Teaching While Black

As adults, we understand the value of diversity and representation. We look for ourselves in magazines, TV shows, movies, and other media we consume. We dread being the only one at our places of employment or enjoyment. When it comes to the teaching industry, the same challenges exist around racial and gender representation. According to research from The Education Trust, over half of students are students of color, but just 15% of teachers nationwide are Black or Latino.

With this in mind, we set out to learn about the day-to-day experiences and insights of Black educators in the field. Below are their stories, edited and condensed for publication.


Henrietta
Special education
12 years

What do you teach and how long have you been a teacher?

I teach at special education. The grade changes every year. My subject and my grade always changes. As a special ed teacher, we are instructional specialists more than we are content specialists. For the past couple of years, I have taught English and reading. I have been in this high school now for four years, I taught in middle school for four to five years and taught in elementary school for one year. I started teaching straight out of college, which was the 2005/06 academic year. I have taught every subject. In terms of special ed, most of my students primarily are high incidence disabilities, which would be like ADHD and other specific learning disabilities.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

For me, becoming a teacher made sense. I actually started working at a daycare in high school and I’d always be around kids. I had my baby my sophomore year of college, and I wanted to go into nursing but at the time, the nursing program was a two to three year wait. My mom, who was at the time in education and was under the No Child Left Behind act, said to me, why don’t you go to school, and get your bachelor’s degree? At that point I’d already changed my major. She then told me to take some courses, to get a provisional license under No Child Left Behind, and because there was a teaching shortage, I got a provisional special education license.

What are the biggest challenges of being a Black teacher?

You have to work 10 times as hard. You can’t bend the rules like some of your counterparts. You can’t take 5 minutes longer on your lunch because somebody’s going to notice.

What are the most rewarding things about it?

Probably at this point its’s because I’m invested so far, my options are limited. If I go into any other field, I’d take a pay cut. So, I’m choosing to stay with it and that’s the reality of it.

Did you have black teachers growing up? If yes, what sort of impact did that have on you?

I had one Black teacher in elementary school, my music teacher. We went to the same church, so I had a relationship with her. Middle school, I had one Black teacher, a science teacher in the 7th grade. I could remember all of them, mainly because they were so few. In high school, I had two Black teachers, ladies. They were both our step team coaches. That gave me a sense of identity and belonging.

What advice do you have for any Black teachers that are coming up?

Don’t do it. Rethink it. Yes, it can be rewarding, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it. You’re getting paid just above poverty and you work like a dog, you work so hard, and it’s a thankless job. I would encourage them to go into engineering or entrepreneurship. We need to more Black engineers, for instance.


Sasha
Runs testing for a school
18 years

What made you decide to be a teacher?

I had went to school with my undergrad in psychology, thinking what can I do with that. So my choices was to either get my masters or to do something in the meantime, which was to just go into education. So I got some coaching from my aunt, who was in education. She actually retired as an administrator and she helped me get in.

I don’t think I’d be where I am if I didn’t have that support from her.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced, specifically as a Black teacher?

I’d say one of the biggest challenges is mostly administration. In our whole entire country was predominantly white.

Any advice for prospective teachers going into the field?

I’d say get to know the students that are in your class. That is the most enriching thing that you can do. Because all students have a story. They have something that are sometimes holding them back, that they need encouragement in. Sometimes they just need the extra partner just to spend time with them and to get to know them and to encourage them on a daily basis. I would say, definitely make relationships. If you don’t know your kids, they will not respect you as a teacher, they won’t respond.

Also make sure that their basic needs are met. I’ve come across students that are not eating well, that are hiding things, that have hygiene issues. Just making sure that their basic needs are met. Because it’s really hard to learn when you don’t have the basics. I think about it all the time. I’m asking my kids to learn algebra but they didn’t eat last night or this morning. How are they supposed to process anything I’m teaching or trying to get across to them when they’re hungry and quiet? So those type of things are definitely important.

Do you think Black teachers or teachers of color have a better sensitivity to some of those struggles that exist in our communities?

