Opinion

It’s a school, not a plantation: Five ways to end black teachers’ disengagement in the classroom

Changes to consider

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Pamela Lewis

Meeka’s teachers used to always tell her that staring at the clock would only make time move slower. Now grown up and a teacher herself, Meeka couldn’t help glaring at it as if it were responsible for how bored she was listening to Mrs. Brown painstakingly review the senseless rubric her group would be assessed with. Seemed like white teachers needed a manual to even breathe. Meeka looked at the clock again. She spotted Mrs. Brown heading toward her table to “check in.” Attempting to look busy, Meeka doodled on her agenda sheet:

Thirteen years, two months, three days, and twenty-two minutes until retirement

I provide this bit of expository writing to illustrate an oft-overlooked point: Teachers of color are often as disengaged as their students in our nation’s urban classrooms.

While there are more students of color than white students currently attending public schools, teachers of color still only make up 18 percent of the teaching population.

What’s worse is that is has become exceptionally difficult to retain the few teachers of color that remain.

Many black and brown teachers are just as disengaged with our current school system as that of their students, and like many of the children that they teach, many will eventually drop out.

So how can we increase retention rates for teachers of color?

There are several adjustments that policy makers and administrators can make.  Here are my top five:

1. Stop making us feel like we work at the plantation.

One shouldn’t compare any job to slavery.

But considering the hours upon hours of paper work that seem to never end, constant scrutiny and critique of our practice exhibited through tons of formal and informal observations, the expectation that we should neglect our own families for work, and all the harsh punitive actions taken against teachers for not following scripted rules, it’s difficult not to channel Kunta Kinte’s spirit of rebellion.

2. Realize that we are valuable assets

Teachers of color often feel as if their knowledge and experience aren’t valued.

As of late, it seems that to be a young, white and out of touch data cruncher is the prerequisite necessary to be considered a master teacher.

Teaching is so much more than the willingness to create a thousand Excel spread sheets on student data, such as building strong relationships with one’s students.

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Teachers of color have the ability to inspire their students in ways that many white teachers simply cannot, and many of us have ties to the communities in which we serve.

We understand that our students are extended family, and that a strong bond outweighs any of the supposed strategies we are told to Jedi mind trick our kids with.

3. Let us do our own thing!

Everyone talks about how strong the black woman is, how feisty the Latina woman is, so why force us to teach with someone else?

Co-taught classrooms are the new wave, and it seems that schools across the nation feel as though two teachers in the room will always be more effective than one.

While many teachers may take no issue with co-teaching, many men and women of color are strong enough teachers to manage a class on their own.

It becomes especially annoying when having to teach with someone who feels entitled to take charge because of the color of his/her skin.

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It can also be irksome when a teacher of color can’t just be him/herself, or when certain necessary curriculum and/or style can’t be taught in the presence of a white co-teacher  because it makes him/her uncomfortable.

4. Stop hiring racists to teach our children.

We can’t do anything about the ones that already exist within our public school systems, but the least we can do is to not hire any more.

Despite what one might think, it is possible to smoke out a racist. Racism, like religion and morals is something people truly believe in.

Ask the right questions during an interview and it will make it very difficult for even the most closet racist to hide.

5. Allow teachers to be more in tune with the realities of the communities in which we serve.

Many teachers of color teach in poverty-stricken communities.

And while many of the children that live in these neighborhoods are stellar students, many others have deeper issues that prevent them from learning to their full potential.

Homicide, incarceration and teenage pregnancy are real-life issues students in urban communities fall victim to every day.

Many urban students are depressed, anxiety filled and suffering from symptoms linked to PTSD.

However, teachers are just supposed to teach textbook curriculum and virtually ignore their students’ realities.

After all, what good is a test score to someone in maximum security prison?

Or to a corpse, for that matter.

Pamela Lewis is a writer, teacher and activist in New York City.  She is the author of Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City.

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Pamela Lewis

Pamela Lewis is a writer, teacher and activist in New York City. She is the author of Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race… See Archive

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