First Person

Why students need more Black and Latino teachers: an exclusive excerpt from José Vilson’s “This is Not a Test”

José Luis Vilson is a longtime Chalkbeat contributor who teaches middle school math in Washington Heights. His book, This is Not a Test: a New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education,” will be released on May 6.

Before college, I only had one Black male teacher. His name was Mr. Wingate and he taught Computer Applications in twelfth grade. He didn’t teach me anything profound, since Microsoft products don’t lend themselves to intellectual depth or deep revelations, but he made an impression.

If I’ve done the math correctly, out of the fifty or so teachers I’ve had in my lifetime, only two or three of them were men of Black or Latino descent. For someone who was born and raised in New York City, that’s staggering.

You’re allowed to wonder why that’s so important. After all, teachers of all races, backgrounds, sexes, and ages have proven effective educators of urban youth.

I love that so many white people care about the plight of Black and Latino students that they’re open to working in the neighborhoods they’re in. Many of my white teachers were excellent. I get that there needs to be a diversity of experiences; our students have to survive in the same world as everyone else. A small part of me also thinks: Who better to teach urban youth the tools needed to survive in a predominantly white country than…white people?

But I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disturbed by the lack of representation of Black or Latino males as teachers. Some work as principals, school aides, and staff, and others are third-party vendors, education lawyers, and professors in institutions of higher education. Effective (and ineffective) teachers often leave the classroom in favor of these occupations; while plenty of men do great work in administration, too many men use it as a means of staying in education without grounding themselves in the educational practice of the classroom.

Because more than 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are women, our society also views teaching as “women’s work”—a category that often leads to demeaning and obtuse ways of dismissing teachers’ contributions. This dynamic compounds the already existing problem of society talking down to educators in our schools.

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Too many people don’t see the need to pay teachers well (one of the many issues at play in current contract negotiations) or to ensure they have proper working conditions because they see us as caretakers, not professionals. Where male-dominated professions like computer science or medicine get respect, the teaching profession still has to combat patriarchy.

The fact that so many people view teaching as a second-class profession speaks volumes about our society’s values. Plenty of men talk favorably about teachers, but when asked if they’d ever be teachers themselves, they respond, “I don’t have the patience,” and “You guys don’t get paid enough.”

In our society, money means stature, whether we value the person who holds the position or not. It’s not just coming from this generation, either. My mom, whom I love dearly, on occasion wonders aloud why, with all the stress and duress I endure as a teacher, I would put up with this mess when I could make 150 percent more as a computer programmer.

There are those who have left the profession because it’s really easy to get jaded about the school system and the human experience. I don’t know any fellow Black or Latino male (or female) teachers who think that every student in their school is getting properly served by this school system.

Some conclude that the system is hopeless. Others say, “We’ll continue to fight.” The latter are crucial. When our students see more Black or Latino sports figures populating a multimillion-dollar court or field and yet only one Black or Latino teacher in their whole grade, or two or three in their whole school, then they’re probably less inspired to take teaching seriously.

History helps explain the lack of male Black or Latino teachers, too. It was Mississippi-based teacher and National Board of Professional Teaching Standards board member Renee Moore who first told me the extraordinary story of how Black teachers in the South (especially males) were systematically dismissed or ostracized from their positions after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in anticipation of integrated public schools. Shortly thereafter, school boards removed Black educators in droves and replaced them with brand-new, mostly white teachers.

Nowadays, people rarely point out the racial undertones of replacing staff who achieved their positions via “traditional” routes with teachers who have completed a prestigious alternative certification program that mainly solicits people from the most exclusive colleges and the upper echelons of their college classes.

In 2011, I had the privilege of speaking at an event held by Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers, an organization founded by Dr. Bettye Perkins to encourage more teachers of color to enter the profession.

I told the group that in my first month of teaching, I had this crazy idea that I would transform my students’ lives and that they would change for me the way Jaime Escalante’s did in Stand and Deliver. They didn’t. But that first class was probably my favorite, and the one from which I learned the most.

One time, we did a lesson on percentages. I wrote my lesson using the technical aspects of finding percentages. As I began to teach it and see the bored look on my students’ faces, I had an idea. I wrote the word “percent” out and asked my kids, “Does anyone recognize a word in here?”

“Cent!”

I said, “Oh good! Now, has anyone ever heard of the word somewhere else, even in Spanish?”

Kids jumped out of their seats, they were so excited to answer.                                                  

A few kids shouted, “Ooh! Ooh! Centavo!”

“So what does centavo mean?”

“A penny!”

“And how many pennies do you need to get a dollar again?” “A hundred!”  

“So when we say percent we mean we’re comparing one thing out of a possible hundred.”

“OOHHHHH!!”

That piece of my lesson took about ten minutes more than I planned for, I explained. But it also made a huge difference. Teachers who can relate to their students on a cultural level can reach their students in important ways.

I’m not saying people from other cultures can’t help us, but every student of color could use a role model. If their role model just happens to be the teacher in front of them, that’s perfect.

We have high expectations for the children sitting in front of us because we were once them. We can tell the difference between a kid not knowing how to add fractions and not knowing how to say the word “fraction,” because many of us were once English language learners.

We don’t take “Yo, what up, teacher?” or “Hey, miss!” to be a sign of illiteracy, but a sign that they want to connect with us as human beings. Our importance as teachers of color stems from this dire need for kids of all races and backgrounds to see people of color as multidimensional and intelligent, different in culture but the same in capability and humanity.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

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

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.