I don’t know if it’s that we have a better sensitivity to it or we just know how to identify with it and handle it in a way that kids respond to. Because when they see someone that looks like them and one of the things that I do, that I used to do when I had kids in a class is I would tell them about my life. When you open up your life to a kid, they’re more likely to share more things about themselves. I just think that that is something African American teachers are just gifted at. Kind of like letting things out and just being honest with them.


Nathan
World history
4 years

You’ve been in the field for 4 years. What are some of the most rewarding things about it? I know you enjoy working with kids but what’s the thing that has kept you going so far.

The system has many flaws but it’s seeing the kids and the growth they make in a year alone, the relationship that you build with these kids. A lot of them, especially those from inner cities who are Black and brown, had issues that I didn’t even know about. I began to understand that these kids are definitely going through some tough times but they push through and come to school every day and they excel. When I was at the high school level, seeing kids who barely came to school their freshman year or were always in trouble, eventually start talking about wanting to go to college in their sophomore or junior year, that was very rewarding. And just seeing the maturity process of becoming a young man or young woman soon to be an eighteen, nineteen-year-old graduating high school. So that really keeps me going. Just to see the growth of my students and knowing that they are the future generation. So, if I can make an impact on them hopefully our community will be better in the future.

On the opposite side, what have been some of the challenges for you so far?

The challenge is working in a system that you can see is not set up to best help our people. Unfortunately, the high school I worked at was very inadequate in terms of supplies and outdated technology, and it was a struggle to really give the kids the necessary education to level the playing field.

I taught in Newark and there was a stigma attached to Newark. By the time the students reached thirteen or fourteen-years-old, they really bought into that stigma that people put on them. So, getting that notion out of them was really demoralizing.

It is very hard to prepare students for the SATs and PSATs when they can barely understand the questions or do the class work. When they are eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders reading at fourth grade level. Understanding that the system had failed them but pushed them through anyway made it hard.

Have you taught at Newark all four years?

I also taught at a charter school in Harlem, NY, which had a different vibe. The students have more access, they have unlimited pencils, technology is very current, they all get Chromebooks. My issue with that is that they’re not taught the same way that other people are. They are taught as if they have to be tested all the time just to prove that they are capable. And the other big issue is there is no diversity in terms of teaching. I think on a staff of 30 to 45 teachers, there was only 4 teachers of color, not including the two gym teachers. So four academic teachers of color and a lot of issues in terms of what I saw this year was they equated compliance with learning so if the kid could sit up straight and stay still then they must be learning. People there did not understand culture norms. If people talk to you in certain way, they weren’t necessarily being disrespectful, that’s just how they talk. They don’t know any better.

What’s the dynamic like for you as a Black male teacher with the students and the faculty?

As a Black teacher, it’s sad to say but I don’t have as much power as I would like, the freedom to intervene. So unfortunately, at times when I’m watching a teacher mishandle an interaction with another kid I can’t step on their toes and say “No, this teacher is wrong, don’t listen to them”. It puts me at times in a tough situation because I’m sitting there almost cringing internally thinking people don’t know how to handle this situation and it could be handled much better.

And at times, I give the other teachers advice. The one thing I try to do, without being too critical, is say you could have done this or that better. Will they listen? I don’t know but I hope that they do. But I also try to talk to the kids and help them understand that so and so has a different perspective and possible reasons why that might be. I try to help the kids understand how to talk to people who don’t look like them and understand their way of thinking without saying that person’s wrong. Depending on the situation, I advise them to try to understand like hey, this is why they acted that way, this is what they saw in their eyes. You need to understand what you need to do better. In society, especially for Black and brown children that’s the big issue. They don’t understand that other people are living very differently than what they are used to seeing. They think they are just being picked on or something like that when it’s actually people just having a different understanding.

This is my first year teaching in a majority white school. My previous charter school was pretty much all Black and brown teachers. For me, it was also a change because the conversations that you have in the teacher work room is definitely different when 90% of the teachers are Bblack and brown we all understand and we relate. And when that’s not the demographic, the conversation is just like “So and so did this, I can’t understand why.” You don’t want to be like, well you just don’t understand the culture. So I share how it is from my eyes. I’m still learning how to perfectly handle those situations.

So do you find that you are like translating a lot?

