The Value of Black Teachers
I didn’t know until this year how immensely privileged I was during my high school and academic years. In grades K through 8, I was in upstate New York, first in Colonie/Albany, and then in a rural town in Fulton County, with a brief stint in Syracuse. Fulton County had/has an active KKK chapter there. I am not sure who was a member as there was more corn than people in the county, and I was the only Black child in the school district until 8th grade, so there were more klan members and corn than there were Black folks. My teachers were 100% white, so white that it was not unusual for the history teacher to go off-textbook and say that the Civil War was about “states’ rights” and not slavery, or for the English teacher to go on a 15-minute rant about the evils of communism if Dukakis were to be elected president.
When I moved to Baltimore, the whiteness of my teachers went from 0% to sometimes 100%. I was in two high schools my freshman year. In both, I had 30% to 50% Black teachers. My guidance counselors were Black. My principals and vice principals were Black. I was more amazed that a school could be large enough to warrant a vice principal than I was that they were Black. After all, I was in Baltimore; why WOULDN’T they be Black? I gave no thought to my Black algebra, Latin, American history teachers. In fact, the only white teacher I remember having my first year was my German teacher. My entire high school career, I had one white math teacher.
Upon attending Morgan State University, a white teacher was an anomaly, but my teachers were even more diverse. We had Indian, Chinese, Japanese engineering professors. We had teachers from Nigeria and Ethiopia and Uganda. College life was difficult. Our electromagnetics teacher banned use of our precious TI-85 calculators (which was great since I couldn’t afford one). We had to solve complex calculus and differential equations BY HAND. Our final was oral, and I failed the course my first time taking it. Our English teachers had write things out instead of typing, and if we so much as scratched out a word, points were deducted. I cursed a lot of my teachers throughout my career; all their perceived harshness garnered me not-so-great grades (2.85 GPA), but they also yielded 3 international internships and a decent career corporate engineering job with a major company weeks after my December graduation.
My post-undergraduate career was standard, with the usual microaggressions that go along with being young and Black and in a corporate job. I was mistaken for the custodian twice in a week one time. A lot of people asked how I got the job, whether there was a waver for the Bachelor of Science requirement, whether I had military experience which counted as education. One “colleague” actually COULD fathom that I went to college, but when asked where I went and I proudly said Morgan State University, he rolled his eyes and said, “Morgan? Really?” Keep in mind that this individual never went to college. I could have told him about how my entry salary was $3,000 more than my white colleagues the same year or how I’d seen more of the world my junior and senior year university summers than he’d seen his whole life, but I bit my tongue, because I didn’t want to get fired, but I digress.
How does my academic career make me spoiled? I saw the statistics, but just talking to my friends, I realized that some of them have never had a Black or even Brown teacher their entire academic life. Even friends from New York City, a metropolis that is known for its diversity, maybe had a gym or English teacher or substitute, but many of their faculty was as whitewashed as their McGraw-Hill American history books. I took my privilege for granted.
I think about it, and most of my math and science teachers were Black, and I have a decent 20-year career in engineering and technology. Most of my English teachers were also Black, and I took up writing, a hobby that has gotten me quite a few paid writing gigs. This speaks nothing of how those teachers helped me outside of the classroom. I appreciated my Trigonometry teacher who delayed a test for me because it was the same day that we were being evicted from our house. My first academic advisor fought hard for me to get free on-campus housing when I didn’t have a home to go to, all while I was trying to hide that fact from everybody. An engineering teacher whose class I had not even taken yet secured financial aid for me when I lost my scholarship. It is only my speculation that I may not have gotten that much help had I gone to another school, but given how others have fared without that attention to their on- and off-campus life, I feel quite certain.
I try not to conflate correlation and causation, but I doubt that I would be where I am were it not for the multicultural faculty who educated me. Studies even show that a diverse faculty is beneficial to everyone, not just Black students. White students enjoy a much more fulfilling academic career with more teachers who don’t look like them. We focus so much on drilling STEM into our children, but another important aspect is who is giving them their lessons. As schools open up at whatever spectrum of online to in-person, It matters greatly that their teachers reflect the broader world if they wand a well-rounded education, and I feel that we are doing a great disservice to our youth by not providing that to them.
About Chris Thompson
(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes and regularly posts on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon. Chris is also a regular contributor for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com
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