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.

cover image

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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.