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Dedicated Black teachers are key in mission to educate Black children

By Barrington Salmon and Nisa Islam Muhammad -The Final Call- | Last updated: Dec 12, 2018 - 7:11:48 AM

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A Black child who has just one Black teacher in elementary school is more likely to graduate and more likely to enroll in college. The likelihood of pursuing a college education is significantly higher if that same child is taught by two Black teachers.

These are among the findings of a recently released working paper authored by Nicholas Papageorge, the Broadus Mitchell assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins and Seth Gershenson, an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University and published by the National Bureau of Economic Standards. The study notes that Black students who are exposed to one Black teacher by third grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college, while those with two Black teachers were 32 percent more likely to enroll in college.

The problem, though, is that good teachers can be hard to find, hence the scarcity of Black teachers nationally. There’s a high demand but short supply despite decades of attempts by school administrators to recruit and retain them. Statistics show that the majority of the nation’s teachers are White and female, with a mere 18 percent of teachers nationally being Black, Latino or Asian; only 5.6 percent of new teachers are Black and the teaching ranks are losing Black teachers at disturbing rates, even as the number of children of color continues to rise.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015-16 there were an estimated 3,827,100 public school teachers in the United States. Slightly more than 80 percent of them were White, while less than half of students were White.

“White teachers, research studies have shown, have the inability to predict the success of Black children past the fourth grade, meaning they are not able to predict accurately the success of Black children especially in regard to Black males because they become more afraid of them, because of the narrative that the Black male is a physical brute,” said Dr. Kevin Washington, head of the Sociology and Psychology Department at Grambling State University. “You cannot teach that which you are afraid of or that which you have no respect for.”

Dr. Washington said the other aspect is White teachers’ expectations that Black children are not as intelligent as their White counterparts. In addition, he said, behaviors White teachers see as normative for White children such as being assertive and the ability to advocate for themselves, are seen as strengths. But in Black children, these same behaviors are seen as threatening to teachers and therefore Black children are more likely to receive punishment, become belligerent in class or become disappointed for not being called on in class.  As a result, these children are perceived as a threat and have higher expulsion rates, explained Dr. Washington.

The report, The Importance of a Diverse Teaching Force, also found that a growing body of literature suggests that outcomes such as test scores, attendance, and suspension rates are affected by the demographic match between teachers and students.

“All of this research bears witness to what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad wrote in Point Number Nine of What the Muslims Want. ‘We want all Black children educated, taught and trained by their own teachers. Under such schooling system we believe we will make a better nation of people,” Jason Karriem, interim director of Muhammad University of Islam in Chicago told The Final Call.


“The Muslim teachers shall be left free to teach and train their people in the way of righteousness, decency and self-respect,” continued Mr. Karriem. “But it’s more than just having a Black person as a teacher, if that person is just a black vessel that contains the same White supremacy, the same poison as White teachers you won’t get a different result.  You need a Black teacher with shared experiences, shared background, shared ideas, and culture.  Black teachers that have a deep understanding of what it means to be Black and what they are sharing in front of their students,” explained Mr. Karriem. Muhammad University of Islam is the Nation of Islam’s independent educational school system established in the 1930s, is headquartered in Chicago and has satellite and affiliate schools around the country. Minister Louis Farrakhan reestablished the educational institution in the early days of rebuilding the Nation of Islam.

The need for Black male teachers

All around the country, organizations and individuals are developing programs and pushing projects to close the yawning gap between Black and White teachers. The members of Black Male Educators for Social Justice is just one organization immersed in the effort. Their network is comprised of more than 665 current or prospective Black male educators, each of whom is actively mentoring at least one man through the student-teacher pathway, whether he’s a high schooler, college student or someone thinking about a mid-career switch.

To address the unique obstacles of Black male educators, the group has partnered with over 20 organizations to develop targeted programs to dramatically bolster the representation and retention of Black males throughout the career life cycle of an educator.

There are others, like the National Association of Black Male Educators, the Fellowship of Black Male Educators, the Black Male Educators Conference and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

Sekou Biddle, UNCF’s vice president of advocacy, echoed the sentiments of educators and experts who see Black teachers with Black students as hugely important in terms of their growth and development.

“Having and seeing Black teachers helps build that cultural connection and helps them go to college,” he said. “ … We don’t actively work on this (teacher shortages) but we hear from schools looking for teachers and we link them, increase and grow teacher education networks.”

Mr. Biddle said there are some young people who would make great  teachers but varied circumstances, including salary disparities, push them into other careers.

“Part of it is just a function of young people going to college and trying to avoid debt coming out,” he said. “They’re restricted on the options they’ll pursue but people are giving scholarships and we have educational leadership and fellowship programs to introduce them to educational programs. There are summer teaching experiences which allow them to explore different careers,” he added.

“Obviously, everyone’s circumstances are different. Some students are choosing colleges depending on cost. That sometimes is a consideration but it varies widely. It can be dramatically different. Part of the message is that there are ways to make it work.”

Nathan Saunders said because of his experience inside and out of the classroom, he has seen firsthand the proof that when Black students have Black teachers, the young people benefit and that interaction almost always sparks deep-rooted and lasting outcomes.

“In my 20 years’ experience as an educator, I have witnessed being a part of what this study talks about,” said Mr. Saunders, a licensed and certified educator and former president of the Washington Teachers Union. “Anytime young African Americans can see themselves is important. Visualization is important in teaching. For example, when Barack Obama became president that made it that much more real,” he explained.

“I do things outside of the job requirements like taking kids to visit HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). The study talks about one element: the teacher-student interaction and going to college but you’d be surprised how few of the young people know how to deal with us as Black men. Many of them have no fathers (in their life) and so don’t know how to do things like developing social connections, young women knowing how to deal with their male peers and other things. Relationship-related violence is a result of young people just not knowing.”

Mr. Saunders is a rarity in his field: An educator who is Black and male. He is a member of a small fraternity of  two percent of the teaching workforce. Yet Black males are more likely to be suspended, expelled and placed in special education compared to their White counterparts.

According to The National Education Association, Black teachers make up 16 percent of all teachers. Mr. Saunders recently filed a lawsuit against the interim chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools and the administrators at Anacostia High School after he said he was fired, along with two other Black male teachers, for refusing to inflate grades. He said he’s currently on sabbatical.

“Three Black male teachers were fired,” Mr. Saunders explained. “I was one of the teachers who said ‘I’m not going to pass this kid.’ You have to understand that one of the things we have done is say it’s really not good enough to lie about the skills these kids have. This is a cruel world and not having mastered skills of reading, writing … They’re already looked down upon in the marketplace. This would not have helped,” he continued.

“There are some things I’m gonna do and ain’t gonna do. These are the types of sacrifices we sometimes have to make. You’re there trying to show up for the kids but showing up and being Black is difficult. They’re supposedly recruiting and maintaining Black teachers but there’s always a gap of retention while the effort continues to purge Black males. The system must recognize that Black male teachers are of value. But hell no, they don’t value us. Value is respecting my intellectual ability not just as the coach of the football or basketball teams. Sure, we offer those things but we offer a whole lot more,” Mr. Saunders said. 

“All too often, we’re relegated to handle the tough boys, not coach the chess team, the robotics club or be involved in the math program.”

 Parent and community involvement

Mr. Saunders and other teachers who spoke to The Final Call added caveats to the report’s findings, each stressing the importance of students having ‘qualified and competent teachers.’

“For me, I agree with the statement although it’s too broad,” asserted Master Teacher Judy Leak Bowers. “You can’t just have ‘teachers.’ They have to be seasoned, prepared, well-informed teachers. I’m a nationally board-certified teacher with 20 years in the system. To be qualified means that there’s a significant percentage of children who become productive citizens. I have kids on Broadway, others who are writers, in med school and are parents. One just got a Divinity degree. The measurement of my success is counting the long-term connection I have with my children,” Ms. Leak-Bowers explained.

“Also, part of the measure is the people who are fulfilled and regard themselves as successful, whether they are an actor, director or activist. If they feel success, my job is done. And my job is to track them for the rest of my life.”

Dr. Marco Clark, founder and CEO of Richard Wright Public Charter School, also broadly agreed with the study’s findings but offered his own caveat.

“Yes, it’s always important for any child to see someone of their own race. I think it’s (having Black teachers) important and of great value but there needs to be good, great teachers,” said Dr. Clark.

“You can’t minimize color but a big component being left out is parents. Parents are our first teachers but often, what we see is horrible, horrible. Some parents fall short.  People are not acting their age. People want to be friends not parents. They’d rather have their children like them rather than love them. We educators are fighting students to sit down, focus, do homework, be professional, have etiquette. Students wear inappropriate shoes, uniforms, come to school late. We fight with parents who think these things don’t matter.”

Ms. Leak-Bowers criticized the cookie cutter, standardized, test-driven parameters in public education. “I’m a dinosaur. I learned from educators who were child whisperers,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s not a textbook. There’s never one textbook that meets the needs of every child in the classroom. I’m fluid. This cookie-cutter, rigid one-size-fits-all is ludicrous. Each being is different, every child motivated differently. I have a binder with work inside of it, just-right work for the child. That’s the way old teachers used to teach in the old days. Now, they keep passing these kids, passing these kids; they can’t add, subtract and are without one-to-one correspondence.”

Lateefah Muhammad, started an independent school in Fredericksburg, Va. She also provides technical assistance to other independent start-up schools. She told The Final Call that part of the issue in recruiting and retaining good Black teachers is the lack of creativity teachers have today. Many teachers feel more restricted in the classroom.  “Now, the curriculum is exactly the same and you must follow it exactly. Teachers are not teaching for the spark in the child’s eye. They teach for the test. They teach for more funding. Parents used to instill a love for learning. That doesn’t happen anymore either. Students don’t even want to come to school.”

Ms. Leak-Bowers teaches elementary education at C.W. Harris Elementary School in Washington, D.C. in what is described as an underserved community.

“What happens in school is contingent on what happens at home,” said Ms. Leak-Bowers. “We know what these kids are going through when they were home—they come to school screaming, hollering, punching people. Everything’s connected. You can’t segregate them from their experiences at home,” she explained.

“My school is a neighborhood school. I love it but our children face a myriad of challenges. We have children with economic challenges, living with disruption at home, students living in cars. So what do you do?” Ms. Leak-Bowers continued.

“At my school, everyone is a stakeholder and is invested in the community. They all push in. But we’re losing that. This idea of community, village and oneness is lost on the newcomers. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m thinking ‘kids, always the kids.’ If we can’t come together around children, then what?”

Mr. Karriem stressed that Black communities must continue to set up independent schools. “We have to be so unified that we force schools to accept the curriculum that we want them to teach, or we will continue to suffer the consequences of sending our children to schools that are diametrically opposed to their greatness,” he said.

“Everything is failing except what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Minister Farrakhan have offered as solutions.”