Why Black Teachers Matter

When I was in kindergarten at Whispering Pines Elementary, one of my only friends was this girl named Teresa. Teresa and I were friends because our seats were next to each other. Our two seats were also separate from the rest of the class.

In Teresa’s case, this was slightly understandable. She didn’t like people very much and let them know whenever she could, many times by smacking the shit out of them. I’m picturing one day when a boy pulled her pants down on the playground and Teresa smacked him so hard his nose started bleeding.

Teresa seemed to like me though, I’m guessing due to proximity since, like I said, the two of us were sectioned off from the rest of the class. I had been exiled for behavioral issues just like Teresa, though none of them physically violent. I just couldn’t sit still. I still can’t. Ask literally anyone that knows me.

That year during Open House, my mom and dad came into the classroom and saw my secluded desk and…let’s just say they had some questions. I don’t remember my teacher’s name at the time and I could just text my mom right now and ask her but the teacher’s name isn’t the point. The fact that she was an older white woman isn’t really the point either, though it’s a detail worth noting (which is why I just noted it). The point is why.

Why was I being made to sit away from all the other children in the class?

My teacher’s response was that I tended to act up, and was thereby disrupting the other students’ ability to learn the curriculum.

The curriculum.

In that Kindergarten class at Whispering Pines Elementary, the vast majority of the year was dedicated to learning the alphabet, foundational stuff that’s meant to foster proper reading and writing skills.

The problem was, I already knew how to read and write. I’d been doing both since preschool. Kind of makes sense why I couldn’t keep still. Why I kept “acting up.” I was bored as hell.

The next year, in first grade, I had my first black teacher, Mrs. Tyson. The fact that I remember Mrs. Tyson’s name and not my kindergarten teacher’s is also not the point here, just worth noting (noted). A couple of weeks after my first day in Mrs. Tyson’s class, she contacted my parents and told them they should bring me in for an IQ test. She also recommended that I be put in a gifted program, even suggested they move me up a grade.

Weeks. It took Mrs. Tyson a few weeks to figure out what my kindergarten teacher couldn’t see over the course of a year.

Due to Mrs. Tyson’s recommendations and the continuous effort of my parents, I was enrolled in gifted programs throughout elementary and middle school. In high school I took honors and AP classes and passed enough of them to get a couple scholarship offers to college. Did fairly well in undergrad which led to a graduate teaching fellowship and so on.

I like to think of my life as a giant Russian nesting doll, with my childhood experience being that inner, solid piece and everything else that’s happened since then serving as the layers of outer shell. In this analogy, none of those outer layers exist without Mrs. Tyson’s observations.

Earlier today I listened to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History titled “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment.” In it, Gladwell discusses the effects of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court decision that integrated schools in the 1950s. He talks about how the decision is heralded as a win in the fight for equality, a claim that glosses over the totality of the story.

Issues arose immediately in the aftermath of Brown v. Board as school districts across the country were forced to respond to the integration order. Due to how the Supreme Court worded their decision, the focus of that integration was on the students. In other words, integration—as far as school boards were concerned—meant that children could not be turned away from a school based on the color of their skin. This said nothing about the teachers.

Cut to 1950s Missouri and another court case: Naomi Brooks v. School District of Moberly, MO, in which the plaintiffs—all teachers, all black—were suing the Moberly county school board for discrimination.

Following Brown v. Board, the Moberly school district decided to merge the local black and white schools into one integrated school. They also decided to pool the county teachers all together—the ones from the formerly whites-only school and the eleven black teachers from the black school. The idea here was to staff the newly-integrated school with the best and brightest from that pool.

All eleven black teachers were fired.

Naomi Brooks and company ultimately did not succeed in their lawsuit, appealing again and again until it reached the Supreme Court where the justices decided simply not to hear the case.

Studies since have shown how much teachers impact the trajectory of their students, for better or worse. Those same studies also show how race plays a part in who teachers both focus their attention on and recommend for advancement (posted a few articles in the comments below).

Listening to that podcast episode, I thought of Mrs. Tyson. I thought about my parents’ perseverance. And I thought about how many days growing up I looked around the gifted classrooms I’d been privileged to attend and was the only black person there.

I think about all of this and—as a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan—I wonder about my own Kang-like multiverse. What alternative versions of me exist out there? What opportunities weren’t they given at an early age that they should have been given if someone had just been paying attention? What did they turn out to be as a result?

What’s the ripple effect of neglect?

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