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The lunch period ended like so many others. After the bell rang, students raced up the stairwell, not in a rush to get to class on time but to finish socializing and playing with their friends. I was a sophomore at Lake Area New Tech High School in New Orleans at the time, and I was not very different from the other students. Instead of studying during my spare time or rushing to get to class, I talked to girls and texted on my phone. But on this particular day I came to a realization. As students rushed by, my fifth period teacher Mr. Allen simply opened the door to let his students enter his classroom. By the time the tardy bell rang, we had all taken our seats and opened our history books, quietly awaiting further instructions.

Glenn Sullivan

How was it that one of the few great black teachers in the school building was able to gain our trust and respect when less than five minutes ago we had no concerns about what we were doing so long as it was not school work? Somewhat to my surprise, I realized that Mr. Allen’s background partly explained our behavior. But what shocked me even more than this realization was the fact that a lot of other teachers could not control a class, let alone get their students interested in the work. Mr. Allen could do both.

This situation helped me notice an even bigger issue in my school. A lot of the good, black teachers were being replaced. Not only were they being replaced, but younger white teachers were replacing them. This started during my sophomore year and continued until I became a senior this past school year. Given that the school is predominantly black, this troubled me.  Particularly upsetting to me was the departure of the music teacher, a veteran black educator who helped run the school choir and put together trips for students.

When I talked to administrators about the departures of good black teachers, I was told that students need diversity in order to receive a high quality education. The school principal, who is black, has pointed out that a majority of the teachers are still black — a higher percentage than at many other New Orleans charter schools. He also pointed out that students are not always privy to the reasons teachers depart, and some might have chosen to leave.

I believe that students need diverse educational experiences, but I do not agree that this diversity must come from the race of the teachers. In my opinion, this is not the best tactic to improve education for students, particularly students of color.

Mr. Allen provided his students with diverse learning experiences by engaging them in many different ways. Some days we read and took notes, some days we watched video clips and had open-ended discussions. Along with understanding the necessity of varying his teaching methods, Mr. Allen was also familiar with the city of New Orleans and its many different problems and inhabitants. While Mr. Allen could have become a teacher without this insight, it better prepared him to teach and connect with students. Mr. Allen raised the self-esteem and confidence of his students in all of his classes, and he gained the respect and trust of his students to a degree that allowed him to keep our attention and focus on what we were learning. This was something that many teachers, both white and black, had a great level of difficulty doing.

Student Voices:
New Orleans perspectives

This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and high school students at Bard’s Early College in New Orleans. The teenagers wrote opinion pieces on whether all students should be encouraged to attend college, the value of alternative teacher preparation programs such as Teach For America, the importance of desegregation, or the best approach to school discipline.

The problem in providing students in New Orleans with a great and diverse education is growing bigger as more and more teachers from outside of the neighborhood and the city itself take these local teaching jobs. Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for instance, nearly seventy-five percent of the city’s public school teachers were black. But the Orleans Parish School Board fired all of its teachers following the storm, and the charter and state-run schools that replaced the old district relied heavily upon programs such as Teach For America to hire new teachers. By 2008, the proportion of black teachers fell to 57 percent. The fact that the city’s public schools now accept students from all over the city only makes this problem worse since it breaks the connection between schools and their neighborhoods.

This problem will continue to grow if local teaching jobs continue to be outsourced to teachers who are unfamiliar with the city and who do not fully understand the local standards and issues that affect students’ day-to-day lives. For example, the most recent annual report from the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives states that 89 percent of the students attending public schools in New Orleans during the 2012-2013 school year were black and that 82 percent of all students qualified for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty. This means that few students actually have access to all of the resources that they need to be successful in school.

Truly understanding the environment that students come from – rather than just knowing the statistics that describe their lives – can benefit teachers and students. I firmly believe that having more local teachers and more teachers who understand the city’s social and political problems can provide students with the training they need to be successful as students and as adults. If we replace tactics such as hiring teachers from outside of the city or state with methods that focus on hiring qualified local teachers, we can greatly improve the quality of education.

Glenn Sullivan, 19, is a student at New Orleans’ Lake Area New Tech Early College High School.

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Letters to the Editor

18 Letters

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  1. Blatant racism. I’m a white guy. The teacher who had the most profound effect on me was a black woman. Race has nothing to do with ability to educate and be educated. I feel sorry for the author of this piece .