Yes, a middle man. You have charter schools nowadays that don’t hire people that want to be teachers but more so people that are looking for jobs. They have a different attitude towards how they want to perform. People don’t want to be fired, so they do exactly what is told to them, without understanding if it’s truly in the best interest of the kids. They’re just being compliant with their boss like everyone is when they have a job. Although I feel like as an educator you often need to do more than just compliance. It might not be something academic but moreso a life lesson that the kid needs to learn. Middle school kids, with the hormones, seventh and eighth grade, they’re still babies in my eyes because they still don’t know how to completely express themselves when they’re frustrated, angry or sad. They kind of lash out and have temper tantrums at those ages.

You have somebody who works for corporate America, has interest in going to law school or medical school and they needed a job so they found like a two year gap, and decide for one year to teach and see that they’re not truly invested and embedded with the kids. They’re just making sure they do what they have to do so that they keep their job and keep getting paid and progress in life. For some people, it’s a pitstop in their life. For other people like myself who are dedicated to education, we see it as this is what I’ll be doing my whole life. There is no pitstop, this is what I do.

How about in terms of your relationship with the parents? Especially with the Black and brown kids?

Some parents are more open than others. Sometimes it is again understanding people’s culture, why they work in the afternoon, at night, and they can’t take time off to come to parents-teacher conferences. And you have to understand their situation; you can’t really say “you’re a bad parent because you can’t come to a parent-teacher conference.” They have to pay the bills and put food on the table. And sometimes I am a middle man again. What some some people deem an aggressive attitude or too much to handle from another parent, I understand better because a lot of the teachers out there are in their 20s and the parents are in their early 30’s to 40’s. So they think that I don’t want to step on their toes or be overpowered.

My issues is that parent involvement, especially when kids get older, starts to dwindle. I see it at the younger ages that the parents are definitely more involved, because they’re their babies. At the high school level, they give them more independence especially in the city where the kids take the train or the bus by themselves. The parents start to give them more independence, which is good, but then at times it’s like they’re still kids and the parents aren’t always there. I found myself being an uncle to a lot of the kids, if I see them on the streets or in the city. Or when I lived walking distance from my school and they were hanging out near the school or downtown. I’m like their uncle; I won’t reprimand them or give them detention on Monday but I will call them out on something that them shouldn’t be doing. And when I see their parent, depending on how the parents are, I’ll let them know, so and so wasn’t doing this in school.

Did you have Black teachers when you were growing up?

I remember distinctly, I had three Black teachers. I had an eighth grage science teacher, an eight grade English teacher, and a ninth grade biology teacher. They were the only teachers of color.

When you look back, did those three teachers have a profound impact on you?

Yea, they definitely have a profound impact on what I do now. Things that I remember they did when I was in there classrooms, I try to kind of duplicate, if not do better than what they did. They were also involved in my community and involved in my daily life. One was a basketball coach, I talk to him until this day. The other one is a family friend who I still see. They were part of my family in a way. Whether I was in their classroom or not, they always looked out for what I was doing and I try to do that same thing with my students. I understand that there are not many of us, especially men teaching, so I try to look at what I did not have growing up and I try to give that to these kids.

Just the relatability is the biggest thing. You have a lot of women that teach but you don’t have a lot of male teachers. Student need role models, male figures that they can look up to and talk to openly and freely without them thinking they’re going to be judged or put into a situation where they’re not going to be comfortable. I just look at what I didn’t have as well as what I think these kids don’t have. And at times I step back and think, who’s there who can fill that role if I’m not there, and I feel like there isn’t. And that’s what keeps me going and motivates me to be better.


Erika
Principal
10+ years

What was the thing that kind of kept you going in teaching since it wasn’t what you studied in college?

I think what kept me going was just building those relationships with the kids because I started when I was 23 and I kind of felt like a kid myself. So the hardest thing for me wasn’t necessarily the teaching part because I felt like when I was a kid everyone played school and so they know what it’s like to be a teacher. That part was just more of me building collaboration with veteran teachers and learning from them. But, for me what got me to stay was realizing the bond that I was able to make with students because I actually had the worst class in the school and the toughest kids but I was able to reach them to the point where they no longer drove me crazy. When they left my room I don’t know what they did, but with me — we built an understanding.

