Kanye West once made a very poignant statement about identity in a song – yes, Kanye -said something poignant. He said, “everything I’m not made me everything I am.”
There is plenty of evidence that explains why Black teachers are so important to America’s classrooms, especially those filled with Black students. But what may be more telling is the evidence of their lived experiences.
I can certainly say the same for myself, that everything I’m not made me everything I am. This particularly true with respect to my career in the classroom. I didn’t go to school for teaching. My certificate came by way of the alternate route program.
I didn’t learn about the art of teaching in the finest classroom, but rather in a hot classroom in a Catholic high school.
I didn’t have grand ideas for a career in education, I was just a Black kid looking to find his way. I didn’t have a high SAT score; I didn’t crack a thousand. My grades weren’t perfect. My high school career was less than stellar. I didn’t have a defined plan for my life while in college. Although I lived in ideal conditions, I wasn’t insulated from the trappings of the streets. But the village kept me on the straight and narrow; enough to reach adulthood with the opportunity of figuring life out.
I stumbled into the profession.
It was recommended to me because someone looked past what they saw on paper and what they saw was something on the inside that young people who looked like me needed. One person gave me a recommendation, another took a chance on me, I stepped into a classroom, and I began to, as the young people say, do what it do.
When in my second year in the classroom, I really hit my stride.
I was no master teacher, but when my principal stopped by my door to share that she believed I found my calling in the classroom, I knew I was on the right track. I loved teaching U.S. History – the real history. I loved my students, Black and Latino/a students who reflected myself and my friends growing up. I loved learning – I still do. Teaching provided the opportunity to learn more so that I could teach more.
For that, I endeared myself to my students. My peers couldn’t understand why.
They didn’t understand why my connection to them felt so effortless on my part. They didn’t understand why when things traveled from my lips to their ears, it resonated a little bit more. They didn’t understand why my students viewed me as more mentor and guide as opposed to simply being their teacher and instructor…
Once again, Kanye West said it best, “People talkin s*** but when the s*** hits the fan, everything I’m not made me everything I am.”
The same can be said for Shakoor Henderson, who himself walked a path of struggle only to find himself right where he belongs; in the classroom.
Ask anyone whose seen Mr. Henderson teach and they’ll tell you that he’s superb. But to know why, you’ve got to know his story. His mother struggled with addiction. To escape the temptations of the city, the family moved to town that was predominately white. Mr. Henderson saw few role models who reflected him, particularly in schools except for a teacher, Mr. Allen Taylor.
Mr. Henderson ran into trouble as a youth and was sent to juvenile detention by a judge on the recommendation of his mother. He watched family members die, he bounced from college to college, he worked low paying and non-fulfilling jobs, yet he found his way to the classroom and into the lives of the young people who need him most.
It’s because he received a lifeline from Mr. Taylor, his Black grade schoolteacher, who wrote back to him in juvenile detention when no one would write him back.
According to a Johns Hopkins study, Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. By all accounts, Mr. Henderson was on his way to a meeting a self-fulfilling prophecy about Black men imposed upon us by a white supremacist society. However, Mr. Taylor’s intervention helped Mr. Henderson walk towards his destiny.
Mr. Taylor struggled himself with some of the same challenges facing Mr. Henderson during his youth. He could identify and he extended a hand by speaking life into his former pupil.
Many white educators believe that Black teachers have some secret sauce that has to do with our success with Black children that they somehow simply must replicate to do what many of us do. Here is the real secret; there is no secret sauce. Mr. Taylor didn’t have any secret sauce. He was simply present because he saw himself in Shakoor Henderson; a young man in need of someone to see his light.
Mr. Henderson will see the light of his students and speak life into them.
It’s not that white teachers can’t see the light inside Black children. But the truth is that in a white supremacy social order, anti-Blackness rules the day and because of it, depictions of Black people as deviant, mischievous, lazy, and inferior – enforced by public policy – are internalized by non-Black teachers.
Truth be told, it is also internalized by some Black teachers too.