Empathy, Poetry, and Relationships: Why Black Teachers Matter
Black teachers REALLY matter!!! Black teachers make schools better. Black teachers make the school’s administration better. Black teachers make other teachers better. And most of all Black teachers offer unique and necessary contributions to Black and brown students by also teaching them about empathy and racism.
“It is called education because it is learned. You do not have to have had an experience in order to sympathize or empathize with the subject. That is why books are written: so that we do not have to do the same things. We learn from experience, true; but we also learn from empathy.”– Nikki Giovanni
I could not be reminded of this more when I saw the picture of Sharif El-Mekki with Nikki Giovanni. The photograph triggered a flashback of simultaneous pain and joy. I did not have one Black teacher in high school. The lack of a teacher who looked like me during this critical time caused me to internalize the colorblind atmosphere in the school I attended. My school did not prepare me for the racism I would face after I graduated. I didn’t have a Black teacher until I went to college and even then, in my entire five-year post-secondary academic experience, I only had two Black professors.
It was my Trinidadian father who was my first Black teacher. He encouraged my love of reading by taking me to the bookstore every weekend. He held the bar on getting good grades, completing homework, and studying for tests. Moreover, he was the one that gave me my first and favorite poetry collection by Nikki Giovanni. It was this book I would one day take to a poetry reading by Giovanni and have her autograph it.
Black teachers are able to share their own personal experience in education with students in a way that helps students feel more safe, motivated, and confident. Black teachers I have met, when I ask about their own experience in education, often share that if they did have a Black teacher, how much that teacher made a difference in their racial identity. That Black teacher exposed them to the reality of the Black experience. In addition, Black teachers help prepare Black and brown students for a post-secondary world that wants to deny them of a true understanding of their history.
Black teachers also matter because they also offer multiple pathways for Black and brown students to experience Black Joy. Black teachers can help them celebrate themselves for who they are, see themselves for who they are, and believe in themselves.
All of the reasons described above were brought home for me with Nikki Giovanni. This will be my twelfth year teaching 9th grade African American History. Several years ago I had a particularly strong connection with a student. I remained very close with her as she matriculated through high school and college. I asked another Black teacher what I should get her as a high school graduation present, and she suggested, “since you both like poetry, why don’t you pass on a book in your collection that means a lot to you, that she can then one day pass on to someone else?”
Indeed, I did. I gave her that first Nikki Giovanni book my Dad gave me. At first I was a little torn about giving it up, and now I could not be more grateful for that Black teacher’s suggestion.
I recently met up with this former student, and she was more than willing to share her thoughts on receiving the book as a graduation gift. My former student recalled me telling her:
The only requirement for me giving you this, is for someday, when you get older, to gift it to someone else as well.
My brain began to race. Those words felt so far and distant. I wondered to myself if this was what it meant to leave a legacy? Maybe not in a traditional sense, but the legacy of having a sustained positive impact on another person who I’d someday cross paths with.
A gift presented from teacher to student—this wouldn’t be talked about in history books, but it felt historically significant. The vitality of Nikki Giovanni’s words met with a promise that the life of this gift, passed down to me, would not end in my hands. It made me feel like I was important — that someone else outside of my family believed and trusted in me. And that someone shared hope in the power of words and poetry as a source of connectivity and that I’d be contributing to it.”
My former student is now studying to go to law school. She wants to use her experience, knowledge, and skills to study educational law so that she too can have a positive impact on Black and brown students.
This is an example of what Rann Miller rightfully claims of Black teachers having “this collective experience and historical memory to articulate to Black children and others what and why to help them navigate this society in ways that empower them not to accept the society that will be passed to them.”