That challenge itself was kind of what kept me going because it was two things: I wanted to build a relationship with kids and then I also wanted to challenge myself to actually say that I can be an effective teacher. I didn’t really have much experience in my first two years but once moved to that second school I spent 6 years there and so I challenged myself. I was teaching history and science and so I said ‘I’m going to challenge myself to learn this material so that I can get these students to pass their standard tests. That was a goal of mine: to make sure that just because they’re in special ed doesn’t mean they can’t pass it. So, I challenged myself to figure out how can I learn the curriculum better so that they can understand.

What are the biggest challenges of being a black teacher?

In my first two years it wasn’t as bad because I had more diversity in the building I worked in. I felt like my challenges came more when I went to my second school because I was one of four, if not five, minority teachers in the building and I was the only minority in special education. Everyone thought that I was a high school kid because I looked young for my age — so that was another issue where I was getting mistaken for a high school kid. Then it was also earning that respect of ‘I know what I’m doing’ even though I didn’t go to school to be a teacher. So, being a special-ed teacher you’re already looked upon as if you don’t really teach; you just edit behavior and paper work and it was more of me having to show that I can teach kids the path stuff as well, it’s not just me managing their behaviors and organizing them and writing IETs. That’s why I think I spent so long at that one school because I just wanted to establish myself.

How do you help build the confidence of your students and make them feel a part of the wider school community despite them being aware that they are different from the others?

For me, I’ve actually had the experience of teaching in elementary, middle, and high school. I spent most of my career in secondary and then I did three years in elementary. When it came to teaching my secondary kids, by the time I got them they already knew they had IEPs; they knew that they learned slower; they knew that they were a little different from other kids. My approach was that I wasn’t allowing them to let that be their crutch. I didn’t take that as an excuse that you’re not going to do my work. I pretty much found them out of their comfort zone every day. They were used to a lot of the time people giving them baby work or very limited amount of work and I made sure that my curriculum — I actually researched, like when I taught high school history, I actually researched different textbooks that my kids could use that would still line up to the standards but that they could actually read. Because I found within my first two years of teaching high school that my kids could not read the books that everyone else could read but I didn’t want them to feel like they weren’t learning the same thing so I actually asked to order a different set of books to actually offset what we do in the classroom. So, I just pretty much challenged the kids more. I was open and honest with them about ‘I get what you don’t understand, but I’m here to answer whatever questions you have and I will help you but you have to try first.’ Like, I didn’t allow them to say ‘oh well, I can’t ready it,’ because I used to say ‘well, I can’t read either so let’s figure it out together.’ I just did not let them slack off because they had an IET.

Did you notice any difference in the guidance that you got or the experience that you had with Black teachers versus white teachers growing up?

Honestly, I can say they’re the ones that stick out to me more because they’re the ones that challenged me. Not to say that my white teachers didn’t challenge me but I can remember them building a relationship. I can always remember my geometry teacher from high school in 10th grade because I hated math and he never let me slack or make that as an excuse that I wouldn’t get the work done. He always used to make me stay after school, he’d always tell me ‘stop playing around because you’re going to do this work.’ He always stuck out and ended up being my favorite teacher because as much as I hated math, he made sure that I understood it.

What do you want the future generation of Black teachers to know as they prepare for their careers?

We have a group of teachers called urban teachers and they’re all in school and want to become teachers in the urban environment. I actually talked to a young lady who is 25 and she was asking me how did I get to where I am and I kind of explained to her — I said, ‘your biggest thing that you have to understand is that you have to believe in your capabilities and what you can do.’ I said, ‘don’t you ever let anyone ever make you feel like you can’t do something and if you don’t understand something, always ask.’ Because when I first started, one of my things was I kind of felt like a deer in headlights like ‘what am I doing?’ and, ‘who can I find to really help me?’

