What's the Plus?
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What's the Plus?

Teach Plus Teacher Leaders Reflect on Black History Month

By Kathy Pierre

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.

In celebration of Black history and Black identities, Teach Plus talked with Arkansas Policy Fellows Kendria Jones, a 7th grade ELA teacher, and Nelvia Johnson, an 8th grade teacher, and Colorado Policy Fellow Donovan Fountaine, a K-1 English literacy teacher, about what Black History Month means to them and how systems can equip Black teachers and students to thrive.

Teach Plus: As a Black teacher, what does Black History Month mean to you?

Kendria: Black History Month means recognition of the trailblazers who opened the doors for me to even have the opportunity to teach in a classroom setting. It means that I am now making history by being a teacher who educates my students on the great inventors, trailblazers, and advocates who were the voices of change so they could sit in a classroom and receive quality education.

Donovan: Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the rich and incredibly relevant history of Black Americans and their contributions to the very fabric of American culture. As a Black teacher, I am thrilled to be able to educate all students about the stories of Black Americans they may have never heard. … Black history is American history and stories of Black people and people of color in general should be taught throughout the year.

Nelvia: Black History Month always evokes many emotions within me. I am stoked about spotlighting Black History during the month-long celebration. Each year, I try to find new information to teach my students. I will say that my biggest push as a Black teacher is making Black History 365 days instead of just a month. There is so much information out there and I am determined to teach my students as much as possible.

TP: What does it mean to you for Black students to thrive? How do you and your school support them in their progress?

Kendria: To me, a Black student thrives by being able to relate to their teacher. They thrive when teachers actually listen to them; they want to be heard. They want to be a part of their learning process. They want to know that if you tell them you are there for them and not the paycheck you are showing this to them at all times.

Donovan: As a teacher, I want my students to see themselves thriving in the future, as it provides hope and comfort in the present. If they are constantly worried about what’s coming, they’ll never thrive. A part of this effort for me is making sure my students can imagine themselves being successful and having people who look like them in positions of trust and leadership. The administration and staff at my school are quite diverse. Hiring staff that is representative of the community being served speaks volumes about the kind of care being provided.

Nelvia: When I think about Black students thriving, I think about student growth. At times, it has been difficult to see growth so we’ve introduced a few initiatives that promote it. At the beginning of the year, we had character circles, which were used to promote social-emotional skills in our youth. Now, we are focusing on career and college exploration with our eighth graders.

TP: What does it mean for Black teachers to thrive? How does your school support you to get there?

Kendria: A Black teacher thriving to me is being able to openly explore my history and implement it into my curricula. It means being able to express my opinions on what works for my students and what does not. It means building a line of trust with my students and showing them they are top priority, because they are the reason I am able to do this amazing job.

Black teachers thriving involves them showing up and showing out in their area of profession even when the odds are stacked against them. Thriving means giving my all, and even when it feels like I have done nothing, the fruits of my labor shine and show differently. Thankfully, I have an administrative team that listens to our voices. I have a 7th grade team that collaborates with me to ensure our students know we appreciate their hard work and we work hard to make sure we celebrate them. They are open to suggestions that work for our students, and they give their opinions openly with no hesitation. I truly feel that having a supportive team is the best way to continue to thrive in my school setting.

Donovan: Black teachers need to be heard. For the longest time, this field has been dominated by white women. So as a Black male teacher, especially in primary education, I feel that I’m supported when I get the opportunity to speak my mind about how we reach all students; especially related to issues that particularly affect Black children.

Nelvia: Black teachers thriving would mean that Black teachers are flourishing. They would have the necessary tools to promote their own growth and more importantly student growth. At this point, Black teachers are still surviving because school support is limited.

TP: What is your favorite example of Black art, history, science, or achievement to teach?

Kendria: I teach ELA, so my favorite piece of history of course is teaching the students about our great Black writers and the Harlem Renaissance. I love Langston Hughes, and I make it a point to implement his work into all of my readings whenever possible. I also look forward to reading historical fiction with my students to introduce them to what life was like before the Civil Rights Movement and how kids their ages were not afforded an education because they had to work to help make a living. I want my students to understand how the past is visually present in a lot of things going on today. If one student can relate to any of the literature, lessons, or messages found within the pages of what we are reading, I feel I have completed my assignment as a teacher. If a student takes what they learn in my room to another room, or even home to discuss with a parent, and their discussions are related back to me, I have left a mark on another trailblazer in the making.

Donovan: I love teaching about Jean-Michel Basquiat! His style in particular is very unique and it doesn’t follow rules. Honorable mention for favorite example of black contributions to America is the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program for local students in Oakland and their sickle cell testing efforts.

Nelvia: All of them! There are a vast number of examples of Black art, history, science and achievements. I am still learning myself. If I have to choose one resource I am loving the book Stamped Racism, Antiracism and You: A Remix. Currently, my students are completing a book study of the text. It has been enlightening and does a great job highlighting past unsung figures as well as well-known historical figures.

Kathy Pierre is Communications and Media Manager at Teach Plus.

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