When it comes to my job, there are very few things that bother me. However, the one thing that does is the reality that within my district, I am the only African American teacher in any of our high schools (our district has two high schools). I am always reminded of this whenever students come to me for help and/or advice, or whenever I attend a professional development and I look around the room. There are more negatives than positives to being the only black teacher within a school... for one, as a black male teaching black and Hispanic/Latino students, I have a credibility that none of my other colleagues have -- that works for me, but what about my colleagues? When explaining racial discrimination in America and its impact on the inability of racial minorities to be on par with their white counterparts, the often-used example is of two individuals racing and one was allowed a head start. I feel the same with respect to my position as a black teacher in an urban charter school... my ethnicity gives me a head start, but who is that really benefiting?
Another negative is that as a black male teacher, I am relied on too heavily by my students and my administrators. Because my students feel very comfortable with me, they ask me to lead a lot extracurricular activities. Anything that has to do with black history or urban issues impacting racial minorities, I am the go-to guy for my administration. I enjoy being a part of the school community, but it can be draining and there are times when I must decline -- not because I don't want to participate, but unfortunately, I am only one man.
Normally, I don't attend board meetings for our school district but this week, I decided to check in to hear how our district is doing for reasons that shall remain nameless at this time. About an hour into the meeting, the board went into closed session. I decided that I would leave but not before I spoke with a few colleagues. While speaking to a colleague who happens to be a good friend of mine, the principal of the elementary school within our district joined our conversation. The conversation shifted to the issues within urban schooling and specifically issues within our district. I made the comment that our entire district needs more teachers of color -- specifically males. I offered the opinion that for our students, who are primarily African American and Hispanic/Latino, to see teachers who looked and sounded like them and who may have came from the same neighborhoods as them, could make a real difference with respect to student motivation, student modeling of adults and classroom management. My overall point was that while I believe that it is not a necessity for students of color to have teachers of color in every circumstance, it can certainly help when a teacher can relate to their students, especially in the case of one's ethnicity and background. The principal, who happens to be a Latino male, said to me and my colleague that "I don't think you need more teachers of color, I think you need teachers who care about the students. I don't really consider the background of a teacher when I hire them."
When I heard that comment, I felt like I had jumped out of my skin. I couldn't believe that a principal in an urban school believed that you don't need more teachers of color to teach children of color. It has been documented in reports and studies that children of color are more likely to be disciplined in school and less likely to be in gifted and talented, AP or high level classes early on throughout their middle and high school years compared to their White counterparts.
A large reason for that is because the majority of teachers teaching students of color are in fact white. Conflicts between teachers and students in urban schools arise when the two parties cannot communicate with one another due to issues of discomfort and ignorance. When you look at the statistics on teachers nationally, you can begin to understand the reasons for the miscommunication:
• Of the more 6 million teachers in the U.S. today, 80% are white and 64% are white female;
9.3% are black and 7.4% are Hispanic/Latino
• Of the 6 million teachers in the U.S., 1.8 % are Black male and 1.7% Hispanic/Latino male
• Considering the entire student body, the U.S. has one White female teacher for every 15
students and one Black male or Hispanic/Latino male teacher for every 534 students
Generally speaking, black and Hispanic/Latino students are not educated in a way that is culturally responsive or culturally relevant and those students are often punished for exercising their culture in ways that those who not of their culture do not understand; often interpreted as poor behavior. For many in urban schools the relationships formed between faculty, staff and students are ones built on a foundation of sympathy and empathy rather than on understanding and compassion. Hiring a slew of teachers of color won't answer all of the issues facing urban students; however it can help to begin addressing some of them -- and teachers of color, like all teachers, must be support by seasoned administrators and receive quality professional development. I am not advocating that we remove white teachers from urban schools, but what I am saying is that there needs to be more of a balance with respect to the racial composition of teachers in urban schools -- and we cannot just hire black teachers for history and Hispanic/Latino teachers to teach Spanish. We need teachers of color in the mathematics, science and English content areas as well. I just think that it is too bad that the elementary school students within my district have a principal who seems to be color blind; too bad many students of color have administrators who are color blind.