It was important to find those people who push you to succeed and push you to do better and challenge yourself. That’s the only way that you’re going to be able to kind of hang on in teaching and eventually. I said ‘well, if you know that that’s your goal now, just kind of latch on to those people that can be more of a mentor to you and not necessarily bring you down, because I had people when I moved from one environment to the next that kind of wanted to challenge my skills and kind of make me question ‘can I really handle what I’m doing’ and kind of telling me that the shoes are too big for me to fill and I didn’t know how to take that. Now when I look back on it, I would have addressed that immediately with them instead of just letting them talk to me any kind of way.

I just feel like you just definitely have to keep on striving to do better and you have to always challenge yourself for next goals, always set a goal. That’s important because you’ll kind of fall into the pattern of always feeling like you’re doing the same thing so I told her: make sure you’re joining different committees, make sure you make your voice heard, if you don’t like something say it there is nothing wrong with saying it. Teachers come to me all the time about stuff that drives them crazy and I’m like ‘well you know what, it drives me crazy too,’ but if you don’t have that communication you just kind of hold on to it.

What are some of your current goals within the education space?

It took me four years to licensed and I’ve been licensed for about four, going on to five years now so I would say one of the things I have to tell myself all the time is to never give up and keep trying. Every door that closed I found a way to open up another door. Now that I’ve started in this particular — this is totally new for me, being in this environment and my goals that I’m setting for myself even looking into the next school year is just how can I do better?


Barry
Adult education
12 years

Have you focused on adult education since the very start of your career or did you transition?

When I did my student teaching I was actually focusing on traditional education but due to life circumstances and having the opportunity to relocate to New York City, I basically stumbled into the adult education field and what I like about it is that you have a little more autonomy. You can be a little more creative and innovative when it comes to teaching and educating young people. So, for the vast majority of my career, it’s been in adult education but then I’ve been fortunate enough within the last year to also work with undergraduate students as well.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

I would say, ever since I was a child when I would play make believe, or what have you, I would be one of two things; I would either be a preacher or a teacher. So it was something that I did as a little-bitty boy. Then as I grew up and I became older, originally, I thought I was going to have more of a career in the performing arts and being creative because my undergraduate career is actually in theater. But then unfortunately in 2004 my brother was murdered and one of the things I was helping him do at the time was to study to get his High School Equivalence Diploma and unfortunately time had pretty much all but ran out so when I started to look at a career and I volunteered at Covenant House. I stumbled onto adult education and it just seemed like the universe just kind of orchestrated its way for me to start doing this type of work and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

What are the biggest challenges of being a Black teacher?

I’ll answer it in kind of two parts. So, for the student I would definitely say that most of the students I’ve worked with come from marginalized communities; be it young men of color, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people. Generally within those communities, whatever environment that they were in, they drained a lot of those issues into the classroom and when they do that it makes it that much more challenging to create a space in which individuals are capable of learning. For example, if a student acts out the question has to be: are they being disruptive because they are being disruptive or is there something deeper or more profound going on and being able to assess that and to deal with that. So that can be a challenging challenge at times. Sometimes, wanting something for a student and a student not necessarily being ready or prepared in an emotional stance or a mental stance to actually meet that standard. So one of the things you learn to do in this type of work, you learn to do your best, you learn to create an environment for learning in which the students can do their own work but then ultimately it’s up to the student whether or not they’re going to be successful or whether or not they’re going to step up to the occasion.

I would say from the position as an African American male, there is a lot of vicarious trauma that comes with this type of work. I’ve had students who have been incarcerated, I’ve had students who have been murdered, I’ve had students with very serious mental health conditions, I’ve had transgender students who have been sexually assaulted. When you’re in the field for so long and you hear so many stories you have to work really hard with work and life balance because sometimes the stories can be a lot so me being able to practice self-care is very important as well.

And then, last but not least being an African American male, the bar is higher because for a number of our students whether you believe it or not I am the first African American male teacher or administrator that they have had a daily interaction with. So that creates a little bit of pressure sometimes because it makes me want to reach this standard of excellence that sometimes I’m not always able to reach in my own humanity and me dealing with my own stuff as well.

What are the most rewarding things about teaching?

