Teachers Are Heroes and We Need More Black Ones

Christopher Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… And the Rest of Y’All Too. , recently wrote an article that brought up a lot of great points. He is concerned that people are using the lack of diversity in teaching and the need for more Black men to mask other more pressing issues.

Emdin acknowledges that there is a need for diversity but believes that “tough love” meted out to Black children and the poor preparation/professional development of Black and other teachers play a larger role in the issue.

I don’t disagree with many of his points. However, he believes that highlighting that only 2% of teachers are Black males is a cop out, even if well-intentioned.

This is where our paths diverge.

I don’t know how long Emdin taught in classrooms, but to say that teachers aren’t heroes is erroneous. I am not talking about misguided folks who are enamored with corny movies about the false hero who drops into a school and miraculously becomes some sort of Pied Piper of Hamelin the Hood.

Let’s get this straight, teachers ARE heroes

Not only are real teachers heroes, they are super heroes. We know they are, even when they are humble and self-effacing. Jamal Parker and Jovan McKoy, two students from PYPM, recently penned and performed a poem at two of The Fellowship’s recent Black Male Educators Convenings (the next BMEC is on October 15th). They lamented that there were not enough Black heroes and, as students, they also looked at teachers as those heroes. They wanted to see more Black ones. So do we.

Too often, when we demand more Blackness, we are told that the status quo is okay, and we need to focus on ALL. Black Lives Don’t Matter, because All Lives Matter. We don’t need more Black teachers, we need all teachers just to be prepared to effectively engage and educate Black kids. There’s certainly a lot of truth in the latter, and we need more (effective) Black teachers.

There is a nuance in approaching it through “and” not “but.” By negating the very real issue of a lack of Black men in the profession, the efforts can be undermining.

Yes! We need any educator who works with children to be racially and culturally literate. Gloria Landson-Billings, Howard Stephenson, and many others have shared a plethora of data and tons of research that proves this.

However, a child today, of any background, is still far too likely to not have a single Black male educator. This persists far beyond the K-12 sector. Our students will achieve more if they have more mirrors to see themselves and not just windows to see others.

Emdin acknowledges that, “Black male teachers can serve as powerful role models, but they cannot fix the problems minority students face simply by being black and male.” I wholeheartedly agree, but to underestimate the need for more Black men – highly effective Black men – in our classrooms and schools, belies the very reality and need of our students-all of them.

Don’t underestimate the impact effective Black men can have in the classroom

Schools are definitely failing our Black boys (and girls). The list of how schools, districts, and states are failing them can dampen the most eager educator: poor funding, racism, draconian disciplinary procedures, over identification of ADHD, special education, forced segregation by poverty, etc.

Even the most effective Black male educator won’t mitigate all of those issues as a stand-alone. However, to underestimate the power of a highly qualified and effective Black man in the classroom, misrepresents the need. The need isn’t just for Black boys, but for all students.

I also raised an eyebrow about the use of the term “tough love” as a factor in Black men leaving the profession. Tough love is in the lexicon of our Black grandparents, parents, and effective teachers. If a Black man leaves the profession because he needs to use tough love, he may have general challenges with setting clear and consistent expectations.

I believe Emdin was referring to unfair and oppressive disciplinary tactics used by too many schools of all kinds. That is different than tough love. Tough love and draconian disciplinary practices are not the same thing.

Emdin gave an example of a Black man who, frustrated about harsh disciplinary measures, quits. I have other examples. Examples like Christopher McFadden, a member of The Fellowship, was in a similar situation and decided to leave his disciplinarian role and became a Social Studies teacher.

For once, districts should fixate on increasing highly effective Black and Latino male representation

Emdin also says we don’t need to fixate on Black male teachers. Instead, he urges districts to focus on improving training and mindsets of educators. I would suggest that we don’t juxtapose the two. Districts should fixate-deeply-on diversifying the profession and ensuring all educators are well prepared and highly effective. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. A fixation is exactly what is needed around here.

In contrast to Emdin’s statement that teachers aren’t heroes, I believe that effective teachers are heroes. And, heroes need to be qualified and effective to be deemed as such. Heroes who call out their school’s leadership for the inequity that they may see; heroes who use tough love to support the environments most conducive for effective learning; and, heroes who are professionally developed to ensure students reach optimal levels of achievement.

Right now, approximately 80% of our nation’s teachers are white females. Two percent of them are Black men, and another 2% are Latino men. That is not okay when over 50% of our student body is diverse. We should not juxtapose the need for better, more inclusive recruitment with the need for best practices and effective teaching.

We need both. Urgently.

A highly effective teacher is nothing short of a hero. And, we need more of them. Especially the Black and Latino kind.

Oppression is our number one issue,

and with the right direction, our imprint

can be accepted without being secondary.

When black boys and girls look at comic books [or classrooms]

they should see a mirror image,

see themselves flying past white clouds,

see a hero, skin more radiant than radioactive.

One day there will be a sign in the sky for us

that doesn’t start with rest in peace.

We’ve have been buried in the back pages for way too long.

It’s time for us to burst through our own panels.

With great power comes great responsibility.

With real representation comes great superheroes.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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