From Thursday to Saturday, I attended Teach For America’s African American Corp Member Summit, where about 200 2nd year Black TFA corp members convened to share their experience as black educators. While I often think about my role as a Black teacher and how I can be most effective, rarely have I thought about what my presence as a Black teacher means for my students. While there is some research that has been done, which shows Black students often perform better academically when they have a Black instructor, this framing does little to explain why this is the case. Moreover, it is limiting to confine the value of Black teachers to data metrics which our students are able to meet under our guidance. Here is my attempt to give some light to the value of Black teachers.
First and foremost, Black teachers inherently recognize the humanity in our students. Often people say, “Black teachers can identify with their Black students,” however, this ignores the multiple dimensions of the Black experience. Yes, Black teachers can identify with the race of their students, but good teachers have the ability to connect with a large amount of their students on the individual basis. Our students are still developing their racial identities and figuring out what it means to be Black. Most of my students, if I were to ask them how race has impacted their life would they would not identify the segregated community they live in, the segregated school they attend, the fact that the government has worked to suffocate both their black community and predominately black school as effects of their race; rather they would look for their rather limited experiences with White people. Consequently, the Black teacher’s gift of connecting with students comes from Black teachers connecting very personally with their students and seeing their problems as our problems that we must work together to solve.
Still, the problems of Black students are not only outside of school, but a fair amount are created in the schools Black teachers work for. Solving the problems that your employer does not see as a problem is quite the challenge. For example, Black teachers are forced to negotiate oppressive school policies (some examples: forcing students to walk down the hall silently in a straight line with their hands behind the back, not allowing students to the bathroom without an escort, rules on hair) with keeping their job, managing their students who are rebelling against often dehumanizing policy, and attempting to give their students the education they deserve and are so often deprived of. The ability of Black teachers to reach their students in the face of the aforementioned challenges (plus countless others) comes from a place of love. Here, love is not always manifested through affection and is not the romanticized story of the Black teacher who gets results by simply telling his or her students “They are somebody.”
This is a story of love contextualized in learning, in which Black teachers in the process of building personal relationships with their students (not to get them to score well on a test – which students see right through anyway – but because they recognize they are human beings) and set sky high expectations for our students because we know Black students must work three times as hard to get 1/3 as far as White counterparts. This is a story of love involving Black teachers risking their job security, as we challenge administrations who often only see Black children as numbers and data points who are needed to get funding. This is a story of love where Black teachers create curriculum and resources to insure their students are not being fed lies about their history and identity. This is a story of love that is seen as insignificant by school administrations who think a good teacher has the ability to control Black children and prepare them for standardized tests whose original function was to prove the intellectual inferiority of Black people.
As I sat and talked with my fellow Black teachers, it gave us the opportunity to be for each other, what we attempt to be for our students. All of us spoke of our exhaustion. The school system exhausts us, the children exhaust us, and our personal lives exhaust us. Still, we have a deep commitment for our children which allows us to ignore our exhaustion, as we know if train our children properly they will be able to take care of us when we finally are able to rest.