Our guest author today is Jose Vilson, a math educator, writer, and activist in a New York City public school. You can find more of his writing at http://thejosevilson.com and his book, This Is Not A Test, will be released in the spring of 2014.
Travis Bristol’s article on bringing more black men to the classroom has sparked a plethora of conversation around the roles of educators in our school system. If we look at the national educational landscape, educators are still treated with admiration, but our government has yet to see fit to create conditions in schools that promote truly effective teaching and learning. In fact, successful teaching in otherwise struggling environments happens in spite and not because of the policies of our current school systems.
Even as superintendents see fit to close schools that house large populations of teachers and students of color, we must observe the roles that educators of color play in their schools, whether they consider themselves “loners” or “groupers," as Bristol describes in the aforementioned article. When the Brown vs. Board of Education decision came down in 1954, districts across the nation were determined to keep as many white educators employed as possible. While integration plays a role in assuring equitable conditions for all children and exposes them to other peoples, segregation’s silver lining was that Black educators taught Black children Black history. Racial identification plays a role in self-confidence, and having immediate role models for our children of color matters for achievement to this day.
Educators in general already have a difficult time getting equal footing in education reform and navigating the dynamics of pedagogy and policy. Even those of us with social media platforms and access to luminaries get dismissed in liberal and conservative circles, which is symptomatic of pervasive racial views in our country. Teachers of color tend to have the added dynamic of living in a nation within a nation, as W.E.B. DuBois put it. They are prompted to abide by the cultural norms of the White male Protestant hetero norms prevalent in our society, while embracing their own Black / Latino / Asian beliefs and customs.
How that plays out in their schools often determines whether or not they stay, perhaps more so than whether they’re compensated well for their efforts.
A few years ago, I cited Ron Ferguson’s work on teacher / student relationships based on race and gender, noting that Black female teachers and Black female students had the most positive relationships, while Black male teachers and Black male students had the worst. Why is that? Well, he pointed to the prevalence of Black men as deans and disciplinarians. I would also have added the caricature of former New Jersey principal Joe Clark, whose biopic Lean On Me is often used to teach others how to effectively run a school replete with children of color. With bat in one hand and a megaphone in the other, we are made to believe that teachers should serve as modern-day overseers to present-day chattel slaves, instead of gurus and sages to our future’s burgeoning citizens.
This paradigm doesn’t just exist where the staff is White, either. In many schools, the leader may have adopted this mindset and offered one of their Black staff members a position as dean, or assigned the most troublesome students to the most intimidating Black male staff member. With males of color making up only 3-4% of the teaching profession, we ought to expect these gentlemen (and the 16% women of color in our ranks) to be treated as professional educators first, then all other roles as second.
Those of us who can withstand the lack of autonomy in our curricula, the lack of respect for our profession within our own communities, and the micro-aggressions we see played out in professional development sessions from outsiders and district level meetings, are encouraged to become administrators, higher-level supervisors, or professors in higher education. The incentives are visions of leadership, more money, and better standing in the surrounding communities. Black men seem to get the offers to become administrators even when they’ve only been in the classroom a couple of years, because they’ve already been asked to discipline children more than learning how to educate them. This problem exists across racial lines, but that only exacerbates the issue.
Some schools, whether public, private, or charter, are run like prisons, and teachers of color may feel frustrated when their bosses demand they teach a curriculum bereft of cultural substance. As Lisa Delpit has reminded us in her research time and again, the children of color need to be taught the ways in which the dominant culture operates, almost like a second language. We teachers of color are predisposed to this mindset because we’ve already built that bridge. Yet, that bridge also requires finding texts and contexts in which to teach our curriculum. In Arizona, for instance, teachers have been barred from teaching “ethnic studies," a loose term for anything that tells students to value their culture while living in America.
The solutions aren’t silver bullets in the least, but they help promote recruitment and retention of teachers of color like me. We have programs like Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers in New York, which promote burgeoning students of color to get into education by helping them through college, and then mentoring them through their first years in the classroom. I also recommend we require alternative certification programs like Teach for America and our local teaching fellows programs extend their required teaching years from two to five, because, if we’re teaching for the betterment of our country, we ought to learn how to teach well through real expertise grounded in experience.
I’d also recommend keeping our neighborhood schools intact because there seems to be a relationship between the shrinking population of teachers of color and school closings in neighborhoods with high numbers of students of color. I’d also suggest higher base pay for all teachers, since male teachers of color are often asked to become instant breadwinners for their families when they come out of college. Lastly, I would recommend we create paths of teacher leadership so teachers of color don’t have to leave to feel a sense of ownership of their profession.
Fortunately, I’m not the only teacher of color in my school, but, in the grand scheme of things, I still have to fight to get my voice heard, because I’m not inclined to leave.
- José Luis Vilson