“It’s hard to be who you can’t see.”
Those simple, sage words from renowned Black educator and leader, Marian Wright Edelman, make a compelling case for getting more Black teachers in the classroom.
But in the rush to diversify their teaching ranks, many school districts are misunderstanding the depth of the impact of Black educators. Teacher diversity isn’t just about representation–though representation undeniably matters. And Black teachers aren’t only effective because they can serve as role models that Black students can look up to–though role models are important in a young person’s life, to be sure.
The transformational impact of having more Black teachers in the classroom has been well documented. From improved graduation, college going and achievement rates for Black students to positive impacts on students (and colleagues) of all demographic backgrounds, Black teachers are bringing something special to the schoolhouse – and the educational ecosystem.
Yet despite this well-documented, statistically significant, scientifically verified impact, much of the discussion and work around teacher diversity at the state and district level is dominated by a “role modeling only” orientation, which can be harmful to both the effort to diversify the teaching profession and work to create public schools and foster teaching that is anti-racist.
The role modeling view is both essentializing and reductionist, viewing the Black teacher as a sort of “magical Negro” with no depth of character and no pedagogical frameworks, orientation, and teaching skill of their own. Just the presence of the Black teacher, their skin color’s proximity to that of their students alone, is the catalyst for better student outcomes.
The role modeling theory is one that leans heavily on a deficit lens as we don’t see the actual skill that so many Black teachers bring to the classroom. It also means that the skill of Black teachers is not fully recognized. Black teachers are then not given the professional respect and esteem that they’re due. Instead of promotions and raises, the invisible tax of Blackness is levied on them, with expectations that they’ll provide additional “coaching” or “mentoring” and “engagement” of students, families, and other educators, out of a sense of obligation to “their own”.
And the confounding thing is that sometimes a Black teacher doesn’t even perceive the skill, understand the pedagogical expertise that they possess as it is often imprinted by great teachers in their communities. Research by the likes of Dr. Akosua Lesesne, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Dr. Greg Carr, Dr. Jarvis Givens, and many others, shows that there is so much more to Black teaching than the corporeal presence of Black teachers. There is, their research shows, a Black Teaching Tradition, whose line can be traced from places like the Gulla-Geechee island communities in South Carolina to the shores of Senegal. It was strained in the middle passage, but survived and flourished in the Freedom Schools of the American south and the Liberation Schools, the independent Black Schools (14:30) movement in cities across the country.
At the Center for Black Educator Development, we theorize that the Black Teaching Tradition that Dr. Lesesne is codifying is a reflection of the way in which Black people have learned through their culture, their parents, their aspirations and resistance, and their community. This tradition connects the real world to the curriculum. It relies on high expectations, deep connection to the learner and supplementation of an often anemic school curriculum with the richness of life, reality, context, and culture outside of the school walls. Institutionally, the school is part of the student’s learning, not all of it. Knowledge is shared and passed down through communal interactions, intergenerational relations, that inform and reinforce understanding.
But rather than be fully explored and codified, written down and conveyed in teacher prep programs, it occupies an otherized space in public education, never given the respect and esteem, the recognition of professionalized credibility its impact warrants, but sought after with a sense of excoticism akin to convening with a voodoo priestess. The result, again, is a flattening of the Black educator to a caricature devoid of appreciable skill.
The invisibility of this skill shows up in the teacher evaluations and observations that fail to account for the thousands of micro-moments of teaching that a Black educator engages in across the classroom environment. Which is why our team at the Center is working with Black teachers to codify these skills, take inventory of and understand and teach them through competencies that can be learned, developed, and practiced. We are doing all of this with the belief that if we are successful, the power of Black teaching can be more accurately observed, measured and, in turn, more appropriately valued – and used as the foundation for preparing educators to lead and serve children, classrooms, and communities..
The goal is not for Black teaching to be commodified, curriculumized and gentrified. But we do want it to be understood, studied and learned from in order to better prepare all aspiring educators for the classroom. Failing to do so would mean the continuation of thinking that all this “race stuff” doesn’t matter; who is training teachers, who is writing curriculum, who is making policy doesn’t matter. If we get enough Black people in the classroom, that’ll suffice. Check another box on the nation’s post-racial bingo card.
As a Black educator I know that’s as nonsensical as it is offensive. Because for us Black educators, it’s life or death. We see the urgency for kids because we see ourselves in them. We understand the stakes for the kids and the community because they are our stakes. As they rise and fall, so do we. There is a visceral connection, our fates are entangled, intertwined. A connection of that depth that deserves serious, methodical study and understanding.
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.