Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers

By Brian L. Love

The following is an excerpt from Ed Trust’s Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers. Ashley Griffin, Ph. D. and Hilary Tackie wrote it. By sections, I will be sharing this 16-page examination of how Black teachers feel about their profession and how they think their profession feels about them.

These critiques are imperative, not only for diversifying the workforce, but for building an educator workforce more representative of its population and more capable of serving an increasingly diverse population of students.

“The difference I would like to make is a difference that my fifth-grade teacher, an African American woman, made [for] me,” says an elementary teacher from Oakland, California, who is also a Black woman. She credits that teacher with instilling in her a love of math, but also with fostering the self-confidence that would buoy her when other teachers doubted her ability. Now, she tries to give all her students — and especially her Black students — that same assurance. “I make sure I get to know each and every one of my kids, and let them know that they can do it.”

 This teacher experienced what research has shown: Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy. As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they can build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers, and students. Acting as “warm demanders,” they more frequently hold high expectations for all students and use connections with students to establish structured classroom discipline. Furthermore, they are more likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students. Black teachers especially are more likely to stay in schools serving Black students.

 And yet, teachers of color represent only 18 percent of the teaching population in the U.S. (Black teachers are 7 percent.) State and district leaders recognize the need to diversify the teacher workforce and are working to recruit more Black and Hispanic teachers. And their efforts may be paying off: Research shows that the percentage of teachers of color in the workforce grew at twice the rate of White teachers from 1987 to 2012. But while leaders have been busy trying to pour teachers of color into the profession, they have not plugged the drain through which too many exit. Indeed, teachers of color are exiting the profession at higher rates than other teachers.

 Simply recruiting more teachers of color only gets them in the door; we must pay equal attention to creating the conditions to keep them. And while it is critical to diversify the teaching force, just having a Black or Hispanic teacher in the classroom isn’t enough. They must be strong teachers, so diversity and excellence go hand in hand.

Holding on to teachers of color, though, requires education leaders to understand their unique experiences and perspectives. And who better to learn from than the teachers themselves.

In March 2015, our research team set out to hear from teachers of color, hosting a series of focus groups with Black and Latino teachers around the country. We used data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS, 2012) to target states and districts with high numbers of teachers of color and solicited participants through schools, districts, and teacher organizations. Our goal: to better understand their unique experiences, why they teach, their perspectives on the state of education, what they believe they bring to the classroom and the field, and challenges they may experience in the workplace because of their race. In this brief, we present findings from our discussions with Black teachers. In forthcoming work, we will share what we heard from Latino teachers, as well.

LISTENING TO BLACK TEACHERS

 As we traveled, a distinct narrative began to unfold, chronicling the experiences of Black teachers. Participating teachers shared with us the many ways they felt they benefit students and are experts in their field. They had high expectations for their students, passion for teaching, and the capacity to empower students with knowledge. Many of them felt they were “called” to be in the classroom.

The same qualities that they (and others) perceived as strengths, however, often hindered their professional growth. We listened to teachers who had a penchant for teaching and serving Black students well, but found themselves restricted to only teaching Black students; teachers who were limited to acting as disciplinarians instead of being respected for their ability to manage their classrooms; teachers who put in extra time and effort, but still weren’t heard in staff meetings; and teachers who related well to students, but had to “tone down” their personalities to be seen as professionals.

They reported being pigeonholed by peers, parents, and administrators into specific roles based on these strengths, thereby limiting and diminishing their capabilities. Without the acknowledgment of (or the chance to build) the pedagogical and subject matter expertise essential to their profession, they felt they lacked opportunities for advancement and were undervalued and unappreciated.

We heard similar sentiments everywhere we went, proving the ubiquitous nature of some of these issues regardless of context. #Voices4Ed #ChoiceIsOurs

Ashley Griffin, Ph.D., is interim director of K-12 research at The Education Trust, and Hilary Tackie, a former research assistant at Ed Trust, is a doctoral candidate in comparative human development at the University of Chicago.

 

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