Mr. Ellis for sophomore geometry in high school. I remember he stood in the hallway a lot and joked with other teachers while he taught. He also had a dope hobby as a swim coach and a movie starring Terrence Howard would later be made about his team called “Pride”.
Ms. Brown for senior year Algebra II. She would brag about teaching actor Will Smith in her glory days. I hated algebra and barely passed. She ended up giving me a mercy grade so I could graduate just because she admired the fact that I made the effort. I’m a clichéd writer who hates math, and she taught me you don’t have to be perfect at everything.
Dr. Okafor, undergrad African-American literature. Whenever the “fake woke” white students would debate him and proclaim to know more about his history than he did, he’d shut them down with facts, make them look dumb and go outside and smoke a cigar after class. He was such an OG. I learned a lot in his class because of who he was as a person and not necessarily what was in a book.
I recently sat down and tried to think of all of the African-American educators I’ve ever had throughout my 16 years of formal education (including a double dose of Kindergarten). Besides a few gym teachers and a few teachers’ aides I could only think of three African-American teachers, who stood out to me. But according to a recent study, it may only take just one to keep our kids in school.
The study done by Seth Gershenson and Constance A. Lindsay of American University, Cassandra M.D. Hart of U.C. Davis and Nicholas Papageorge at Johns Hopkins, looked at long-term records for more than 100,000 black elementary school students in North Carolina and determined having just one black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade reduced low-income black boys’ probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent. Furthermore, by high school, African-American students, both boys and girls, who had one African-American teacher had much stronger expectations of going to college. Published by the German economic research group Institute of Labor Economics last month, the study builds on a body of evidence that documents the effect on students of having teachers of the same race. Having a teacher who shares a student’s background can help that student’s test scores, behavior and attendance. Long-term benefits were less well-documented, the study’s authors note.
As a someone who has worked in sexual health for a little over eight years, I can attest to the fact that whether it’s an hour-long English class or an after school program where a millennial like me thinks she can save the world on condom demonstration at a time, interacting with black professionals is something that far too many African-American youth never have the opportunity to do. I can’t say that having teachers of color had a profound effect on my academic success, but I also had two working parents who were positive role models in the home. All too often, many kids grow up in neighborhoods where they don’t have opportunities to witness how education can make or break your success as an adult.
In the article, “How Having A Black Woman As A 3rd Grade Teacher Secured My Future” author C. Isaiah Smalls, II writes about his encounter with Columbus Academy’s first African-American teacher in 3rd grade:
“Mason was my first black teacher, something I did not realize the significance of until later. What ultimately separated Mason from my previous instructors, however, is her empathy. In a world that devalues the Black experience, Mason served as a prime example of what I could accomplish with hard work and perseverance. She made me proud to be Black.”
He shares a story of being specially selected to be in Mason’s class after a difficult transition from a Montessori school education to struggling with the curriculum at Columbus Academy. There Mason saw through a kid who feigned being sick under the pressure to succeed, especially as the only black student in class. She also taught him how to be proud of his culture as well as the “dark” history of being black in America. Because more than filling a quota and more than being a positive role model, what many African-American students need in classrooms are people who can identify with their struggles. Smalls recalls that how Mason made his comfort a priority saying she “always tried to create a community that felt family-like.” Lastly, Smalls points out why it was not only important to have a teacher who believed in him, but a black teacher who believed him:
“Mason’s empathy and patience were vital to my development because she opened my eyes to the beauty and importance of my blackness.”
It’s an issue I’ve run into repeatedly with students whether I’m in a classroom or bump into them on a crowded train. Many youth of color have inherited the mindset that they don’t belong in certain spaces and that certain experiences aren’t an option to them. How can I stand in front of a room full of young people and tell them they can be anything they want to be, when eight out of ten of their teachers don’t look like them? How can I tell them their opportunities are endless when the professionals they encounter from the doctor to the district manager doesn’t come from their neighborhood or somewhere similar? Papageorge, one of the authors of the study refers to “role model effect” and compares the idea to financial investments or education: How much you expect to get out of something determines how much you’re willing to put in. He says if a low-income black boy never sees an adult in his school who looks like him he may draw the conclusion,”‘Hey, college is just not for me’. And then why would you work hard in school?”
That’s not to say the graduation class of every HBCU in the next several years should be filled with education majors, but the study does shed light on the idea that the more young black children are surrounded by positive examples of success, the better chance they will make positive decision for their future. Most importantly, seeing professionals who not only look like them but can relate to their story is the ultimate proof that where you come from doesn’t have to determine where you’re going.
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.