Tag Archives: Teachers

group of african college friends

Educators’ Disbelief in the Academic Potential of Students of Color

One of the reasons for persistent racial achievement gaps in our schools is differences between what leaders and teachers believe to be the achievement potential of White students and students of color. Rhetoric espousing belief that all children can learn at high levels can be heard in every school and school district in America. That rhetoric, unfortunately, does not yet match reality. There remain school leaders and teachers who believe Black and/or Latino students are incapable of learning at the same levels as White children. group of african college friends

Leaders’ and teachers’ disbelief in the potential of students of color rarely looks like blatant racism. It rarely sounds like leaders and educators saying to students of color that they are less academically capable than their White counterparts (although that does still happen in some limited instances). Nevertheless, their disbelief is unmistakable.

But in 2015, that disbelief most often manifests itself as failure to challenge students of color to meet the same rigorous academic standards that they expect White students to meet or exceed. Their disbelief looks like hard and soft sorting mechanisms that systematically channel students of color into tracks that will limit their academic and profession. That disbelief looks like allowing students of color to decide whether they will or will not work in class that day/semester/year. That disbelief looks like coddling students of color rather than challenging them to achieve academically at high levels. That disbelief looks like pushing students of color to the absolute limit of their abilities on the athletic field, while challenging them to do little more than show up to the academic classroom. That disbelief looks like failure to challenge colleagues and administrators who write and implement policies that perpetuate the status quo for students of color in schools and institutions of higher education.

While leaders’ and teachers’ disbelief in the academic potential of students of color is different from calling them racially insensitive names or preventing them from enrolling in predominantly White schools and institutions, it is just as dangerous as the blatantly racist actions of the past. And that continued disbelief in the academic potential of children of color is partly responsible for the racial achievement gaps that persist in America’s schools.

The Black Men Teaching Initiative in Pennsylvania

There is a collaborative initiative underway in Pennsylvania aimed at increasing the number of Black men going into the teaching profession. The Black Men Teaching Initiative was founded by Dr. Robert Millward, see coordinator of the Administration and Leadership Program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and is comprised of faculty and administrators from institutions including Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Point Park University, and Community College of Allegheny County. The initiative is funded by the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowment.

I am really excited about this initiative and its potential for raising awareness with African American male students about teaching as a career choice. If current students are anything like I was as a high school or college student, pursuing teaching as a career never crossed my mind. But I never considered teaching because it was never presented to me. No one ever suggested that I consider teaching. No one ever said to me they thought I would be a good teacher. My mother was the first person to suggest that I consider teaching as a career, and that suggestion came after I had completed a masters degree in another field. Perhaps if someone had suggested the teaching profession to me earlier or at the very least talked with me about what a teaching career would look like I would have found my way to the profession sooner.

We have to come to terms with a few realities. The vast number of students pursuing teaching as a career are middle class White females. Given the current demographic profile of American students and their learning needs, the cultural mismatch between the teaching force and our students is problematic. Am I saying that middle class White females can’t be great teachers for African American and Latino students? I am not saying that at all. I have known and worked with White female teachers who are amazing with students of color. In fact, two of my mentor teachers, who essentially taught me how to teach as an early career teacher, are White females. In addition to helping me to become an effective teacher, I credit their mentoring with keeping me in the teaching profession. What I am saying, however, is that it is critical that the demographic profile of the teaching profession begins to more closely mirror the demographic  profile of our students.

There has been considerable conversation about the importance of teachers of color serving as mentors and role models for students of color; and it is true that teachers of color serve in those important roles. Students of color and White students need to see teachers of color and leaders of color in their schools. It is a problem that in many of our schools and school districts the only people of color, especially men of color, students see are in custodial and food service positions. People of color should be found throughout the ranks of people working in schools and school districts, from schools’ bus and cafeteria monitors and all the way through the district superintendency. But also, it is important to increase the percentage of people of color as teachers and leaders because their voices are needed in conversations about students’ diverse cultural backgrounds, cultural differences that have implications for student learning, the development and adoption of curriculum, instructional strategies, and community engagement. We can no longer pretend that teaching and leadership teams that don’t include people of color can make the best decisions for children and communities of color. That thinking is backward, flawed, parternalistic, and incredibly insulting to people of color.

So again, I am excited about what is happening in Pennsylvania. I don’t think many of us having taken this issue very seriously (see a previous post for some of my thoughts on what we have failed to do). My hope is that the Black Men Teaching Initiative will spur thinking and innovation around further diversifying our teaching force, and in particular, increasing the number of African American men in our classrooms.

Male Elementary Pupil In Computer Class

Why I Left the K-12 Classroom

Pretty often someone asks me why I left the K-12 classroom. Since I am someone who works pretty hard to recruit talented young people into the teaching profession I think that’s a fair question. It is no secret that there is a critical shortage of teachers of color, particularly male teachers of color. So why have I chosen to spend my career in the academy instead of in schools where I can have a more direct impact on students?

Let me start by saying that I in no way profess to have been God’s gift to the profession; but I do think I was a pretty effective teacher by the time I left K-12 teaching. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started. I owe my growth in teaching to fabulous mentors who spent a lot of time with me during my first few years; four very special ladies in particular: Tina Baptiste (New Orleans Public Schools), and  Rhonda Voiselle, Tanya Bourgeois, and Erin Raiford (St. Charles Parish Public Schools). With their help, I can comfortably say that I was consistently having a positive impact on student learning by the time I moved on.

But what I also learned beginning in my very first year of teaching, was how broken systems and failed education and social policy can create conditions in schools that even the most talented teachers cannot overcome. A teachers is unequivocally the most influential school-level determinant in a child’s academic success, and teachers impact the lives of their students in extraordinary ways; but it is very hard to fix broken system and influence policy from the classroom. Most effective teachers that I have known spend well over 40 hours a week on their planning, instruction, and assessment. So while I loved my job as a middle school and high school teacher, I realized pretty early on that I wanted to work to change systems and influence policy. That’s why I returned to graduate school to earn a PhD, and why I took a faculty position at a research university.

I see my job now as preparing high quality teachers and leaders for schools, and working to change policy to create conditions where teachers in our most challenging schools and districts have a much better shot at impacting student learning in significant ways. That’s what I try to do everyday at the University of Kentucky, and I want all of you to hold me accountable to that.