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 was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.