It’s just about the end of this school year and, as I reflect upon what worked and what didn’t in preparation for next year, I am faced with the unfortunate truth that a lot of my students — my Black students, in particular – are being recommended or mandated to attend summer school. While I’m most concerned about the root causes of this phenomenon, I can not help but observe that most of their White teachers are not making such recommendations. Instead, it’s Black teachers like me who are pushing for these students to not merely advance to the next grade but to pay the consequences for not doing their work and missing so much instruction, regardless of the variety of reasons that directly and indirectly contributed to their lack of academic progress.
I hear, “it’s not going to make a difference whether or not they go to summer school, Mrs. Dukes.” And, “why are you being so hard on them, Mrs. Dukes?” While I’m not shocked by these questions, I am dismayed that this way of thinking is prevalent amongst White teachers towards their Black students. According to a study released by Johns Hopkins University, Black female teachers are more optimistic about the abilities of Black students than any other group.
You want to know why I’m on the war path for excellence for Black students? You want to know why every student of mine who has acted up and hasn’t been doing their work has to go to summer school? Because I’m sick of this crap!!! Yup! That’s where I’m at with it! Black kids can’t afford to not be giving a damn about education!!! What the heck happened to us as a people? Is this what our ancestors fought and died for? Is this how they honor the blood, sweat, and tears shed for them to have the opportunities that they are throwing away ever so frivolously? I’m over it! Get yourselves together!! NOW!! Black kids — you won’t get a pass in life!! You don’t have white privilege or, for that matter, any other kind of privilege!
White teachers who are unaware of the world Black children deal with in the skin they’re in can do more harm than good. Black children must be held accountable and taught resilience. We haven’t endured everything we’ve been through as a people by being weak or mediocre. This, perhaps, is key: I have a problem with the mediocrity that Black children present to their teachers in their school work, demeanor, and behavior. I have a problem that White teachers — albeit it well-intentionally – accept this mediocrity.
There is a wealth of research around the topic of the deep value that Black teachers bring to the classroom. Researchers for Education Trust highlight this:
The skills that black teachers bring to their work often go far beyond their roles as content experts and instructors. As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they tend to build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools (King, 1993). In the classroom, they tend to be “warm demanders,” holding all students to high expectations, both academically and as members of a disciplined learning community (Ware, 2006). As colleagues, they tend to enhance cultural understanding among teachers and administrators of differing races and backgrounds (Villegas, Strom, & Lucas, 2012). Further, black teachers are especially likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students (Achinstein et al., 2010), and they are more likely than other teachers to continue working over many years in schools serving black students (Simon, Johnson, & Reinhorn, 2015).
I feel like I’m fighting against the archaic, false thinking that being Black and failing are synonymous. I’m feel like I’m fighting to save myself and my students from the quagmire of low expectations that Black children are sucked into before they ever really have a chance to thrive academically. I feel like I am so much more than a teacher and that and, while I’m honored to be in the position to influence and guide young minds, I am tired of fighting against White colleagues who also are charged with these same undocumented duties of teaching but who neither subscribe to nor live up to them.
My heart goes out to all Black teachers across this nation who are dealing with the same things that I am and who, like me, face unrelenting stress. We don’t get to have a day off. We are in a constant state of advocacy because our children, our people, our families and our community are in a perpetual state of emergency.