My students call me ‘bougie’ because I display habits I acquired in predominantly white spaces—an ongoing joke that oftentimes makes me feel uncomfortable, while forcing me to examine the importance of representation in the classroom, and why Black Teachers Matter. Unknowingly and innocently, they associate my behavior with a word that triggers childhood memories of a period when I was repeatedly told to stop ‘acting white’, which equated to stop ‘acting smart’. I wasn’t acting; I was existing. And I couldn’t just make myself disappear. It took me a long while to comprehend how my intelligence could possibly be viewed as a negative trait. I still haven’t quite solved the mystery; however, I recognized that we (Black people) have adopted and passed down a terrible mentality of assuming white people are smarter because they educate(d) us.
As an A-B Honor Roll student, I understood that education was my way out of hardship. I received my first C, D, and F grades as a result of trying to navigate through a path that was foreign to a first-generation college student. Ironically, my experiences as a learner scarily contrast with my experiences as a teacher.
In grade school, I was usually one of a handful of Black students in my Honors classes, an anomaly constantly struggling with identity issues and feeling somewhat culturally displaced. I am now midway through my fourth year as a full-time high school English Teacher in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida... a Title I school, with roughly 70% African-American students (1246/1780 enrolled). I’m 1 of 17 Black teachers (90 total); 1 of 2 in my department. Only five of my educator colleagues are Black males.
According to an article that was shared with me from TheUndefeated.com, "Ethnic and racial minorities make up more than half of the student population in U.S. public schools, yet about 80 percent of teachers are white and 77 percent of them are female. People of color make up about 20 percent of teachers; a mere 2 percent are black men."
I recently watched The Breakfast Club interview with Rapper Killer Mike, where DJ Envy made a cryptic comment regarding how public school teachers are overworked and underpaid, insinuating that this affects our performance and makes us "the worst teachers in the country". He argued that private schools are equipped with better qualified candidates and able to provide students with an advantage they will never have access to within the public school system. Of course I was immediately offended by his commentary. But, when Killer Mike passionately explained how being educated in our own communities presents a circle of pride that we cannot enter elsewhere, I remained calm.
"Your investment comes from your talent," Killer Mike declared. This is exactly what fuels me to serve as a realistic example of underprivileged success: investing my talent(s) into the community that inspired my drive for boundless achievement. If the young generation is always reminded that they are in poor conditions, receiving cheap resources that complement their circumstances, it makes them feel unmotivated and unworthy. Additionally, it pushes the agenda that tangible options are far fetched and impossible to obtain.
Among many other tasks listed under my job description, it is my duty to activate my students’ beliefs—in themselves and in society. That duty becomes both an external and internal struggle when I’m commanded to lead lessons about characters who are direly oppressed, or going on pursuits that are outside of their restricted imaginations:
An African-American stable buck nicknamed 'Crooks' due to his crooked back who is unaffectionately addressed as “nigger”... (Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck)
A well-off college grad who donates his entire savings ($25,000) and burns his wallet in order to embark on a voyage of self-discovery... (Into The Wild by John Krakauer).
Encouraging students to make a text-to-world connection seems quite deceitful when the content is centered on hopelessness, and when they can hardly muster up enough positive energy to dream of escaping their own dreadful realities. Furthermore, exploring concepts inside of outdated, offensive novels places me in a hypocritical bind when I’m stirred to correct grammar and control the way my students communicate with each other.
"Don’t use the n word, especially during Black History Month," I told a student, who casually verbalized the so-called term of endearment while laughing with a classmate.
"My bad, Mrs. Lewis," he respectfully retorted.
I have the skills to control the trajectory of language and the power to shape minds beyond the constraints of school board standards. I will never take the responsibility for granted. It would be foolish to situate race, or gender, as sole factors when investigating a teacher’s track record, though. Yes, my ability to connect with students has a lot to do with the fact that I am Black and I am a woman. However, my personality, my love for the subject, my style of teaching and my awareness of what engages a set of 30 teenagers collectively contributes to overall academic advancement.
I spent the beginning of this school year debating with a colleague about the significance of reading books written by Black authors for Black audiences, specifically our demographic of students. We could not agree on any relevant grade-level texts that would be fitting for the district’s approval, therefore, we had to resume teaching from the old curriculum. The process of planning to redesign a structure of learning from scratch was laborious and disappointing. I wondered if our neighborhood schools with a higher ratio of Black educators failed just as much to meet in the middle when teaming up to outline instruction. I decided that it was easier to go with the flow rather than drown in the current. I am a double minority. Who could I trust to swim with me to a shore of seclusion when majority [always] rules? In an environment where my voice is not boldly welcome as an authoritative weapon, I am forced to advocate alone.
February, although the shortest month of each year, is reserved for commemorating members of the Black race—our ground-breaking inventions, our philosophies, our rituals, our culture. I wanted to shed light on a topic that affects me personally and professionally, so I posed the following open-ended question on social media: How many Black teachers did you have? The results were scattered and shocking.
While most participants claimed more than five, it moved me to become curious about how socioeconomic backgrounds correlate with educational routes. Does it make any difference who is in front of us sparking our desire to learn? The proven answer is a resounding, HELL YES!
"Black students who have just one Black teacher in elementary school are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college than their peers who didn't have any Black teachers. Students who have two Black teachers are 32 percent more likely to go to college" (Black Teachers Needed for Success of Black Students via The Miami Times).
There are so many undeniable elements that will assure the delivery, as well as the attainment of a quality education. When an empathetic teacher is matched with a roster full of capable students, no matter how academically or socially diverse, the potential for an advantageous outcome is limitless. However, data supports that students will strive to please educators they can relate to when weighing environmental and cultural similarities.
Although skin color is a major component of one’s physical appearance, it is also an allurement that sculpts many of our inaccurate theories. I’d like to believe I asked the question to primarily gather research and interest my followers, but as I grappled to recall every single one of the Black faces that educated me between the ringing of scheduled bells, it sort of backfired. I’ve been racking my brain for the past 24 hours trying to count my exact number of Black teachers. Not many:
Elementary School = 3
Middle School = 4
High School = 3
College = 1
I still need to verify these numbers by flipping through time-stamped yearbooks and ancient files, but it was disheartening to realize that even for me, representation was clearly an issue. So, when my students call me ‘bougie’, they are partially correct. I have been psychologically influenced by white role models and peers who couldn’t fathom the confusion of being favored at school, but shunned at home for being too proper. I’ve watched many of my students code-switch to appear less intelligent and fit in with the crowd; a familiar practice that halted my progression.
When seeds of doubt have been implanted into our psyche during early stages of development, it is so hard to reap the harvest of our labor. A large quantity of my students are unsure of who they are becoming and have very few visually-familiar, trustworthy advisors to support them through the transition. Because they are not yet durable enough to carry the bulk of their burdens, they shrink under pressure.
My only Black male teacher in middle school and basketball coach, Mr. Montgomery, was obsessed with collecting wrestling paraphernalia. To many of us, it was a childish theme, but it echoed his sense of humor. He circulated the classroom repeating sayings that made us simultaneously laugh and learn:
“And that’s the bottom line ‘cause Stone Cold said so!”
“If you don’t know, you don’t need to know!”
“Try, try, try again!”
My recollections of his loud and enthusiastic math lessons are vivid and unforgettable. Despite this fond instance, educating makes me weary. On numerous occasions, my courage has been nonexistent when fighting to be creative and honest in the midst of methodical approaches to instilling knowledge. Years from now, I wonder if my students will even care about my skin tone, or focus more on the life principles I secretly squeezed into 90-minute blocks of redundant I Do, We Do, You Do routines.
Will they assertively strive for excellence simply because I urged them to? Will they reflect on how badly I yearned for them to value and appreciate my efforts every time I wanted to quit, or will they resent me for willingly walking away from the profession that was intended to propel me to the pinnacle of my purpose?
I’m a praying Christian, but prayer is such a passive, reactionary response to the daily threats against our youth. When accompanied by no action, it’s just a desperate utterance that further extends the anxieties deriving from no solutions. We need a visible presence of familiarity in notable spaces that students can barge into without feeling embarrassed or ashamed. Blacks should not have to endure primary years of being excluded from the norm of racial balance in the classroom, or be presented with the alternative of attending an HBCU to be educated and celebrated by more of our own.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I want more students to feel as if they are looking in the mirror when addressing the educator standing in front of them, raising open fists to the ceiling as a symbol of intellectual diligence, seeking validation, ready to accept their positions as leaders in an evolving era of change. Until that happens more frequently, I'll be committed to guaranteeing that the time I spend Teaching While Black is meaningful, fulfilling, and praiseworthy.