For black students, having even one black teacher can make a huge difference.
The need for more black teachers has a familiar, yet potent ring. Whether based in truth or a plea for something deeper, these refrains were a constant theme heard throughout my teaching preparation program. I heard that we were needed in a profession that has a great deal of impact on the world. Even more pointedly, I heard that we were a rarity. And I thought that those refrains were BS.
Let me explain. I agreed that African-American teachers were needed. But my initial feeling was that there were African-American teachers out there and they just weren't being hired for whatever reason. But as I matriculated in my training and my career and saw the number of faces among staff that looked like me dwindle, I started to wonder if there was truth to the adage. I found that there was truth to both sides. Then again, I should have known this from experience, as I somehow did not have a single African-American teacher or professor until I began my teacher preparation courses at Wayne State University.
According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education, 83 percent of the nationwide teaching force is made up of Caucasian women – lagging far behind the growth in diversity of the K-12 student population. Overall, African-Americans only make up 7 percent of all public school teachers with African-American males comprising only 2 percent. Yes, 2 percent. So, I wondered, why? Especially considering the impact a black educator can have, especially in a metropolitan area like Detroit. The impact of a black educator is mighty – not just for African-American students but students of other races as well.
"Students can experience a connectedness with staff of color for a variety of reasons," says Mark Medlock, dean of students at Starkweather Academy in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools. African-American teachers "can bring a level of empathy and cultural awareness to their schools. That can benefit all students in so many ways," says Stephanie Gaines, English department head at University Prep Science and Math High School in Detroit. "Students can see things from a multitude of perspectives."
"I feel that I give them hope and get them to think about their life, and how important goal setting and what you stand for is," says JuaQuita Grady, mathematics teacher at Wayne-Westland Community Schools. "I give that to all of my students, regardless of district or culture." All students can benefit from this and appreciate it. A recent study from the Institute of Labor Economics has shown that young black men who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are 39 percent less likely to drop out later on and 29 percent more interested in going to college.
"I'm not surprised by that," says Kyle Lackey, vice principal at Tipton Academy in Garden City. "Students always learn better when they have someone that they can relate to." And almost all research says that even students of other cultures can benefit from having a teacher of color that they can relate to.
EXPLORING THE CULTURAL DIVIDE
"There are some cultural bonds that are established immediately," says Alondra Alvizo, a recent graduate of Michigan State University (and one of my former students). "I think it's important to have different perspectives and it teaches tolerance amongst differences of opinions." This is something that I can personally attest to, as I've had multiple students of other cultures say that they appreciate me and love my teaching style. In fact, I've had a student of Middle Eastern descent ask me about becoming a teacher. I shared as much knowledge as I could with her.
"It's a two-way street," Lackey says. "I learn stuff from them that I've never been exposed to, and they learn stuff from me that I haven't been exposed to." So if we – black teachers – are so important, why are there so few of us? "A lot of times, it's the pink-collar effect – teaching has been pretty much viewed as a woman's job," says Lackey. Lackey's school, like the Wayne-Westland district, has a highly diverse student population, with Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Filipino students. "In American culture, we don't promote education as a vocation. We talk about becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer. It's not as glorified." This issue was consistently echoed among teachers.
TAKING THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
"Black people have been telling their kids to not go into human service fields. They have been trying to steer them into high-paying careers," Grady says. "When you see Asians and Indians come to this country, they're coming in to become doctors, lawyers, engineers." Unfortunately, that is also something that I can attest to. In fact, I know of many fellow African-American teachers that have left or are considering leaving the profession for various reasons. But it's not all about the Benjamins.
"A lot of times, we don't feel valued when we go into a culture that is alien from our own, especially if we work in suburban schools," Lackey says. "Sometimes, parents in a certain area may feel more comfortable with a certain type of individual. The culture of the school, city and parents can sometimes bring some struggles for an African-American teacher, because it's kind of a fish-out-of-water situation. It's not necessarily a race issue, it's more so an issue of comfort. It's on both parts – the community and the educator."
And at times, there may be some preconceived notions when districts hire African-American teachers. "I don't think that some suburban schools are looking for black teachers for that empathy or cultural awareness. They want them to 'deal' with the influx of black students coming into the districts," Gaines says. "They think that they are able to 'handle' them, and that's why you see a lot of black teachers as deans, or dealing with discipline, which is good, but a lot of times that's all they are looked at as – disciplinarians, and not academicians."
They may also not receive the same amount of mentoring and professional development as some teachers. Add to that the usual line about the long hours, the demands from the state, staff, and students, dealing with less-than-receptive parents and administrators, and the picture becomes clear. In addition, enrollment in teacher preparation programs – both traditional and alternative – has been decreasing over the years.
DEVISING A LESSON PLAN
The next question might be: how do we do something about it? Grady suggests starting at the very root cause. "We have to change the way our kids are actually perceived and received by the educational system, and then they may want to be a part of that system," she says. "If you don't have a positive view of that system, and have had negative experiences, you're going to avoid that. It's related to post-traumatic stress syndrome in a sense."
Gaines considers the recruitment side of it as well: "I would look at colleges with strong programs that have a track record of making sure the whole student is successful. I would also put the word out to veteran teachers of color. I want the classrooms to look like the world around us." Lackey wants to try to take it a step further. "We have to promote the field and incentivize it," he says. "Maybe have more scholarships for students that want to go into education – full rides."
He adds that once a teacher is hired at a school, the culture that they go into is highly important and must be one of support and respect. "What I try to do in my school is create an educational culture of respect for all people, regardless of race and culture," Lackey says. "That has to extend to the staff as well. You won't let kids' backgrounds define what's going to go on at school, but you can use it to add on and enhance the educational experience. We encourage and support them, and let them know that they are appreciated."
POSTING THE FINAL GRADE
Alvizo feels that "there should also be more professional development opportunities for educators within the area. Especially in metro Detroit, I think we can do a better job of valuing our educators." If that is done, then the retention rate may go up. And then you may see more African-American teachers have more overall impact on the educational system at large.
All of this goes beyond statistics, academic studies or even the current headlines. "School is not just about content," Gaines says. "It is about dressing for success, handling conflict, life skills. All of (these) things are handled culturally different. So what if our students see that from a multitude of perspectives? It just better prepares them for the world ahead." In the end, isn't that what it's all about?
BETTER TRANSPORTATION – FOR – DETROIT STUDENTS
Getting kids to and from school can have its challenges for many parents. In response to this problem, starting this month, parents will have free access to the GOAL Line. According to the City of Detroit website, the service "will pick up students at the participating school closest to their home and transport them to the participating school of their choice. When school is over, students will have the option to take a bus back to the school closest to their home or to an after-school program at the Northwest Activities Center." In connecting charter school operators, Detroit Public Schools Community District leaders, teachers, parents and city leaders, the goal is to improve education opportunities for children and families in Detroit.
Some important features of the program include:
• A swipe card to use at pick-up and drop-off points, which sends text notifications to parents.
• Adult monitors accompany the students.
• Camera-equipped buses.
Also, for those students needing after-school programs, GOAL Line has care until 6:30 p.m. that includes swimming, tutoring and other enrichment activities. Transportation back to any school on the loop will be provided in the evenings following the after-school programs.
For more information, call 313-224-1222 or visit goaldetroit.org.