Our Students Are Watching, But Are We Worth Emulating?

At the end of a recent school day, my principal called for a fire drill. I assumed it was just a routine exercise. However, for one of my students, it was anything but routine.

As I followed our fire drill protocol, she stood right beside me, diligently going through each step and procedure as if she were a teacher herself. I could have asked her to return to the rest of the class, but I chose to let her take charge.

She held our classroom binder containing the procedures and attendance list and volunteered to hold the classroom sign to signal our location to administrators. As I took the headcount, she did the same. She effectively managed her peers, essentially assuming my role.

I affectionately remarked, “You’ve taken over my job today… I was supposed to do this.” She smiled and replied, “Well, you need someone to help you, and I’m here to assist you… somebody’s got to.” I returned her smile and asked, “Have you ever considered becoming a teacher?”

I posed that question not just because she helped me during the fire drill, but because through her execution of procedures and her responsibility towards her peers, she displayed qualities essential for a teacher to command a classroom and lead with care, and she’s only a sophomore. However, she possesses the spirit of the Black educators who loved their students with dedication.

This leads to the other reason I inquired about her aspirations – she is an emerging Black woman, precisely the kind of presence our classrooms need.

I followed up with, “I can totally envision you leading a classroom.” She responded, “Not with little kids though (and chuckled). I guess it helps that I had two excellent history teachers back to back.” I teach her this year, and last year, she had another Black male history teacher.

Whether or not she pursues a teaching career, I know she’s observant, and that’s what I took away from that day. She and the other students are watching.

It’s not solely about me; it’s about Black students observing their Black teacher. Black students indeed watch all teachers, but they pay particularly close attention to us – the Black teachers and educators in the building.

Despite the prevailing statistics regarding Black teachers nationwide and in my home state of New Jersey, I take pride in sharing that my school boasts 16 Black teachers, in addition to 15 Black educators within our professional staff, serving as counselors, social workers, advisors, and administrators. Fortunately, there are plenty of us for our children to learn from.

What are they observing?

They are watching how we navigate the school environment, how we conduct ourselves in the classroom, and what sets us apart from their usual experience with primarily white teachers. They also observe us because they lean on and rely on us while navigating historically white spaces.

They lean on us because it is both our duty and responsibility to care for them in these environments, just as much as it is our job to educate them.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, these young people often mimic what we exemplify, extending beyond the school setting. If we demonstrate group solidarity and take pride in our identity, they will replicate that. If we model high expectations and work to meet them, they will follow suit. If we exhibit patience, love, and compassion, they will emulate those qualities.

How do I know this? Because I have witnessed it firsthand. Likewise, I have seen them replicate negative behaviors when modeled.

Hence, we, as Black educators, must be mindful of our actions because our students, who may one day become teachers themselves, are closely observing us.

I had the privilege of attending the Black Male Educators Convening last year, where I had the opportunity to hear a prophetic poet deliver a statement that resonated deeply with me. He addressed everyone in the room, regardless of age, with these words: “You are somebody’s ancestor; act accordingly.” This statement stayed with me because, in the future, I will indeed become someone’s ancestor, and what I do today will impact my descendants of tomorrow. The choices made by my ancestors have had, and continue to have, a profound influence on my life.

As Black educators, we are not only the predecessors of future Black educators but also the forebears of those who will carry on the Black radical tradition – because teaching is inherently political. Our actions hold immense sway over our students’ lives, as we often bridge the gap for Black students from infancy to college, from college to their careers, and from their careers to their communities.

We must continue to extend ourselves to uplift future Black educators, showing them the impact they can make through our example.

As for my student, this incident will not be the last time we discuss her potential as a teacher. I will keep sowing the seeds of encouragement. I hope that others will come alongside to nurture those seeds and help her blossom because being a Black educator is not just about a career; it’s about propelling people forward.

May we all continue to advance together.


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