenfranchisement into account as to why teachers of color are not present in classrooms across the nation in the first place. Such thinking reduces the lack of Black male teachers, for example as an unfortunate series of events — nothing more, nothing less. Such thinking is dangerous and doesn’t belong in EMHS.
It’s only ever a win-win when students are taught by a diverse teacher population and I hope that after reading this, the powers that be at EMHS actively seek to diversify its teaching staff. You owe it to our students. You owe it to our legacy. You owe it to our future.