The True Cost and Importance of being a Black Teacher

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[Black Teachers]
Crosby-Eckstine: “There is no shortage of statistics that highlight how few Black teachers there are in public schools…or how significant an impact that Black teachers can have on Black students.”
Photo: YouTube

Being a Black teacher, in a profession where there are not nearly enough, isn’t easy says teacher Erin Crosby-Eckstine.

It was a cool and sunny spring afternoon the first time I heard one of my students use the N-word.

It was lunch, and a few tenth-graders had crowded into my classroom to eat and talk about video games after my fourth-period English class. I was a student teacher at the time, and I was in charge of all the morning classes that day, as my mentor teacher was out sick. Her absence didn’t faze me; I’d grown close with my first-ever cohort of students, and it was far enough into the year that I felt comfortable in the classroom.

As I talked to the students about these multiplayer video games, telling them about my own teenage brother’s obsession, one of my students, a white male said, “It’s mostly just a bunch of 12-year-olds screaming, ‘N-word.’”

While I was aware he did not mean this as an attack, the word, as well as his flippancy toward its usage, felt like a slap in the face. I look back on that moment and wonder why I didn’t say more, why I didn’t mine my 24 years of race conversations to find the right thing to say, but truthfully I was frozen.

I left for the day shortly thereafter, cutting my afternoon graduate-school classes in favor of watching Dear White People in bed, in the hopes of salving the hurt I felt from what I had witnessed and the shame I felt at not being the anti-racist, ultra-knowledgable authority figure I was supposed to be.

I woke up the next day, went into school, and found a time to talk it over with the student, who, in standard white 15-year-old-boy fashion, hadn’t thought much of how that word could impact Black people in any context but apologized deeply once he realized it did. Truth be told, it didn’t surprise me that he didn’t know this.

The public school where I taught was “diverse by design,” and yet I could count on one hand the number of Black students I saw in the halls, let alone Black faculty. Years of gentrification and redlining had whitewashed the San Francisco Peninsula almost completely, pushing the entire Black community into the East Bay.

My grandmother was a teacher in the Bay Area, and I grew up listening to her tell stories about her classroom while I spent my primary years searching the front of my classrooms for faces that looked remotely like mine. I became a teacher to chip away at these walls of race and class that keep the majority of students in this country from accessing the type of education that wealthy students get simply by living in the right Zip Code or having parents who can pay a steep tuition.

I was fortunate enough to go to one of those sorts of schools in Los Angeles, and though the education I got gave me access to opportunities my ancestors could only dream of, I hated the school, and in turn myself, for being so steeped in such overt whiteness and classism.

I was assigned to read only a handful of Black authors in high school (which, to my high school’s credit, is a handful more than many others had the chance to). I learned nothing more about Black history than would be useful for getting me a high score on an AP exam.

I knew Black teachers existed, but I didn’t have one personally until my master’s program. High school felt like one long implicit message that there was no place for people who looked like me in intellectual society and that to gain access to that world, I needed to learn to be as white as possible.

James Baldwin sums up this tension perfectly in his 1963 essay, “A Talk to Teachers,” stating that a Black child “pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees ‘liberty and justice for all.’ He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth. But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization — that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”

There is no shortage of statistics that highlight how few Black teachers there are in public schools (just 7 percent, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics) or how significant an impact that Black teachers can have on Black students; so, if the benefits to students are so clear, why are there so few Black teachers?

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