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Every Black Student Should Have a Black Teacher. Here’s How We Can Make That Possible.

Admin By Admin Nov27,2023

I’ve spent more than a decade working as a teacher and principal. In 2015, I left the classroom for a year to try something different and it completely reshaped my work.

I took on a role as a teacher recruiter at Achievement First, where my focus was working with principals to hire teachers. At the time, I had just finished my Teach For America commitment at my placement school, Miami Northwestern Senior High School, where I had the benefit of working in a historically Black community at a public high school with a majority Black staff and leadership team with members who looked like me.

Our Blackness was elevated and celebrated every day, so when I began recruiting, I was unaware of the racial disparity between America’s teaching cadre and our nation’s student population.

I assumed that all Black students experienced Black teachers in school. I was wrong.

When I became a teacher recruiter, part of my job was to visit each school, observe classrooms and talk to students to get a better understanding of the atmosphere and personality of each school community. There was one trend that was consistent across the majority of schools I worked with: Most of the students identified as Black, while the majority of the teachers were white.

As a recruiter, I saw this picture clear as day and I wasn’t the only one. In fact, one of the principals I was working with looked me straight in the eye during one of our check-ins and said, “Damen, I need Black teachers.”

I didn’t have an immediate solution for her, but I did have a community I could tap into to find strong Black teacher candidates. I had graduated from a historically Black college (Morehouse College), I am a member of a historically Black fraternity, and many of my family members had ties to the education profession.

I turned to my network for referrals and it started to work. Some of the principals I was working with began hiring more Black teachers. One of them — the principal at Achievement First Brooklyn high school — hired six Black teachers that year, including me.

When I went back to the classroom after my year of recruiting, I noticed the problem again. Our students were majority Black but (at that time) our staff was mostly white. Though my decision to return to the classroom was helping to change the narrative in my own school building, the gap persisted and I wasn’t in a position to change it systemically.

Now, eight years later, I am the principal of that same school and I’m proud to say that every student has multiple Black teachers each year, an anomaly given that in the United States, only 7 percent of public school teachers identify as Black according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

This change didn’t happen overnight — it took years to ensure that our staff reflects the diversity of our student body. To get there, I had to shift my mindset towards equity and applying what I learned from my role as a recruiter to refining our hiring process. But before all of that, I had to turn to history for a deeper understanding of how we got here.

Turning to History

When I started this work, it felt critical to understand why there are so few Black teachers in American public schools. The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision was revealing. Though the case nullified the Plessy vs. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal,” and created the landscape for racial integration in America’s public schools, it decimated the Black teacher and administrator workforce. Widespread resistance to integration led to the firing, dismissal or demotion of 100,000 Black principals and teachers between 1952 and the late 1970s, according to Brookings Institution. Since the 1970’s, the number of Black teachers has been on the decline.

There has been plenty of research to prove the positive effects a qualified and effective Black teacher has on Black students’ academic and social outcomes. Black teachers can serve as role models whose presence can leave a positive effect long after a student graduates. When we do not prioritize hiring, developing and retaining Black teachers, we rob Black students of the benefits of having same-race teachers.

While learning about the history of the problem, I reflected on my own journey as a Black student, teacher and administrator. I grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood where most of my neighbors were white, which had a big impact on my experience with race in school. I never lived in a majority-Black neighborhood or attended a majority-Black school. But I did have Black teachers and administrators in school and in my community who made me feel seen and valued in spaces where I was the minority. In fact, my first elementary school principal was a dynamic Black woman whose kindness and warmth I still feel and keep with me as a principal today.

I carry these memories as reminders of the tremendous impact Black educators had on my confidence, identity development and academic success. Their representation was validating, motivating and propelled me not only to pursue excellence in my own education but to build a career in the field.

Turning a Problem Into an Opportunity

Becoming a principal was a career-defining opportunity in a number of ways, but mostly because it positioned me to make even more change at my school by turning a challenge into an opportunity. At the top of my priority list was hiring a diverse and effective staff that represented our student body.

As principal, I interview and make the final hiring decision on all staff, so the buck starts and ends with me. I have the power to create the team I believe students need, but to do that, I’ve had to rethink our hiring practices, including our recruitment strategy and interview process. I’ve prioritized ensuring that every kid under my care has the teachers they deserve, and have revised our practices to make it happen.

I made a few significant shifts to our hiring process. First, I navigate the national teacher shortage by leaning on a lesson I learned from recruiting and turning to my staff for referrals. Excellent people know excellent people, so whenever there is an opening or a departure, I look to my community for support which has led to tremendous success. My operations team, instructional staff and leadership team have all been made stronger by turning to those who work in my organization for candidate recommendations.

Second, I always include members of my leadership team in interviews to widen my perspective and mitigate any unconscious bias that may be at play. I intentionally pick a hiring committee that reflects the existing role, skill and life diversity present in my school, and after each interview, we use a competency rubric, not just our gut, to assess each candidate objectively.

Finally, I explicitly ask interview questions about race and its impact on our work as educators of Black children in the public education system. I’ll pose a question like this: “Leading for racial equity is something we value here at my school. Given your identity and personal values, what do you believe your role is in leading for racial equity?” Or, “What do you think your role is in dismantling systemic racism given your role as a teacher?” These kinds of questions allow my team and I to assess a candidate’s value’s alignment and commitment to our mission. These questions also make clear where my school stands, showing the candidate we care about diversity and are not afraid to talk about it.

When I took a year off from teaching to become a recruiter, I never thought it would shape my career the way it has. It taught me to question the status quo, to lean on history for a clearer picture on how some of the complex problems in education came to be, and most importantly, it reminded me that the presence of Black educators and school leaders is more than just “nice to have” — it is critical to the success of all learners, particularly Black students.

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