Black Teachers Matter. Now What?
Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams
School Leadership for Social Justice
December 8, 2021
I have seen this 2017 graphic from Johns Hopkins University re-circulating around the internet for a few weeks now. And I completely agree. The research is abundantly clear about the effect of Black teachers on the academic performance of Black boys. But the positive effects of Black teachers aren’t limited to Black students. Cherng and Halpin found that students of all races prefer teachers of color.
Roughly 15% of students in PK-12 schools are Black (in many areas this number is much higher), but only about 7% of teachers in PK-12 schools are Black. And Black men make up only 2% of the teaching force in America. Thankfully, there is significant national attention now being paid to recruiting and retaining Black teachers, but this is only part of the problem, and in order to develop an adequate solution, we have to fully understand the problem.
Yes, the lack of Black teachers in schools is problematic. But it’s also symptomatic. When you’re sick, if you only address the symptoms without addressing the root of the illness, healing will be much harder and it will take much longer.
So let’s get to the root. Why aren’t there enough Black teachers in schools? I offer three reasons:
Okay. It’s actually only one reason, but it’s so significant that it bears repeating. Systemic racism. It is not just a problem; it is THE problem.
Think back to the landmark Brown vs Board of Education case. In 1954, The Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was illegal. The court decided that Black children and white children could now be educated together, effectively ending six decades of post-war legislation that restricted Black students’ access to educational opportunities equal to that of their white peers. In theory, this was going to be great for Black students, but in practice, not so much.
Here’s what actually happened: Black schools were closed, and highly educated and credentialed Black teachers and leaders (often more educated and more credentialed than white teachers and leaders) were left with no options, or at least with no dignified options. More specifically:
Black teachers were fired because white parents did not want their children being taught by Black children. Systemic racism.
Black students were removed from their schools, bussed into white schools (which were racist, oppressive, and violent environments) because white parents would not send their children to Black schools. Systemic racism.
Black principals were fired or demoted because they would not be placed in white schools where they would have authority over white teachers. Systemic racism.
So, let’s be honest about the problem: Black educators did not leave the profession. Black teachers were forced out of the profession because of racism. And the implications were both significant and enduring. An entire system of education was dismantled. An entire population of students were disrupted. An entire population of educators was displaced. This was the problem then. And this is still the problem now.
65 years after Brown vs Board of Education, prospective Black educators still face significantly more barriers entering the profession than white prospective educators, including barriers to degree attainment and certification. In 1996, a two-decade class action lawsuit was filed against New York City (NYC) by a group of Black and Latinx educators alleging that discriminatory mandatory certification tests that kept them from achieving equal pay, equal employment status, and equal opportunities for advancement. Systemic racism. Finally, in 2017, the NYC board of regents ultimately decided to discontinue one of the mandatory tests because of the disparate passing rates between white and non-white test takers.
Additionally, Black teachers routinely experience what John King called the “invisible tax” of being a Black educator in a largely white profession. Black teachers also report a significant emotional and mental burden of constant microaggressions in the workplace. Toxic (and racist) conditions have resulted in Black teachers leaving the profession at higher rates than their white counterparts.
Yes, we need more Black teachers. And, we also need to change how schools and systems treat Black educators now. There are five actions leaders can take right now to close the Black teacher gap and ultimately improve the student experience for Black students:
Advocate. Address and reverse policies and legislation that preclude prospective Black educators from entering the field. This may require board action or even legislative action at your state level, but know what barriers exist and work to reverse them.
Affirm. Nurture and sustain culturally affirming and inclusive work environments where Black educators can thrive. A Pew Research Center study found that adult people of color are significantly more likely to view their race as central to their identity than white adults are. Consider how welcoming and affirming your environment is. How do you view language, dress, and communication? Whose culture and beliefs do the norms, values, and other workplace expectations reflect and reinforce? Is your school a place where Black teachers feel a strong sense of belonging?
Acknowledge. Unless you have been living under a rock, you understand the current socio-political context in which we are all living. Schools are not exempt. When an unarmed Black man is gunned down by police, that shows up in school. When a white teen who killed four people is acquitted, that shows up in school. When the president of the United Stated chants “build a wall” in reference to Mexican immigrants out of our country, that shows up in school. Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain admonishes validation of the experiences of students of color as part of a larger approach to culturally responsive teaching. Leaders must also be culturally responsive and validate the experiences of lived teachers of color. Acknowledge that people of color bring a unique perspective to the education system based on lived experiences. When teachers of color tell you that something is racially insensitive, do you listen? When teachers of color tell you that there is a policy that is disproportionately affecting students of color, do you listen? When teachers of color say that the curriculum is not meeting the needs of their students of color, do you listen? When teachers of color say that they need a break from the pacing guide to address a societal issue in their classroom, do you listen? When Black culture experiences a tragedy or suffers a loss, Black teachers and students everywhere are affected. It is imperative that leaders develop a critical consciousness about the world and acknowledge how people of color are affected.
Advance. Identify high-performing teachers and create pathways to advancement. Black women earn on average $0.69 compared to every dollar earned by white men. On average, Black families have one-tenth of the wealth of white families. Money matters. Black teachers deserve opportunities to advance in the profession, and this can be a critical tool in retaining teachers of color. But there’s also the cultural care factor: Black educators care deeply about Black students. They - we - want to be positioned to serve our children with excellence, to provide them with opportunities to thrive academically and non-academically, and to ensure that their school experience is one that enriches them today and prepares them for tomorrow.
Accelerate. Accelerate cultural competence and racial consciousness among white educators. People of color cannot be the only ones doing the important work of educational equity and antiracism in schools - and we can’t afford to take our time with these efforts. By leading white educators through this work, you gain trust with educators of color, create more optimal conditions for students of color, and reinforce the important message to every educator that inequity may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility. We all play a role in changing the story for students of color.
Inequity is absolutely a problem in schools and racial bias is endemic in the entire educational system. We must all do the work to upend educational inequity. It requires each one of us seeing differently, thinking differently, and doing things differently.
Consider “Lead Well: An Equity Focused Workshop for Current and Aspiring School Leaders” for your school or district. In this signature series, we examine the historical context of inequity, explore critical mindsets and behaviors for equity-focused leadership, and end the two-day session by developing an equity strategy and action plan for your school. www.slsj.us
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams has a 20-year career in early childhood and PK-8 education and is
committed to achieving educational excellence and equity for all students - especially Black students who have historically been underserved in education. She has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Sharla earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the role of the school leader in closing the opportunity-achievement gap.
As co-founder and partner of SLSJ (School Leadership for Social Justice), Sharla works with her partner in equity and justice, Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly, where their work is focused on equipping educators to teach and lead for excellence and equity and helping everyone everywhere find their place in achieving a just and equitable society.
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