As Black History Month Comes to a Close, Teach Plus Teacher Leaders Reflect on Its Meaning
As the United States celebrates and commemorates Black history makers of the past like educators Mary McLeod Bethune, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Booker T. Washington, and more, we also look to the Black educators who are making Black history today.
Although Black teachers are integral to the successful education of students of color, Black teachers make up just seven percent of public school teachers. Implementing strategies to increase the recruitment and retention of Black teachers is paramount to closing the retention gap. In 2021, Teach Plus and the Center for Black Educator Development released a report, “To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures,” that examines the experiences of Black educators and lays out essential in-school conditions and recommendations for decision makers at every level of the system as they work to affirm, support, and retain Black faculty.
For part two of this two-part series, Teach Plus talked with Texas Policy Fellowship alumna Melody Bradley, a high school special education teacher, Arkansas Policy Fellow Michael Flowers, a high school world history teacher, and Colorado Policy Fellow Yaël Saint-Armand, a middle school health and physical education teacher, about what Black History Month means to them and how systems can equip Black teachers and students to thrive. Read part one here.
Teach Plus: As a Black teacher, what does Black History Month mean to you?
Melody: For me, it’s a time for reflection. It’s really important to me to share the stories of my people with my students, but I try to have a perspective that we’re not going to keep rehearsing Martin, Malcolm, and Rosa. I want to expose my students to African Americans that they probably don’t know a lot about. And I also like to have a local appeal to them as well. So I always bring in prominent African Americans from our community, in the state as well as the nation, at large. I don’t always want to rehearse the tragedy and the trauma of Black people so I bring in the perspective of some Black joy.
Michael: Black History means Black people have made many contributions to American and World History that must not go unnoticed. Black history is American history and should be celebrated all year. Black history affirms that Black people contributed to the success of America in all areas of life such as government, entertainment, science, and education, to name a few.
Yaël: It means an opportunity to elevate some individuals who have contributed to education. I think teaching voices often get lost in the annals of history and rarely ever celebrated. So I think that’s an opportunity to show my students different Black educators throughout the ages.
Teach Plus: What does it mean to you for Black students to thrive? How do you and your school support them in their progress?
Melody: It’s important for students to thrive because it’s their right, and it’s our responsibility. I always tell students who look like me that they’re an extension of me. And for me, my expectation is for them to be excellent because that’s what I’m doing. I work on a campus right now with leadership that is living and breathing all about equity. … There are a number of things that are happening on our campus to make sure that not only for Black students, but for all students their inclusion and belonging isg elevated.
Michael: Black students thrive when they take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to them made possible through the struggle of our people throughout American History. Black students thrive when they understand they are standing on the shoulders of giants. When Black students see positive Black role models they are motivated to pursue their purpose in life and to fulfill their potential which is good for our people but in a larger context is good for America.
One thing I do specifically for my students is invite speakers from Arkansas’ Black History museum, Mosaic Templars to do presentations on the Black experience past, present, and future in Little Rock and around the country. I also make it a point to have Black women who are Arkansas State Representatives come visit and speak to my classes and offer mentorship to students who’re interested in government. I also work with students on Black History projects they are working on for Black History programs. I’m currently working with a student on a project titled ”How to Keep a Slave for 400 Generations.”
Yaël: For my students, I teach them that Blackness is not monolithic. So I try to teach them about the spectrum of Blackness because we all come from different places.
Teach Plus: What is your favorite example of Black art, history, science, or achievement to teach?
Melody: The local aspect is my favorite thing to teach. There are many local African Americans, but most of the kids don’t know that. We all are always in awe of the most famous people but I want them to see that they can connect to that kind of excellence on a local level. You don’t have to always look outside of your house or your school to find that kind of excellence. So I try to make those kinds of connections because I don’t want them to feel like those kinds of experiences and opportunities are not for people who look like them and come from where they come from.
Michael: My favorite example of Black art to teach is the Harlem Renaissance. My favorite example of Black History to teach is the Hatian Revolution where Black slaves used the principles of the Enlightenment (life, liberty, and property) to break away from French rule. My favorite example of science to teach is telling my students how George Washington Carver developed approximately 300 products from peanuts. My favorite example of Black achievement to teach is how my generation, the hip-hop generation, invented rap music which is now the most popular form of music in the world.
Yaël: I like to teach about Toussaint Louverture. I’m Haitian and it is a huge source of pride for me and I really try to emphasize it. It’s the first Black country to free themselves successfully from the oppressors. I also talk about the influences it has had in the world because Afro-Caribbean history is largely absent in schools.
Teach Plus: What does it mean for Black teachers to thrive? How does your school support you to get there?
Melody: For Black teachers, it is really situational. To thrive is to trust your gut and your expertise. And to know that who you are is not necessarily bound by the campus or district you’re in, but it also means that maybe you take some extra heat so that the teachers coming behind you or the kids that you’re in front of don’t have to feel the way you feel? And on most days I carry that burden and just do it.
Michael: Black teachers thrive when they are able to create a culture for learning in their classes. Students should enjoy coming to a class knowing they are going to get something out of each lesson that they can identify with and apply the truths of the lesson to their everyday lives. Black teachers thrive when they are able to facilitate academic, social, and emotional growth in all their students. Black teachers thrive everytime they advocate for their students. My school has supported me in my advocacy particularly for Black students. In 2018 I started the first African American History class in my school. It’s now taught in every high school in my school district.
Yaël: I would say being a Black teacher looks different from place to place, so I always keep that in mind as I teach. It’s a growing process and a growing conversation about what we do to make sure that our teaching core reflects our student populations.