Burden of Being a Black Teacher: As a woman of color, teacher, and social scientist, I wear multiple hats when assessing the implicit and explicit bias that exists in our nation’s schools. As a classroom instructor, I understand that teaching is only one facet of the teaching-learning process, a process which success centers upon effective communication.
But communication is undermined when students sense that they are of little importance to the teacher or the school. What teachers do in the classroom is important because the people who come there to learn are important. This attitude toward students is expressed a number of ways including: the careful design of a course that meets the diverse needs of students, the devotion of energy in preparation for class, the clear expression of one’s involvement in teaching, the respectful treatment of students in the give and take of classroom interaction, and the notion of classroom management.
Teacher expectation is equally important and is exhibited in the attitude of the teachers. Unfortunately some students with darker skin, who are usually tracked in lower level courses, share stories of teachers who have lower expectations for them. To make matters worse, students of color who make up about half of the nation’s public school students are taught by a mere 17% of teachers who identify as minority.
As an educator, I understand how stressful it can be to have what appear to be non-responsive bodies in the class, especially when great care and planning occurred. Early in my teaching career, it was discovered that everyone will not achieve As and Bs, but also evident as an educator, was my obligation to instruct all students fairly and adequately. I also refrained from forming preconceived opinions about students based on a previous teacher’s experience with a student. Every year I have a few students who do not do well in other teachers’ classes, but get As, Bs or even Cs in my class. The former is not known until the student is in the house office receiving reprimands from an administrator.
Similarly to some of the students who have negative experiences with teachers, my first year teaching was quite a challenge, not the notion of teaching itself but the people INSIDE the building made it very difficult for a new teacher to survive. Luckily, the students kept me afloat. My first year having my own classroom was a wonderful experience. I developed excellent relationships with my students and some of my colleagues. I also learned that some of the older, traditional teachers and faculty were not pleased to see my young, brown face. I could tell from the stares and rumors of me doing drugs that often got back to me. Although I had my teaching credentials: I began teaching with my Master of Arts in Teaching, something that some teachers did not have, it did not seem to matter. Usually, a master’s degree is required within five years of teaching. Furthermore, all my evaluations from the administrators went well. Still my colleagues found a way to make my life miserable. By winter of my first year teaching, I found myself in the assistant principal’s office along with a union representative and the social studies chair. The reason I soon came to find out involved me opening a learning center in my hometown, an entirely different city and state.
Upon opening the center, a newspaper article regarding the opening day of the center appeared on the cover of the local section. The former president of the teacher’s union lived in New Fairfield and read the paper. He gave the article to some administrators, a quite ironic thing to do considering the union is supposed to protect its workers. The paper mistakenly stated the learning center opened its doors between 3:00-3:30 pm. In reality, the center opened between 3:15 – 3:30 allowing the allotted time of 30-35 minutes to drive from work. Opening the center at 3 pm was not possible because work did not end until 2:35 pm.
One time the coordinator asked me with conviction, if I had left work early. She said, “Did you leave work early yesterday?” I said, “No.” She said, “Someone said you were seen leaving early yesterday.” I thought about it and remembered that I went to the pharmacy during a break but returned. Fortunately for me my soon to be colleague, who was student teaching at the time, asked me after school if my girls (I was the coordinator for the girls’ step team) could step at the Human Rights Symposium. I remembered this and told the coordinator about the conversation and told her to ask the student teacher. Of course she did and then reluctantly apologized.
The story in the paper raised concerns with me leaving work early, but were unfounded. In addition to teaching at the center, I was also beginning an exam preparation course at the high school and had submitted copies to be made for an exam prep session offered in the after school program. To my surprise, one of the members of the social studies department took the copies from the copy room prior to completion to the social studies chair which landed me back in the assistant principal’s office. When asked about why I had submitted several documents to the copy room, I reminded them that I was also teaching an SAT course in the After School Program. No apologies were received, but the copies were given back.
My first year teaching was MISERABLE and if it weren’t for my mother, I probably would have left the profession long ago. I called home almost every day in tears with stories like the former. I was 21 years old when I started teaching and sometimes wonder if I hadn’t listened to my mom where I would be or what I would be doing. I have found that helping others is my purpose.
This being said, the harsh reception I received my first couple of years should not surprise others when complaints of mistreatment among students surface. The following discussion with a security guard named Jim* confirmed the maltreatment students of color sometimes receive from white teachers. Jim told me during lunch one day, a teacher while walking down the hall bumped into a Hispanic male student. Although it may have been an accident, according to Jim, the teacher then said to the student, “Bump me again and I’ll pour my hot coffee on you.” Jim said that both he and the student were shocked by the teacher’s comments. Jim reported the student had been talking to his friends and had not bumped the teacher. The student looked at the white male teacher and said, “Whatever, I didn’t bump you.”
Afterwards, Jim prompted by what he had just witnessed, approached an administrator to inform him of the event. The administrator’s response was callous according to Jim. He said the administrator told him that the teacher had threatened to go the union and claimed that Jim had threatened his safety. Receiving this news, Jim told the administrator what he witnessed again and that he hadn’t threatened anyone. The administrator told him, “You didn’t see anything; it was noisy at lunch.” Jim said, “Yes, I did,” and repeated what he witnessed. Again, the administrator said, “You didn’t see anything. It was noisy during lunch.” Jim became irritated as he caught on to the cue. Jim told me afterwards that he just walked away in dismay.
Countless other incidents, according to Jim and other security guards have happened. Students aren’t the only ones to encounter disrespectful treatment, but inconsistent reprimands occur for teachers of color. For example two tenured teachers, one white and the other Hispanic, had gone for a run at the end of the school year during their break time, and when both returned to the school, the Hispanic teacher received an email and was questioned about his whereabouts and why he had gone running. After being requested to come to the office by the principal, he proceeded and once there looked around. He saw the other teacher was not present, and left the office. Upon questioning the other teacher, the Hispanic teacher learned that he was the only one summoned to the office.
Disrespectful encounters continue between white administrators and teachers of color and white administrators and white teachers with students of color. Talking with security guards at the school confirms the race disparities in suspension that exist both in and out of school. Students of color are suspended at higher rates than white students nationally. According to Jim, when Caucasian students are caught with drugs, the response entails no punishment because their parents may be on the Board of Education, employed by the district, or are lawyers.
Again, to draw a parallel to the race inequalities that exist in institutions, it took me three full teaching years before I could teach a law elective, even though I enrolled in a criminal justice doctoral program beginning my third year, and for years there was a struggle to achieve equitable teaching loads. On the other hand, white teachers in my department, who were not in a doctoral program, begin their first year teaching law electives. If I can be treated this way as an educated adult, imagine how the students are treated. In all fairness, there has been improvement but the list of injustices continue due to implicit and explicit bias (to be discussed later). The burden of being a black teacher in America is real.