When an individual student they have that ah-ha moment. So, what happens a lot of the time a lot of the students who come to us; they haven’t had the best experience when it comes to high school or education in general. They’ve been told or they have absorbed that they are not capable of learning. Specifically, in a traditional environment. So when I work with a young person even if it is something as simple as writing a paragraph, or solving a math problem, or acing a test, or being able to give a presentation and they have that ah-ha moment like ‘ah, I connected the dots, this is not beyond my frame of reference, this is something that I can actually do an accomplish,’ that’s the most rewarding. When you can actually see a student get it, not for you but actually get it for themselves.

Talk a bit more about the importance of self-care.

Right, it’s important because even with me, my undergraduate degree is in education but I got a masters degree in social work. And one of the reasons why I decided to get a masters degree in social work is because I really wanted to have a deeper understanding of human behavior and how that impacts people and understanding oppression, and understanding privilege and all of these different things. But then to also give me a better understanding as to how I could be a better educator. That was also one of the reasons why I left my previous job because I wanted to have much more of a work-life balance and in working at a non-for-profit at the time. At a non-for-profit, there is no such thing as a 9–5. The work starts you get there to start it and your shift is not over until the work is done. So I made a decision to leave that non-for-profit world, at least for a while because I needed to get or regain some sense of work and life balance. And what higher education has allowed me to do is, it’s allowed me to do that but then in addition to that to actually be able to contribute to the field just in regards of you know doing research and things of that nature.

Did you have black teachers growing up/in school? If yes + if no, what sort of impact did that have on you?

I was very fortunate. I grew up in the 80’s, I grew up in the South (Houston, TX), I grew up in a predominantly African American community so in reality or as a matter of fact most of my teachers throughout elementary school and middle school were African American. However, they were African American women of color. I went to a performing arts high school — a very competitive space. I was one of only four African American young men in my theater class and within the entire school, a population of maybe about 600–700 students there was one African American teacher. One. So in my entire HS experience, entire HS experience, four years, I had one African American male teacher. Then when I went to undergrad, I had zero African American male teachers. Zero.

What do you want the future generation of Black teachers to know as they prepare for their careers?

I would say, that if they stay true to who they are it can be a career where you can have a substantial impact. I know that a lot of people don’t get into teaching because of what you earn, a lot of people don’t like to deal with the bureaucracy and the pressures that are associated with being an educator. But what I have learned is if you learn to be true to yourself and you learn to really develop personal relationship with your students — and what I mean by personal is not personal in that they know your business and that you cross professional boundaries, I don’t mean it like that, what I mean is if you learn to be present and to be authentic you can connect with students in ways that you could never imagine. So what I would say, first and foremost if you’re going to enter this field, enter this field knowing who you are, learning to be authentic, and that’s pretty much 80% of the journey in my view.

The second thing I would say, learn to trust your instinct and learn to trust your student. A student can pretty much sense if you do not trust them to learn, and if you do not trust them to learn they will they will resist and if they resist they will not learn. So, part of it is setting up the structure for a student to learn but then more or less getting out of the way. I would also say that the teaching environment, it can’t only be a learning environment it also needs to be an environment for healing. I think the most fundamental issue for students, particularly in marginalized communities, is that somewhere along their journey, life’s journey, or what have you, the trust and relationship that they were supposed to develop with adults — be it their parents, other family members, teachers, educators — it was broken somehow. So part of the work that educators need to do is to help those young adults reestablish trusting relationships. When you’re able to do that it empowers the young person to do their own work. So I think that the learning environment, it has to be a holistic and healing environment.

I would say last but not least, success for a student is individualized and success for a student may not come in the way in which the bureaucracy wants you to measure success. So, it may be that success for that student means that you know what he may not be able to pass this standardized test but he may be able to write more coherently in effect, he may be able to read better or she may be able to read better. Now, of course, I’m thinking very idealistically and of course we have a bureaucracy that we have to deal with but success is not necessarily measured by the standards in which the current educational systems measure success. I would also say, finally, think outside of the box. All educators don’t necessarily need to educate in a public-school system. You have charter schools, adult education programs, after-school programs, online class forms so the traditional way in which we prepare to educate young people and then feed into either the public education or the private educational system may not necessarily be the path for everyone and that’s okay. So it’s up to the person who is becoming an educator to figure out, ‘where do I actually fit in, where can I make the greatest contribution to do this type of work.