Black Men Are Welcoming Students Back to Schools with No Black Teachers. What's Wrong With This Picture?
A new tradition has started at schools in cities like Atlanta, Hartford and Boston. Black men from the community, dressed in suits and other professional attire, stand outside the school doors to welcome students to the start of another year. Just like the starting lineup line at a game, where teammates receive players with high-fives, the men form an aisle for students to walk down as they approach the school doors. Students are greeted with words of encouragement, slaps on the back and head, or some dap, to signal to kids that school matters. So what could possibly be wrong with this “it takes a village” display? When those same kids enter into their schools, they see a teaching force that is predominantly female and white. The doors of the school shut with the Black men outside of the village. What kind of message does that send to kids?
I’ve come to conclude that these displays meant to encourage and uplift Black and Brown children are disingenuous at best, damaging at worst. That’s because the very school and district leaders who are great at getting Black men to show up for Soul Train-style-high-five lines do a piss poor job getting Black and Latino men in the classroom and keeping them there. Data released this summer show just how dire this situation is. Of the 4 million teachers in the US, just 2% are Black men, while another 2% are Latino men. Even when you look at teachers of color in general, the numbers don’t get much better. Nationally, just 6.7% of teachers are Black. Even in urban areas where the representation of teachers of color is greatest, the numbers show that enough isn’t being done to bring more of them into classrooms.
While it’s vitally important that students of color see adults who look like them, they need them in the classroom, not just at feel-good, high-profile welcoming events. The research is overwhelming: teachers of color are better for Black and Brown kids. Students of color who have teachers who look like them fare better academically, are more likely to attend college and are much less likely to be subject to harsh discipline. In one study, Black and Latino students preferred teachers who looked like them because Black and Latino educators better understood the challenges that come with being a racial minority. Conversely, evidence suggests that White teachers struggle to understand the role that race plays in their interactions with students of color.
These “Calling All Brothers” events are meant to inspire students of color by showing them role models in their own communities. But having Black men in the classroom is even more important. Black teachers know the world students of color live in; they share experiences and can speak to those experiences in a way that speaks to the spirit of a child striving to thrive in a world that often seems hellbent on killing their spirits.
Consider, for example, what happens to students of color when they enter the school house. Black and Brown students are far more likely to be punished, even criminalized, by White teachers. Black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended, even when the infractions are the same. And the gap starts when the kids are as young as four. Black students make up just 18% of preschoolers in the US, but account for half of all of the out-of-pre-school suspensions.As one commentator asked in response to the growing body of troubling data: “what’s wrong with White teachers?”
The racial disparities in school discipline add another problematic dimension to the new “tradition” of making Black men visible on the school grounds even as they’re virtually invisible on the other side of the school doors. Consider the message that sends to children about the role and purpose of men of color in their lives. Black and Brown men are supposed to encourage Black and Brown students to adhere to the rules and regulations of the school, follow the directions of all adults as it pertains to academics and behavior, and step in to keep students in check when they disobey.
Putting men of color on display outside of school to welcome students also sends a misleading message to parents about who is teaching their children, good optics can be confused with real care. Urban school parents may interpret the display as an endorsement of what happens in the school, making it hard for them challenge school leaders if necessary.
I truly appreciate that school reformers who lead schools, many whom are White, are deeply troubled by the educational prospects of Black and Brown students. Clearly, district leaders see the value of Black and Brown men in the lives of their children and the children of their communities. But I am equally troubled by the lack of representation of Black and Latino male teachers in the classroom. If you beg for these men to stand outside your schools and you fail to have these men in your classrooms to teach children who look like them, you are a fraud. Cultural appropriation in the name of educating Black and Brown children isn’t identity affirming. It is education without representation.