  2. The very first paragraph tells me a different story than the direction the author takes it. It tells of the incredible divide coming about in the American Black Culture. The issue described in the article is Not due to racism against blacks but the very opposite of black racism against other cultures. The auther himself expresses this but clearly can’t even see his own racism. Young Black children are seemingly being taught to not respect other cultures leaders, teachers, and the man on the street no matter their culture. Yes those in the Black culture were once oppressed by folk who no longer exist. It was a terrible thing.

    But now why are you harming yourselves with racism of your own? Move on. Pretty much every other culture has moved on and no longer racist toward you. The further the American Black Culture becomes racist…. the more you will cause other Cultures to steer clear of you and not support you. Nothing to do with their racism….. but because of yours.

  3. Good and effective teachers, whoever they are, should be maintained in schools.
    However, if you transpose the words “black” and “white” in this article, the racist attitude of the student is instantly obvious. A white teenager who refused to learn from a teacher of color would be immediately identified as having an attitude problem.

    Most of the young white teachers who came into New Orleans after Katrina did so with the intention of helping. It’s hard to fault anyone for wanting to help. And it is also true that Orleans Parish’s public schools before Katrina were abysmal. Part of this resulted from the unwillingness of the population as a whole to tax itself sufficiently to maintain better schools. But part of this comes from an under-educated population that never fully valued learning. Change is hard. It is never perfect. There will always be problems. But change was desperately needed.

    Something is seriously wrong when we have to worry more about what the students like or accept in a teacher than we worry about the academic efforts of the students. It is the students’ job to pay attention, do the reading, do the homework, and master the subject matter presented. Students who take the attitude of “I won’t learn from you, and you can’t make me,” harm only themselves.

  4. New Orleans’ issues are not unlike those faced by other schools across the country. Education is the great leveler, the great equalizer. But unless students work for it, it will never happen.

  5. I agree to a point. How do students truly know if the teachers understand or don’t understand the students culture and background? By looking at them? Students make a lot of assumptions about teachers. This student is judging teachers based on the color of their skin over everything else. Very few students can even guess by ethnic background when they meet me. He basically says they respected a teacher more because he was black. Maybe he should have a few teachers of varying backgrounds so he learns to respect people based on more than that.

  6. I agree with young Mr. Sullivan that it is important for students to see themselves represented in respectable professions and that teachers of different races interact with their students differently. I have taught for 8 years in New Orleans and know intimately the hidden/blatant racist attitudes many teachers have towards their students of color- “everything changed when the blacks started coming to the school” one teacher told me. Another teacher “the Hispanics just don’t value education.” Anyone who thinks racism is dead in America isn’t processing what’s being said. To reduce entire cultures to the behaviors of a few is reprehensible; to see an entire group of students through the haze of prejudice is even more so. We as teachers owe it to our students to teach them how they need to learn. We cannot force our biases on them for many reasons- different cultures do have different values but even more so, our students are living in a technological age that requires an upgrade to the same old teaching habits. All children have an inherent curiosity and want to do well- teachers cannot blame them for every failure. We fail them as often as they exhibit unacceptable behaviors by promoting the idea that their cultures are below an acceptable standard. A child can be kindly taught to correct a behavior; she can never be kindly told that her family/neighborhood/culture is not good enough. Race is important in American schools- to not see that is to be blinded by the institutional racism that allows 0% African-American teachers to teach in a 40% African-American populated schools. Not because a Black student can only learn from a Black teacher but because a Black student needs to see that being a Black teacher is possible. While I do know many racist teachers in this highly segregated city, even the ones who aren’t may find it difficult to connect to the culture of their students. Issues of race need to be discussed and explored in our schools so that we can better reach ALL our students. I don’t care what race a child or teacher is, but I do care when one or the other condemns the other for their culture, which happens frequently. Denying that the problem discussed in this article IS indeed a problem only serves to perpetuate it. Neither the article nor the author are racist- both are a window in to a problem that needs to be addressed. Anyone in a leadership position should know how to lead that group and many teachers are unable to lead their students to knowledge because of racial tensions from one or both parties- let’s accept it and learn how to work it out!

  7. What seems to be missed in the comments is the identification and recognition of how to reach this student population. Cultural identity is powerful. And to ignore it’s significance of difference ,however well intentioned, is the most racist thing of all. That unacknowledged racism a viewing all educational experiences of being the same by the majority is completely ignoring the very real needs of the minority. That is the fault of most do gooding by the majority. Imagine growing up in a world where every role model and authority figure you listen to doesn’t look like you, doesn’t recognize your culture, and discounts it as meaningless. You see yourself in no one you can identify with. Any studies on urban youth and education will easily reveal education is more than what is in a book. It goes into teachers being able to reach. If they cannot reach , then they will never be effective.

