I was walking to my classroom on Friday and on my way, I saw a group of girls walking towards me. Three were Indian and two were Black; one of the Black girls wore her hair in an Afro. I said “hi” to all of the girls and made a point of saying to the girl with the Afro that her hair looked really cute. The way her face lit up when I paid her that compliment was priceless.
Do you know why it is personally important to me for Black students to have Black teachers? For starters, research shows that it can lower the students’ chances of dropping out of school. And seeing someone who looks like you gives a boost of encouragement, a reminder that if they can do it, I can do it, too. Another positive impact for students of color is that teachers of color are able to talk about or respond to a situation that is, or at least is perceived to be, culturally unique.
Like the young girl with the Afro: Only a Black woman would say that to her and understand the guts it takes to rock a natural hairstyle — especially an Afro and especially as a kid around girls with long, flowy, Barbie hair.
Most Black teachers tend to have a cultural sensitivity towards their students. Let me be more specific, for I can already hear my critics attacking me as being a separatist and a racist. I, Vivett Dukes, have a heightened level of cultural sensitivity, as do many teachers of color with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working. An example of this took place earlier this week.
I was on my prep period and the attendance secretary asked me to cover a class. I said “sure” and was glad to see that I was covering a class of sixth-graders who will be my students next year. Of all of the sixth-graders in the school, I’ve had the most interaction with this particular class. They seemed happy to see me too. I decided to see how many of their names I remembered since I’d taken attendance roll call during the English Language Arts state exams. I went down each row, student by student, recalling all of their faces, but not nearly as many of their names. I came to a boy whose name escapes me, but whose mannerisms did not. In my mind, I called him “First” because on each day of the exams he was the first one finished. His actual name is that of a cartoon character and the other children wasted no time in making fun of him. His face dropped and I recognized that. I used it as an opportunity to teach him and the class that his name is also that of a famous artist, two famous soccer players, and a slew of other famous people.
By the end, the class was shocked and the student was beaming. My cultural awareness and sensitivity helped to take a negative situation and turn it into a positive one. I’m not saying that a non-Black teacher could not have done the same, but the truth of the matter is that for White teachers to be culturally aware it takes a conscious and deliberate effort. For me, these tools just come with being a Black woman in America who is the daughter of immigrants, a first-generation American.
Research says much about the statistical gains that students have when they are exposed to even one teacher of color. Today, I want to further support that research by sharing with you my personal experiences in my role as a teacher of color. It’s not easy being Black in America. If my experiences — good, bad, and indifferent — can impact my students for the better, it makes the miles I walk in these Black shoes all the more worth it.