I’m a black male elementary teacher, and I’ve just finished my first year working for a black principal. It’s been incredible. I’m fortunate to have worked with school leaders of all races and genders. But perhaps because of his life experiences, my current principal has a certain mix of rare qualities that have created a powerfully positive working environment for me.
It hasn’t always been that way in my teaching career. I’ve felt sidelined, misunderstood, and disrespected at some of the other schools where I’ve taught. It’s just the opposite in my new job.
The first day of our planning week last August was eye-opening. I was immediately struck by the diversity of the school faculty and staff. Each department and grade level had people from various backgrounds. People of color are a huge part of the leadership and resource teams. I had never witnessed anything close to this kind of staff makeup in my 12 years teaching. I could see that staff diversity is a key pillar for my principal in creating a healthy, equitable school culture.
The culture at this school allows for open and honest dialogue about the impact of the inequities that have created an educational debt in communities of color.
For those conversations to happen in a meaningful way, staff must have a deep knowledge of the issues that face marginalized communities. From the many conversations I’ve had with colleagues, it is clear that they understand this.
School leaders understand that the wrong discipline policies can create a school-to-prison pipeline. The school practices restorative justice, which focuses on mediation and holding students accountable for their actions rather than punishing them, and uses the Responsive Classroom model of behavior management, which emphasizes students’ social and emotional needs. And a driving force behind instruction is a focus on what the children need.
These conversations take place regularly in planning and faculty meetings, and clearly had been for years at my new school. Whether it be culturally meaningful and honest instruction or meeting kids where they are academically and focusing on growth, the culture of the school is student-centered.
In my new job, I truly feel that I am a valuable member of the school community. I feel free to communicate my ideas, and I’m treated with respect when they are different or new. I think a big part of the reason for that is because our school leadership, especially the principal, can call on their experiences as students of color, and later as teachers and administrators of color, to inform the decisions they make about the needs of the largely nonwhite, low-income community we serve. My principal understands the value of teachers of color serving marginalized groups because he knows what we bring to the table.
It’s not just my experience, either. There’s research to back this up. A new study found that black teachers are more likely to stay longer at schools with black principals, and that when those schools hire new teachers, they’re more likely to be teachers of color.
At my new school, black teachers and other teachers of color are hired because of our first-hand experiences being part of the same marginalized communities we serve, our deep concern that equips us with the strength to bear the weight of the trauma that our communities experience, and our drive to pay back the educational debt owed those communities. For the first time in my career, I feel empowered.
In the past, I’ve sat in staff meetings where it was clear that the needs of marginalized students were not a priority. Early in one recent teaching job, I began to be concerned about the gaps that most of my students of color exhibited in their learning. I decided to bring up those concerns in planning meetings and, on one occasion, in a meeting with the principal.
I said I wanted to build in additional supports for children with gaps in their learning, and hoped I’d have the opportunity to plan with resource teachers and instructional coaches. I was told that planning for “those kids” should take place before school hours. It was clear to me that equity wasn’t even on the school leadership’s radar, let alone a priority.
When a second-year white teacher made the same suggestion months later, however, the instructional support team and grade-level team moved immediately in that meeting to gathering resources and planning around the needs of the students in her class.
I realized that the challenge of meeting students’ needs wasn’t the issue. The people in the building didn’t take me seriously. I didn’t feel respected or valued, and that lack of respect had nothing to do with my knowledge and ability.
I decided to look for another job. I wanted to serve in a school where faculty and staff reflected the community and were invested in the welfare of the students and families they served. To increase the chances of working in a school like that, I decided to aim for a school with a principal of color. That was a challenge in and of itself.
I looked for black principals in my school district who served marginalized communities. Of the more than 140 elementary schools, I found 16 black principals, two of whom were male. I reached out, heard back from one of them, interviewed, and got the job.
Being a public school teacher in the United States is stressful. In addition to our standard duties, there are things we aren’t necessarily trained for. For example, the emotional toll of carrying the baggage of fear for the welfare of the community you serve can be draining.
I also carry with me the angst that comes with being a black man in a society that has created a negative and frightening narrative about us. As a black male teacher in the elementary setting—a setting dominated by white women sheltered by that privilege—the stress I experience on any given day could be connected to my anxiety about being an outcast, or my fear of losing my job after sharing progressive ideas that no one in leadership positions understands.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that schools with white principals can’t understand the needs of underserved students and be committed to equity. You don’t have to be a teacher of color to understand the needs of students from marginalized communities. I don’t know what my current white colleagues thought or felt about marginalized communities before they came to this school, but I know that now they are committed to doing the work of understanding the community’s ways of being and knowing because it is a priority.
They take the equity training seriously. The administration leads the staff in engaging in hard conversations about race in this country and culturally responsive classroom management is a driving force in our school’s culture. And through programs like the summer library, in which books are brought from the school into the community, and the family food market, a monthly distribution of free, fresh produce and pantry items, the administration and teachers find ways to maintain relationships with the community. All of these things place the community at the center of the school’s culture.
Working in a school where the community is at the heart of the school’s culture is refreshing. It’s reminded me of why I became a teacher, and it’s my reason for wanting to stay in education for years to come.