  8. I believe this interpretation is mistaken. Although insight and understanding of the children and their environment is important, it can be achieved by any teacher of any race. I believe that the black youth simply find it easier to relate to a teacher who is more like them. Successful black teachers serve as greater role models, and are more significant to black youth than a white teacher.

  9. I do hope the original commenters are not teachers. Regardless of what anyone thinks the “real” issue is, this is a young man who is taking the time to articulately convey his concerns in a mature and thoughtful way. Responding with a “you’re wrong, and here’s why” is a surefire way to shut people, especially young people, down. And the reality is, he’s got a point. As a teacher educator, I see plenty of students who are totally clueless about what kids’ lives can be like. The assumption is that their experience is everybody’s experience. One quick example: Telling students to go in their rooms so they have a quiet place to study….. what if the kid has no room of his/her own? Oh….. I never thought about that.

    Thanks to the Hechinger Report for encouraging students to have a voice–whether you like it or not.

  10. @Jason…I don’t feel sorry for him. This clearly is a well-written and articulate article of a young man who clearly is capable of conveying his thoughts intelligently. This piece is a clearly reality in the City of New Orleans. After Katrina, there was a trend that started to occur where everyone else seemed to know what is better for New Orleans than the native New Orleanian. In addition, there was a tend towards not hiring locals. I encourage this city to hire locally educated professionals FIRST. We want to live here, make this our home and be employed too. Employment is not too much of a expectation. After all , we are raised here, educated here and desire to remain. If the locals did not return to New Orleans, there would not be a New Orleans for the New New Orleanians to move too. It wasn’t easy but we returned. I feel sorry for you Jason for being negative when this young man was only expressing his OPINION. Racist it is not. Reality is. I encourage the author to never let anyone stifle your thoughts and opinions in life. You have a bright future ahead of you.

  11. This article upset me. My family is white, and my mother was a teacher at Cohen, and 35 for over twenty years. I assure you that she was no one’s favorite teacher. She taught French and World History. She was never insensitive to anyone racially, and I sincerely doubt she had more than a dozen students who weren’t black during her entire career in New Orleans. It is one thing to want more great African American teachers in New Orleans schools. It is another thing to (strongly) imply that white teachers cannot effectively teach in New Orleans Public Schools. The fact is that what finally made my Mother retire was less her age, and more that the students had become worse and worse post Katrina. We are bleeding heart liberals in my family, and both my parents have been teachers at some point in their lives. Do NOT blame teachers or race for anyone’s lack of respect. Teenagers are going to be disrespectful, that goes with the territory. It is not harder on black students to have non-black teachers in New Orleans schools. It is much harder for a non-black teacher to serve and give their lives to black students who are no more or less difficult than other students because of their race, but often are MUCH more difficult than other students because of their socio-economic background. Asking for more black educators (and more devoted educators in general) is a wonderful thought. This article, however, is immature and insulting.

  12. I agree with some of the comments below. It is so obvious who in this story is bias and I don’t blame the kid. I blame his parents who raised him and tought him that being black is an issue. Today kid, no one cares what color you are, you will get hired if you’re good at what you do and better than somebody else. On the other hand, like somebody already commented, it’s more than often that black community is the one doing the separation and they themselves are teaching their children that somehow they will be mistreated due to the color of their skin. I am white, I never discriminated anybody of different race but I was faced with racism towards me, call it racism but they were more acts of hate because I was white. I feel the black community and youth especially carries too much hate and resentment, nourishing both which is unfortunate for everybody as a society.

  13. I support technology programs in schools that have majority students of color. I am not a teacher, but I have spent several hundred hours in classrooms over the last three years.

    My family immigrated to the US before I was born, and they steadily progressed from a struggling to middle class life. I grew up in a small urban city, with union factory jobs nearby. Most of my classmates and I had fathers that worked union jobs and mothers that stayed home. My high school History (and French) teacher, Mrs. Foster, pushed me to go to UC Berkeley. I don’t know if I would be in my position today without her guidance and support.

    I have the benefit of a shared culture with some students, but it is my obligation find some connection with everyone. Regardless of that shared culture, or because of it, I have found myself recognizing my privilege in a way I never have. It has been painful at times to recognize my false assumptions.

