By James Ewers
How do you become what you want to be? When you ask children what they want their life’s work to be, you will hear a variety of answers. They gain their perspectives obviously from a lot of sources. Parents, grandparents, other love providers, coaches and teachers are just a few of the resources that kids use as a basis for their responses. If a young child is around a person with a certain skill set then their first inclination is to say that I want to be like that particular person.
My own career in education probably started with my high school history teacher, Mr. William Earl. He made learning fun at Atkins High School in Winston-Salem, N.C. so I believe the teaching seed was planted by him. Mr. Earl was a confident and well-educated black man who set high standards for his students. So I think that our communities need more teachers who look like Mr. Earl, which may result in more black kids choosing careers in education. There is no lack of reports and stories about the low number of African American teachers in this country.
It also raises several questions for your review and consideration. I will pose four that come jumping off the chalkboard at me. First, is there a correlation between the number of African American teachers and the number of African American children, especially boys that are suspended and expelled from school? Second, why don’t school districts develop partnerships with historically black colleges and universities where many black students major in teacher education? Third, why aren’t there incentive packages that will help to recruit African American teachers and fourth, once here, are there opportunities for advancement?
Because I have some opinions and attitudes about each of these questions, I will share them with you. I don’t expect wholesale agreement but I do hope that it will begin a serious discussion about the dearth of African American teachers and how to increase that number. I do believe there are some linkages between the lack of black teachers and black children being suspended and expelled. Unfortunately, there is a cultural divide in some communities whether spoken or un-spoken and therefore stereotypes on both sides are played out on a daily basis. When a black or white child can say that they have never had an African American teacher in 12 years of schooling even when the school district is diverse then, there is a problem. Even communities that have no black students in their schools aren’t excused from having black and other teachers of color. That is an easy out to simply say that because we don’t have black kids, we don’t have black teachers. Education is about learning and providing new vistas of information. In addition it is also about breaking down barriers and giving voice to the voiceless.
Racial diversity is just not good for people of color it is good for white people, too. I have never quite understood why diversity has to be a black thing. This is about celebrating our differences and understanding one another better, which then leads to a better America. Black and white kids need to see black educators. You can’t have a healthy appreciation for the abilities of black teachers if you never see them in schools. Both black and white kids are at a disadvantage socially when they are not exposed to different people and cultures. I would opine that school districts in particular that have significant numbers of students of color will see a decrease in suspensions and expulsions when there is more of an African American teacher presence in their schools.
There are over 100 historically black colleges and universities in the United States of America. Going to colleges that have all white students as education majors and then saying you’re trying to increase diversity is shallow. You have got to go where there are African American education majors. And then if and when you go, you can’t take an all white recruiting team and then expect results. African American teachers are in high demand so school districts that are serious about recruiting them need to have serious plans. Just saying what some people want to hear without any implementation plan will soon go by the wayside. I would suggest there are retired African American teachers who can provide valuable wisdom on this issue.
While it can be justified to talk about the low numbers of African American teachers in the nation the question is what are school systems going to do about it? Recruiting of any kind can be both challenging and rewarding. More specifically, recruiting African American teachers is difficult because the competition for them is so keen. School districts as I said some years ago must partner with businesses, banks, car dealerships and real estate companies in order to attract new teachers. In some ways recruiting African American teachers is no different than recruiting national merit scholars or top notch business people. There has to be some incentive to attract African American teachers to this city. Traditional ways of attracting African American teachers will no longer work. New paradigms to attract African American teachers must be employed sooner rather than later. Colleges usually hold graduation in May so it begs the question what are we doing now?
Attracting and retaining African American teachers are two different things. Many of us think that there must be some pathway of promotion for schools to keep them. Black teachers, too, want to be valued and feel valuable.
As the year unfolds let those of us black and white who understand that the lack of racial diversity hurts our children join together to be part of the solution.
Dr. James Ewers is associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University Middletown.