In almost every city I go to discuss the issues confronting African American students and the state of education for Black people I hear a plaintive cry about the need for Black teachers. The statistics are clear. The percentage of Blacks teaching in the nation’s public schools is shrinking. When I began studying effective teachers of African American students in the late 1980s, Black teachers made up about 8 percent of the teaching force. Today that number is less than 5 percent.
I believe there are multiple reasons for the shrinking Black teaching force. One reason is the fact that teaching is seen as a less attractive career option compared to medicine, law, business, and technology. Families that have worked hard to send a young person to college hope that they will choose a more lucrative professional path. A second reason for the decreased number of Black teachers is related to the high percentage of Black students dropping out of high school. If one does not earn a high school diploma the likelihood of becoming a teacher is zero. A third reason for the low numbers of Black teachers has to do with the high degree of professional dropout among Black teachers. The research indicates that teachers of color (and this includes Black teachers) are more likely to leave the profession within 5 years than their White peers. So even when we are able to recruit Black collegians to teaching, we are not able to keep them in the field. The quality of teacher education programs is another reason we struggle to entice Black students into teaching. Some have ridiculously high admission requirements that screen out potential Black candidates. Most are so vapid that Black candidates do not want to spend time sitting in classes with people who know little or nothing about teaching students who are different from them. A fifth reason for the disappearance of Black teachers can be found in the neoliberal education reform agenda that works to displace the few Black teachers we have and hire untrained or poorly trained new college graduates to teach in schools developed by educational management organizations (EMO) such as what transpired in New Orleans and Chicago (and coming to an urban community near you).
For me, a bigger question than where are the Black teachers is what difference do we think having Black teachers actually means for the education of our children? Oh, I know all of the quick responses about “role models” and the belief that Black teachers better understand Black children but is that the truth? If Black teachers are better for Black students then doesn’t that mean that Detroit, DC, and Atlanta should be the places where our students are doing the best? My point is that the problems facing our children is much bigger than merely hiring Black teachers–particularly if those teachers endorse the status quo and hold the same perspectives about Black children that the larger society does.
The reason to increase the number of Black teachers is not just so that Black children will have role models. We need more Black teachers so that ALL children will have role models and a sense that intelligence and authority extends beyond one race or culture. It is the same reason we need more Latin@ and Asian-descent teachers. Our teachers SHOULD look like our students. Our teachers SHOULD be culturally competent and fluent in the languages the students bring to the classroom. Black teachers should be a part of the ongoing conversation about schooling and education reform. Black teachers should once again be the bedrock of the Black middle class. But they are missing!
Where do you think the Black teachers are?
Stay Black & Smart!