In 1994, my parents purchased their first home in Glasgow Village in North St. Louis County, MO. I remember the excitement when my parents told my two younger sisters and me that our new house was big enough for each of us to have our own room. Finally! Now I could decorate my room with pictures of people I admired.
Although we had moved, we still maintained traditions that we engaged in while living in our two-bedroom apartment. One of these traditions included watching TV as a family before bedtime. If it was a Tuesday evening, we were watching “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” a sitcom centered around a black man who was a teacher and basketball coach at a public high school. I admired him. At the time, I was a quiet student in Mrs. Taylor’s fourth-grade class at Koch Elementary School. Mrs. Taylor was a strong, no-nonsense teacher who had extremely high expectations of her students. She was also my first black teacher. I admired her.
In 1999, I started high school. One of my favorite teachers was Dr. Brooks, a super cool black male art teacher who frequently dressed as sharp as Mr. Hightower, a character on “The Steve Harvey Show”—another sitcom my family frequently watched. Like Mr. Cooper, Mr. Hightower was a black educator in a public high school. Between TV and school, my experiences led me to believe that not only were teachers of color the norm, but that I, too, could be an educator.
Throughout my K–12 experience, I was fortunate to have more than 15 teachers and principals who shared the same brown skin as me. They all challenged me, had extremely high expectations of me, and exemplified professionalism. But in today’s educational landscape, having a black or brown teacher or principal is not the norm.
All schools should be discussing how to attract, recruit, retain, and support educators of color, but we must also focus our attention on eliminating the current conditions in schools that make entering the field of education a less desirable career path for students of color. Students of color sidestep the education field because of conditions such as traumatic school experiences, fellow educator dispositions and prejudices, prejudging parents, cultural assimilation, and the aftermath of the court case Brown v. Board of Education.
The Aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) is often celebrated as major progress in the Civil Rights Movement. However, for many black educators and schools, integration was much more about regression, loss, and resegregation. According to a report by USA Today, in the 11 years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, more than 38,000 black educators in the South, including 90 percent of black principals, lost their jobs as school districts worked to be compliant under the court ruling.
I often wonder what the lasting effects were of so many black educators losing their jobs only 55 years ago. How might the children and grandchildren of those who lost their jobs view the field of education as a career path? Furthermore, would the black educators who kept their jobs now advocate for people of color to enter the education field, considering the mistreatment of their colleagues? That mistreatment led to many traumatic experiences for both the teachers and students of color.
Traumatic School Experiences
Today, school personnel are becoming more trauma-informed in their attempt to better support their students’ emotional health. The role that stress plays in student learning is more evident than ever. But how should educators address and prevent the trauma that is caused by the school community itself?
Black and brown students receive discipline referrals and consequences at an alarming rate when compared to their white counterparts, which causes many students to associate school with unfairness, racism, and a place where they cannot be their authentic selves. Furthermore, when schools fail to have deep and courageous conversations with their black and brown students about inequities within the school, the trauma caused by school culture persists.
If more schools examined their systems through a critical race lens and made the necessary changes to dismantle these systems, the number of black and brown students being open to entering the field of education would certainly increase.
Educator Dispositions and Prejudices
Teachers naturally play a large role in recruiting more black and brown students into the field of education. Too often, stereotypes remain a driving force in teacher interactions with students of color. Black and brown students who possess strong educator qualities—patience, ability to build relationships, strong work ethic—are seldom encouraged to consider the education field.
A 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University revealed that white teachers have significantly lower expectations of black and brown students than black teachers do. Without the necessary affirmation from educators to help students envision themselves as teachers, there could be multiple missed opportunities for students of color to become educators. In addition, if black and brown students attend a school that doesn’t have many, if any, educators of color, being an educator may not appear to be a feasible profession for those students.
We have all heard some variation of the narrative stereotype that black and brown parents are not involved in their children’s education as much as white parents. However, school structures can be quite intimidating for black and brown parents. For example, I know one involved black father who is supportive and vigilant with his child’s education. Unfortunately for him, he also fits the profile of what the media portrays as a dangerous man. Because of this perception, a few teachers took it upon themselves to research this man. After discovering that he had been arrested a few years prior, these same teachers began treating him differently and requested security any time he was scheduled for a conference. This same supportive parent was judged by his past and shunned by the school as a result.
We often see conversations about actual and perceived achievement disparities among black and brown students when compared to their white counterparts. What’s not discussed nearly as much is the cultural assimilation many black and brown students have to partake in to be successful within the school structure.
For students from the dominant culture (white Euro-American), the school experience is a reinforcement of the morals and values that are taught at home. For all others, success often requires pressing pause on their own cultural norms and assimilating into the majority’s dominant culture. Learning outcomes for black and brown students would be much higher if their school experience were also a reinforcement of their culture. Accomplishing such a task requires a shift in the curricula toward more inclusionary perspectives and eliminating the pervasive marginalization of black and brown stories and voices in school.
The International Bureau of Education defines an inclusive curriculum as one “which takes into consideration and caters for the diverse needs, previous experiences, interests, and personal characteristics of all learners.” That stated, schools can become more inclusionary within their curricula by eliminating the overemphasis of black and brown people in subservient capacities and affirming the culture, relevance, voices, and historical contributions instead of dismissing them and approaching their learning from a deficit model.
The Harsh Reality
It’s been nearly 20 years since Mr. Cooper and Mr. Hightower were on national TV. I am often reminded that an entire generation has never seen a sitcom with a black educator in the lead role. And as unfortunate as this may be, it pales in comparison to the fact that so many students have never had a teacher or principal of color.
We are all ultimately responsible for the success of our students. Too many of us believe that everything our students need to be successful in life is already present in our schools. But just like the countless black and brown students who can’t see themselves as teachers, the harsh reality is that there are also countless school administrators and educators who can’t see it either, and that is a catastrophic absence of diversity in education.
Howard E. Fields III, PhD, is a principal at Givens Elementary and the Steger 6th Grade Center in the Webster Groves School District in Webster Groves, MO. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis.