I Know Teaching is Hard, but what's it REALLY like for Black Teachers Behind Closed Doors?
Updated: Jun 23, 2019
Last week members of the Black Teacher Griot collective stopped by WBOK’s weekly Nola Education for Liberation radio show (hosted by the brilliant Dr. Adrienne Dixson), for a panel on The State of Black Teachers in New Orleans Post-Katrina. Though we covered quite a lot over the course of an hour, one of the guiding questions for the convo was, “What are some of the frustrating parts of the Black teacher experience that make a group like Black Teacher Griot necessary?”
This is a common question that I’ve been asked often while trying to build out this collective of Black educators. Lots of people hear that I am aiming to support Black teachers and aren’t quite sure of their needs. Many assume that the struggles that come with our career are essentially the same for everyone across the board. But as evidenced by the convo The Woke Stem Teacher kicked up in her post and comments, it simply isn’t the case.
While I acknowledge that the experience of Black teachers in New Orleans may be somewhat different from those in other places, I don’t suppose it’s by much. I’ve taught in four states but the unique situation of New Orleans, including the firing of over 4500 Black teachers after Katrina, the lack of teachers’ union, and the all-charter district, create a perfect storm for the sort of problematic fuckery that has led many of my friends to throw up their hands in frustration and leave the profession all together. And yet, if you are a Black educator in a school with a predominantly white staff anywhere in the country, you prolly empathize and understand completely where some of our sentiments are coming from. Hell… you might consider writing for us to share your own story.
The above clip from the panel provides some of our personal insights into the frustrating aspects of the Black teacher experience. But if you’re not into my poor videography skills (lol), peep the short list below to hear a small sample of what we chopped it up about during the radio show...
1. Being told by white colleagues, who often have little to no experience in Black communities, how best to treat / respect/ love Black students...
Alexander spoke about this at length during the panel but it's a common conversation piece with Black teachers on predominately white staffs. Here in New Orleans there are a plethora of white folx who moved here from Idaho, Wisconsin, Ohio, etc. who will willingly admit to you that they grew up around only white people. The audacious ones brag about how liberal they are despite having racist family members, neighbors, elementary school friends, etc. Yet, they see nothing problematic about “schooling” Black educators on their “best practices” for working with Black youth. I’m actually going to just leave it at that. Nothing else to say about this cuz if you don’t realize how extraordinarily fucked up that is, you’re likely a part of the problem.
2. Discrepancies in discipline and how this plays out across racial lines
While there are ALWAYS differences in how teachers apply rules and policies across their respective schools, race adds a problematic layer that often goes ignored, especially when Black teacher numbers are low. When the entire school knows that it is the Black teachers who will ask the most of students behaviorally, you begin to wonder why it is only those teachers who are expected to uphold standards. Why are the Black men in the building AUTOMATICALLY pegged as the disciplinarians? Why do some white teachers have such low expectations for Black youth that they allow them to behave in ways that would NEVER be considered acceptable in the selective charters with predominantly white student bodies? Why are Black teachers consistently pulled during prep periods and meetings to help white teachers address discipline issues in their classrooms?
3. Honest conversations with students about race and how it affects all of us
Last year I had to intervene when a Black student called a teacher a white supremacist in class. The topic of conversation was police brutality and she was trying to encourage him to understand police officers’ POV in situations that often end with dead Black bodies and new hashtags. I had a solid rapport with this educator but at the time I couldn’t understand for the life of me what the hell she was thinking. I bring up this example because it is one of many that I’ve had where white teachers seem unable to acknowledge their whiteness in front of a class full of Black kids. Consequently the discussions and learning that take place end up tainted by a sense of misunderstanding between students and educators. Kids need to be having real conversations about race. Period point blank. And they can’t do it with teachers who are hellbent on pretending that it doesn’t matter that are white. Speaking of which...
4. The extra (extra, extra) loads you get handed because your Blackness
I can’t speak for everybody but my experiences on predominantly white staff often meant that if I raised my hand one time to address an issue of race,I had automatically volunteered to become the resident expert for the year. Homies popped by my room for advice, white people wanted to know if something they did came across as racist cuz they didn’t mean it like that (I swear, I swear)... people came and asked me to plan events focused on equity, white school leaders sought out advice to avoid seeming racist to parents…. This bullshit became so frequent that I started keeping my door shut and sneaking out of the building five minutes early to avoid these laborious ass convos that seemed like more work than teaching the damn kids.
There's a lot more that we could say about this. Truthfully this list is just the tip of the iceberg when you sign up to become a teacher on a staff that is not predominately of color. And while I see more and more programs aimed at getting Black teachers in the classroom, I'm left wondering how/ if at all these young professionals are equipped to deal with this shit. Cuz... what I'm finding is that they're not. And these truths are a part of why we see the numbers of Black teachers continuing to dwindle.
It's dope that folks have done the research to show why we need to be in the classroom, but if the environments we're entering are toxic and oppressive, is there really any confusion as to we need separate support systems to stay in the work?