In the late 1800s, children from Indian tribes were put on trains and sent to boarding schools sometimes hundreds of miles from their homes. Once they arrived, they were explicitly and implicitly taught that their culture and their people were backwards vestiges of the past. School taught them that Indians were powerless in the face of progress and their improvement and development depended on emulating the behaviors of the adults in charge.
As a country we still wrestle with questions of success and assimilation. In modern educational policy, outsiders look at communities of color where the legacy of segregation and mass incarceration have left a major mark, and sometimes come to a similar conclusion as the educational missionaries of the last century. To education reformers of the first decade of our century, urban schools should be made anew into places where “professionalism” and “high expectations” reign. At my Teach For America Institute more than a decade ago, a white pre-service teacher tearfully and emotionally explained that she entered this work because she wanted her students to have a good life. She meant that she wanted them to be able to get out of the hood. She felt comfortable, and maybe even righteous when she said this because among new teachers the missionary zeal was alive and well in 2006. This enthusiasm was reflected in policymakers who applauded teachers from prestigious colleges coming into low-income communities to teach. They were not applauding the black teachers who came through Baltimore City Public Schools and graduated from Coppin State. The newcomers and policymakers spent little time in 2006 thinking about the effects of supplanting a largely black teaching force with one that was increasingly white and not from Baltimore.
Ten years later, a teaching force that was at one point more than 60% black at one point is now closer to 30% African American. This drop has happened across all schools, but in the alternative schools and in the highest achieving schools, it’s the most damning and problematic. In alternative schools, role models and relationships take on special significance and the presence of black teachers can make students feel more safe. In high achieving schools, where the excellence of the faculty is a point of pride, we’re teaching our students about structural racism when the teaching force doesn’t look like the rest of the city.
When black students leave their homes and enter into schools where a majority of the staff is white, it’s impossible for them not to learn what the world is telling them about their own race, access to learning, and power. The effects of daily micro-agressions multiply and compound until some students come to the conclusion that achievement and higher education isn’t for them. Notable books and articles have been written about the effects of the decline in black teachers (Lisa Delpit’s Multiplication is for White People and Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too are notable examples). We need a larger local conversation about how we can stem the tide of black teachers who were discounted and counseled out of the profession at the height of reform. Teacher’s Democracy Project has created a short film on this issue and during the Black Lives Matter Week of Action at Schools, BMORE will be hosting a conversation about this issue and what we can do. We owe our students an education that affirms their identity at the same time as it ignites in them a love of learning.