Two weeks ago, I went to a networking event for Well-Read Black Girl. It was a panel of Black women who write. Many of the women began their careers simply for having a love of reading and writing instilled in them. As I looked around, we all had something in common: we had not met each other before that night, but we were already sisters. Most of us were disregarded and our stories were ignored because we were Black. However, we were more than willing to give each other a voice. This event was a testament to the need for Black women in the classroom. We’re more than willing to give a voice to the voiceless, even when we’ve been ignored.
In today’s NPR article, “Having Just One Black Teacher Can Keep Black Kids in School,” Anya Kamenetz writes, “by high school, African-American students, both boys and girls, who had one African-American teacher had much stronger expectations of going to college.” In reflecting on my own educational history, I realize that I did not have many Black female teachers in school. In elementary, I only had one—my mom. In middle school, I had one (home economics). I didn’t have any in high school. In college, I had one (African-American literature). Even though I can’t attest to the fact that having these teachers influenced my decision, as my mom was also my teacher, I can see how having Black teachers can be beneficial for Black (and even Hispanic/Latino) students.
Black teachers are especially necessary in low-income schools because we have extremely high expectations for our students. We’ve been so accustomed to being pushed to the highest level (think: Papa Pope from “Scandal”) that we pass that down to our students. I expect so much from my students because I know how it feels to be discounted for my race and/or skin color. I would never project those insecurities onto my students. I want them to, not only feel like they can do whatever they put their minds to, but actually do it. Just as I experienced color issues in the Black community, I’ve witnessed the same color issues in the Latin/Hispanic community. I’ve witnessed how it affects my students’ self-esteem. As a Black woman, I’ve seen the need for representation and optimism. Students of color need to see people who look like them being heads of classrooms and schools.
In looking at the #BlackLivesMatter movement and #BlackGirlsAreMagic hashtag, it is obvious that Black women are at the forefront of change and empowerment. In following suit, I focus my entire school year on social justice in my classroom. Beginning the school year with identity and ending with empathy, combatting prejudice and discrimination, I encourage my students to make real-life connections between our fictional texts and what is going on in the world. I have my students do a lot of writing about their identities, in hopes that they will begin to appreciate their unique identities. I also try to incorporate writers of color in their readings so they can see representation in the classroom. This year, I had also planned a hip-hop and poetry unit, where students dissect lyrics from Tupac and Outkast and make connections to Langston Hughes and Audre Lorde. Being a Black teacher, social justice is necessary so students can advocate for themselves and others. Social justice is, in fact, the start of the next generation making a positive change, which is extremely necessary in the current political climate.
As Black women in education, our voices are often used to encourage others to use theirs. It’s important to give students a voice, and, as an often-silenced Black woman, I am empowered by substituting my voice for theirs. When my students participate in Socratic Seminars about empathy (or lack thereof) and prejudice and discrimination, they bring in their personal experiences. They are able to vent and find others who share their same sentiments. I am proud that not only do they feel free to share their experiences, but that they also used the tools I’ve given them to have these vulnerable dialogues.
The need for Black teachers is great, especially in low-income and/or urban areas. Black and Latino students need representation not only in literature, but in positions of power or structure. However, just as important, Black teachers recognize that it takes a village. In addition to being empathetic leaders with high expectations, Black teachers view their students as their children. I’m not saying that only Black teachers are capable of this perspective, but it’s been instilled in us at an early age that children don’t just need two parents; they need an entire #squad. Many of us were raised in very close proximity with our aunts, uncles, cousins (and “play cousins” alike), a close neighbor, etc. Whether or not we see the parents of our students teaching them important life lessons, we’re going to jump in regardless. It may be the stereotypical “Black mama” just coming out, but many students need just that.
How many Black teachers did you have in elementary, middle, or high school?