José Luis Vilson is a longtime Chalkbeat contributor who teaches middle school math in Washington Heights. His book, “This is Not a Test: a New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education,” will be released on May 6.
Before college, I only had one Black male teacher. His name was Mr. Wingate and he taught Computer Applications in twelfth grade. He didn’t teach me anything profound, since Microsoft products don’t lend themselves to intellectual depth or deep revelations, but he made an impression.
If I’ve done the math correctly, out of the fifty or so teachers I’ve had in my lifetime, only two or three of them were men of Black or Latino descent. For someone who was born and raised in New York City, that’s staggering.
You’re allowed to wonder why that’s so important. After all, teachers of all races, backgrounds, sexes, and ages have proven effective educators of urban youth.
I love that so many white people care about the plight of Black and Latino students that they’re open to working in the neighborhoods they’re in. Many of my white teachers were excellent. I get that there needs to be a diversity of experiences; our students have to survive in the same world as everyone else. A small part of me also thinks: Who better to teach urban youth the tools needed to survive in a predominantly white country than…white people?
But I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disturbed by the lack of representation of Black or Latino males as teachers. Some work as principals, school aides, and staff, and others are third-party vendors, education lawyers, and professors in institutions of higher education. Effective (and ineffective) teachers often leave the classroom in favor of these occupations; while plenty of men do great work in administration, too many men use it as a means of staying in education without grounding themselves in the educational practice of the classroom.
Because more than 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are women, our society also views teaching as “women’s work”—a category that often leads to demeaning and obtuse ways of dismissing teachers’ contributions. This dynamic compounds the already existing problem of society talking down to educators in our schools.
Too many people don’t see the need to pay teachers well (one of the many issues at play in current contract negotiations) or to ensure they have proper working conditions because they see us as caretakers, not professionals. Where male-dominated professions like computer science or medicine get respect, the teaching profession still has to combat patriarchy.
The fact that so many people view teaching as a second-class profession speaks volumes about our society’s values. Plenty of men talk favorably about teachers, but when asked if they’d ever be teachers themselves, they respond, “I don’t have the patience,” and “You guys don’t get paid enough.”
In our society, money means stature, whether we value the person who holds the position or not. It’s not just coming from this generation, either. My mom, whom I love dearly, on occasion wonders aloud why, with all the stress and duress I endure as a teacher, I would put up with this mess when I could make 150 percent more as a computer programmer.
There are those who have left the profession because it’s really easy to get jaded about the school system and the human experience. I don’t know any fellow Black or Latino male (or female) teachers who think that every student in their school is getting properly served by this school system.
Some conclude that the system is hopeless. Others say, “We’ll continue to fight.” The latter are crucial. When our students see more Black or Latino sports figures populating a multimillion-dollar court or field and yet only one Black or Latino teacher in their whole grade, or two or three in their whole school, then they’re probably less inspired to take teaching seriously.
History helps explain the lack of male Black or Latino teachers, too. It was Mississippi-based teacher and National Board of Professional Teaching Standards board member Renee Moore who first told me the extraordinary story of how Black teachers in the South (especially males) were systematically dismissed or ostracized from their positions after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in anticipation of integrated public schools. Shortly thereafter, school boards removed Black educators in droves and replaced them with brand-new, mostly white teachers.
Nowadays, people rarely point out the racial undertones of replacing staff who achieved their positions via “traditional” routes with teachers who have completed a prestigious alternative certification program that mainly solicits people from the most exclusive colleges and the upper echelons of their college classes.
In 2011, I had the privilege of speaking at an event held by Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers, an organization founded by Dr. Bettye Perkins to encourage more teachers of color to enter the profession.
I told the group that in my first month of teaching, I had this crazy idea that I would transform my students’ lives and that they would change for me the way Jaime Escalante’s did in Stand and Deliver. They didn’t. But that first class was probably my favorite, and the one from which I learned the most.
One time, we did a lesson on percentages. I wrote my lesson using the technical aspects of finding percentages. As I began to teach it and see the bored look on my students’ faces, I had an idea. I wrote the word “percent” out and asked my kids, “Does anyone recognize a word in here?”
I said, “Oh good! Now, has anyone ever heard of the word somewhere else, even in Spanish?”
Kids jumped out of their seats, they were so excited to answer.
A few kids shouted, “Ooh! Ooh! Centavo!”
“So what does centavo mean?”
“And how many pennies do you need to get a dollar again?” “A hundred!”
“So when we say percent we mean we’re comparing one thing out of a possible hundred.”
That piece of my lesson took about ten minutes more than I planned for, I explained. But it also made a huge difference. Teachers who can relate to their students on a cultural level can reach their students in important ways.
I’m not saying people from other cultures can’t help us, but every student of color could use a role model. If their role model just happens to be the teacher in front of them, that’s perfect.
We have high expectations for the children sitting in front of us because we were once them. We can tell the difference between a kid not knowing how to add fractions and not knowing how to say the word “fraction,” because many of us were once English language learners.
We don’t take “Yo, what up, teacher?” or “Hey, miss!” to be a sign of illiteracy, but a sign that they want to connect with us as human beings. Our importance as teachers of color stems from this dire need for kids of all races and backgrounds to see people of color as multidimensional and intelligent, different in culture but the same in capability and humanity.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.