This past week marked my first week as a doctoral student at Clark Atlanta University. As I approach the end of my educational journey, I can’t help but think about how it all started. I remember back to the little kid who used to learn words from the dictionary because his Dad made him. I remember being in elementary school getting the Highest Academic Average for a Boy year after year. I remember being in middle school being offered the opportunity to skip a grade, and I remember in high school graduating as the highest ranked male in my class (I was #4 out of about 55), and going to college and excelling both in and out of the classroom. I also remember the many great Black teachers who helped me and other Black students year after year.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “What does the race of your teachers have to do with anything?” Answer: A LOT. I spent my formative years being nurtured by teachers who didn’t underestimate my ability but instead challenged me to do the best I could. When you treat a child they are worthwhile, can be intelligent and can be great, they will believe it themselves. One of my major research interests is on how media representation affects a child’s upbringing: I believe that what you expose children to when they are younger plays a huge role in who (and what) they become in the future. We see this in books, TV shows, and other forms of media; so it would make sense that this would be true for educational representation too.
Think about it; a child spends about 8 hours a day, five days a week at school. When you add that up over the thirteen (or more) years a child spends in K-12 that is a level of influence comparable to a parent’s. For some students the teacher even acts as a parental substitute, so wouldn’t it make sense that a good teacher (or a bad one) has a large influence on their students? Even when a student has been told constantly by a parent or even previous teachers that they are special, all it takes is a few more to challenge that idea and change that child’s self-worth. Whether parents want to accept it or not, teachers can sometimes overrule what they have taught their kids. That's why so many black parents have begun homeschooling their kids, but fortunately, there is hope in some schools.
When I was at O'Bannon High School I had two English teachers: Ms. Taylor for 11th and 12th grade and Ms. Jones for 9th and 10th. Both of them, I later found out, where Alcorn alums and I credit both of them for being a major part of the reason why I am an English teacher now. My parents made sure I was pretty aware of racial issues, and I had read the standards like “Bud Not Buddy” and “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” in previous classes, but it was the combination of me realizing that I wanted to be a writer and Ms. Jones assigning us to read the novel “Tears of a Tiger” that really told me that being a Black author was possible. Finally, school reading was reflecting home reading, and little teenage me couldn’t be happier. Ms. Jones didn’t treat the fact that “Tears of a Tiger” had Black characters like some major anomaly (like some teachers did with other books with Black people); but taught it in a way we could relate to. Having the Black characters in that book be treated like any other character we read and not a “special case” did wonders for my understanding of being a Black author. Combine that with Ms. Taylor encouraging my creative writing and telling me years before I changed majors that I should be in English, and its easy to see how these two Black women played a huge role in who I am today. Simple things like words of encouragement and understanding can mean a world of difference to a child, and the studies prove that having a black teacher means a world of difference as well, especially for Black children who look up to them.
So what does this mean? That every black (and by extension any child of color) student should have a mentor of their own race/ethnicity to help guide them? Well, yes and no. It would be easy to say that whenever you have a Black student in your class just send them to the Black teacher(s), but that can be dangerous as well. We can’t relegate the Black teachers to roles of enforcers and mentors-for-hire; they have their own students and their own jobs to do as well. Instead of overworking the Black teachers we have and burdening them with every Black student in the school, we should try to look for and make enough Black teachers to go around. Encouraging more Black youth to become good Black teachers would, of course, require a focus on education in college, but the trade-off would be more than worth it. You get a number of diverse teachers who can meet the individual needs of every student of color; whether they look for firm teachers, lenient teachers, female teachers or male teachers.
Anybody with eyes and access to the internet can tell you that (good) Black male teachers aren’t too common, and even in all the Black schools I’ve been to I’ve only taken a lliteral handful of Black male teachers. All of them were memorable in their own way, but the two that stick out the most are the two history teachers: Mr. Carroll and Coach Lott. When I first took Mr. Carroll in the seventh grade he was the first Black male teacher I ever had. I remember walking into his class and not knowing what to expect. What I got though, was a very capable teacher who taught me a lot that I still remember today. Coach Lott I took a little later on, but he, like Mr. Carroll, gave me something I use today. A lot of my own teaching style comes from the way Coach Lott structured his classes; fairly laid back but theatrical and engaging enough to make sure you learn. If Ms. Jones and Ms. Taylor showed me what I could teach, Mr. Carroll and Coach Lott showed me how to teach. All of them and many of my other teachers continue to play a major role in my educational career.
And now I try to pay it forward. Many of my own students tell me that I am their first Black teacher; let alone Black male one. I’ve had amazing Black teachers in my life that listened to my issues and made me feel like what I have to say matters. They didn’t talk down to me or make me feel like I was wasting my time getting an education. They believed in what I can do and encouraged me to do just that. I hope that my students look at me and take my classes and get the same levels of empowerment that I got from my Black teachers, even in college. I applaud all the Black teachers I’ve had and the ones I know; you’re doing a fantastic service even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Trust me, it is all worth it when you know you have changed a life for the better.
Have you had any great Black teachers that motivated you? Do you think it is really that important that Black students be exposed to Black teachers? Be sure to leave your questions, comments and concerns below and don't forget to like and subscribe!