    When a student shares their experience, and I try to see the world through their lens, I learn as much about myself as I do about them. Rejecting this student’s experience, and others like his, will not lead us to understanding.

  14. I’m sure the other commenters may not believe this, but I’m actually one of Glenn Sullivan’s old teachers. After seeing some of the other reactions here calling Mr. Sullivan racist, I feel the need to say something in his defense. Mr. Sullivan is absolutely not racist, and they are not fully understanding what he is saying. In a lot of school districts across the country, veteran teachers are being replaced with inexperienced teachers. The problem is that the replacement teachers aren’t do the job effectively, at least not at first. Teaching is extremely difficult and can only be learned through experience, and if a student is getting one novice teacher after another than their education is going to suffer tremendously. Effective teaching has nothing to do with race, but it’s hard not to notice that in a lot of urban school districts there is an influx of young white teachers where veteran black teachers used to be, destroying the union in the process and leading to other dubious changes. How do you think this looks to students?

    For the record, I was one of those young white teachers, and I look back at my time in New Orleans with mixed feelings. I learned to teach and manage a classroom there through some tough moments, but there were too many times where I simply wasn’t doing a good job, not for lack of effort but experience. Things improved slowly, and my second year (not in New Orleans but in a similar situation) went much better. But what about those kids in my first classroom? They didn’t get a quality education for an entire year. For too many students, every year is like that for them. They’ll have some experienced teachers, but way to many who aren’t, and the lost years build up. It was my fault at the end of the day, but for a long time, I frankly had no idea why the administrators hired teachers like me–people just starting their teaching career who needed experience before entering a difficult environment. I later taught in Nashville, Tennessee, where I learned that many districts have contracts with programs like Teach for America where they have to hire those teachers.

    So it’s not telling the full story to place the blame solely on one party. Young teachers like me do not know what they’re getting into and just want to teach (and given the economy, they’ll go where ever they can), and administrators are forced to hire unqualified candidates. Having your heart in the right place is important, but it’s not enough. There is a lack of respect for the teaching profession in this country–we think if you understand a subject than you can teach it. Life is not that simple.

    One last thing–please stop calling Mr. Sullivan a “blatant racist.” You don’t know him, and he was one of my best students, one of the nicest students I’ve ever had. Part of the reason why I still feel guilty about my first year of teaching is because I let down students like him, who were ready and eager to learn. He is accurately describing a problem here. Glenn, great article and hope everything is going well for you. One of my old teaching buddies actually forwarded it to me, not knowing that you were one of my old students. Small world I guess. Anyway, I wish you nothing but the best.

  15. Very well written Glenn. I, who attend Lake Area and know Glenn personally, can fully comprehend and understand the point that’s being conveyed in his article. Unfortunately, others who do not attend our school and are only acknowledged of our school through outside sources will never understand Glenn’s perspective. Instead, they’ll take in the information of his article and revise the context of it by forming assumptions and other biases because some feel the right to do so being that they have “this number of years of teaching experience” or other contributing factors towards education. However, excellent job Glenn and keep up the great work. – Kenyatta Collins

  16. A student asks for teachers that understand his culture in order to relate to him and is immediately called a racist. How unusual.

  17. This is probably one of the most angering things I have ever heard. We would NEVER tell a black person they couldn’t teach in a majority-white school because they “don’t understand the culture”. We would be labeled racist immediately. And yet, as this author implies, white people apparently are too different from black people to teach them properly. That’s nonsense. I teach in a black/hispanic school and my children do not care that I am white. They just want to learn and be in a disciplined yet exciting learning environment. My race does not prevent me from teaching music to my students. If you really think that having a white teacher is somehow detrimental to black students’ learning, then you are advocating for segregation, plain and simple.

  18. Teachers should be literate, well educated, respectful of students and must treat students with dignity. We all know the deep history of illiteracy and failed education for our cities youth, and yes it is predominately black in public schools. Many blacks that lose there jobs might be because they treat children indignantly, yell at them, physically handling them, degrading them all the while barely being able to pass the tests they give or they just get a different job for personal reasons. Who cares what color the people replacing them are? Why would this even be relevant unless you are racist? I was raced to not be racist and never one would I care if my teacher was white, black or anything else. They are there because they were qualified to teach. I always scored top in the nation. Schools teach standard material to prepare students for jobs and the work world. To ask the public taxpayers to lower their standards and expectations is not going to prepare you to get a job in the real world where there are people of all colors and classes.

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