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

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.