First Person

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Allen Smith of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team and the author's former principal.

The professional journey of a black male teacher can be completely isolating: Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.

Do not get me wrong — there are amazing teachers and leaders of all backgrounds in schools across Colorado and the country. But there is so much power in being able to see someone and work with someone like you.

I know because I am one of few black male teachers in Denver, and I’ve taught in schools where I was alone, and in schools where I worked with people who looked like me.

Across the country, only 2 percent of teachers are black men. In Colorado, that proportion is even smaller: Just 4 percent of the state’s teachers are black, men and women. (Colorado’s black population is just under 4 percent.)

For the first two years of my career, while I was in graduate school, I worked as a paraprofessional in a Jefferson County school with an amazing staff that embraced me and showed me nothing but love, but I could not help but feel alone. There was not one teacher of color at that school while I was there.

Being the only person of color at the school meant that I received a great deal of attention while still feeling alone — and under a great deal of pressure. I felt like I was always on stage, always “representing,” because I knew for many of the people that I worked with, including students, their interaction with me might be their only meaningful connection or communication to a black person. Even with people that I felt had true love for me, it was a lot to shoulder day in and day out.

Have you had the experience of being the only person like yourself in your school? Take this survey to share your story.

So when I was 27 and looking for my first full-time social studies teaching job, I set out to look for a school where I would not be alone. At a Denver Public Schools hiring fair, I met Allen Smith, a black man who was then the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Early College. He invited me to his school but first connected me with an assistant principal, Nick Dawkins — another black man. I left the fair without talking to anybody else, and a month later, I got an offer to teach at MLK.

Teachers’ first years are tough, but having two black men available to support me made all the difference in the world. I knew they were cut from the same cloth as me — and because of that I was able to share my experience with them without fear of judgment.

Mr. Dawkins was the assistant principal directly over me as well as my mentor, and his support was invaluable. He allowed me to sit and talk with him about the troubles and successes I was experiencing in and outside of the classroom. His insight into building curriculum as well as the advice he gave me as a young black man in my first career changed my life. He shared his stories of teaching and how he was able to be successful, and where he struggled. He let me know places I should go out and relax and have a good time after a hard week.

We laughed, we cried, we grew, and it was all rooted in us being able to recognize one another as black men in this world and all that came with that.

Principal Smith showed a confidence in me that I had never had anyone outside of family show me before. In my first year at his school he was already grooming me and asking me questions about what I wanted to do next in education. He began encouraging me to look into administration programs and ways that I could continue to grow as a professional. He never told me explicitly but he made me feel like he was an older “brotha,” who wanted me to know I could do anything I wanted to, and that he would support me all the way.

When he announced that he was leaving for Oakland, California, I was nervous. But his replacement, Tony Smith (no relation), was also a black man, and his leadership was even more familiar. While he was a little rougher around the edges and a little more in your face than his predecessor, my father was the same way and the transition for me was seamless.

The next time the school hired a principal, I got someone who was just like the black women that I had grown up with my entire life. Kimberly Greyson pushed me the same way those black women did. She never told me that she had a special place in her heart for me because I was a black male — like her son, like her father, her uncles, and her friends — but she didn’t have to. I could feel it in our interactions.

As black people, we are so hard-pressed for self- and communal preservation that we find ourselves treating each other like family, because that is the best way to survive and thrive. That is the kind of the feeling I got working under Kimberly, who guided me to become a teacher-leader and trainer not only for our school but nationwide.

When Nick Dawkins became principal of Manual High School, he invited me to join him there, and that’s where I teach today. It could sound like I was given some special treatment in the way that my supervisors looked after me and helped me grow. But the privilege that I received is just everyday life for most teachers in a profession dominated by white women.

Now, Allen Smith has returned to Denver, where he is on the school district’s culture, leadership, and equity team. As he always has, he is is pushing me into spaces and work that are new to me because he believes in me and wants to give me a shot. He asked me to join the steering committee for the district’s African-American Equity Task Force, which is working to find out ways for more teachers to share my experience, and for more students to benefit from having teachers who look like them.

For the last nine months, we have been working with over 100 volunteers to develop ways to improve outcomes for black students in Denver. We’re looking at all aspects of education, from curriculum and instruction, to discipline practices and interventions, to teacher training and mentoring, to the persistent challenge of hiring and retaining teachers of color. We know that our black students are an underserved population in our district and our job as a task force is to develop a comprehensive solution to the problems we face.

I know that my story is not the story of the healthy majority of black males in education. As a matter of fact, when I tell other black males my story, I have to help them get their jaws off the ground because they cannot even fathom a situation like mine exists. They tell me that because they do not work with anyone who shares their demographic profile, they find it hard to see who and how they want to be professionally.

And that is the problem. I found the colleagues who changed my life through sheer luck. But teachers’ ability to have colleagues who share their experiences should not be left to kismet.

William Anderson is a teacher at Manual High School in Denver.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.