This week’s news that Paterson, N.J., teacher Jennifer O’Brien was suspended from her job after declaring earlier this year that she was merely a “warden for future criminals” (instead of her actual role as a first-grade teacher), has led to discussions about the need for more black and Latino teachers — especially men — in America’s teaching corps. Commentator Dr. Boyce Watkins, in particular, declared in a piece for NewsOne that the lack of diversity in the teaching corps has led to “Black/brown inner city children poisoned by the white female teacher from the suburbs”. The solution, argues Watkins, is to recruit the “thousands of highly-qualified Black and brown teachers, consultants and counselors who know how to handle Black children.”
Certainly, Watkins is right that we need more minorities in the teaching profession, and just as importantly, we need more men in the teaching ranks. Women make up 79 percent of the nation’s teachers and most of them are white. This lack of diversity in the teaching ranks has helped contribute to a major problem in education: The lack of role models, especially men of all races and backgrounds, who can serve as powerful examples of achievement for our children. Young men of all ages need strong male role models. And young black men, half of whom will likely drop out of high school before they reach senior year of high school after a decade of educational neglect and malpractice, need them most of all.
Yet Watkins fails to consider that there are plenty of examples of black teachers and leaders who think just as lowly of black children (and kids of other backgrounds). Consider Jersey City Superintendent Charles Epps, who was chastised by Dropout Nation and others earlier this year for declaring that the young women attending the traditional public schools there were “our worst enemy” in his (abysmal) effort to improve education in the district, and that many of the kids in the district’s schools were “dirty, nasty, bad”. Then there are the even worse examples of low expectations for black children in districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools and Detroit’s woeful school system, where blacks control the central offices, hold principal jobs, serve as school board members and make up large percentages of the teaching corps. That some of the best-performing schools and districts in America for black and Latino children include charter school outfits founded by white men such as the Knowledge Is Power Program and Green Dot, along with the fact that some of the most-important reform efforts that are helping black children succeed are also being led by whites, also proves false the notion that only black teachers and leaders can serve black children.
If anything, there are plenty of black teachers and black principals who care just as little for the educational, economic and social futures of black children as those of other races. This shouldn’t be surprising. As University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee teaching guru Martin Haberman points out, most of the nation’s university schools of education are geared toward preparing teachers to work in suburbia and with white students, failing to prepare them for urban backgrounds and to work with black, Latino and Asian children, no matter their economic background. Given that most black teachers and principals are educated in those same schools — and come from middle class backgrounds having little experience dealing with poor children — it isn’t shocking that many of them may be just as ill-equipped to teach black kids, especially those from poor households, as their white and Latino peers. There are plenty of black teachers and leaders like Epps who could use some courses in cultural competency.
There is also the problem that far too many teachers — along with others working in American public education — embrace the Poverty Myth of Education, that only some kids can learn, that children from poor and minority households are incapable of mastering anything more than rudimentary knowledge, and that their families deserve little more than disdain and pity. Even if they don’t say it publicly, they privately believe this myth to be gospel — and it can’t help but affect their teaching. Jean-Claude Brizard, the new head of Chicago Public Schools — where African-Americans make up 30 percent of all teachers and 40 percent of staff overall — hit upon that point yesterday during his presentation before the City Club of Chicago.
But empathy for children isn’t the only part of being a high-quality teacher. They must also have strong subject knowledge competency, have strong instructional ability, be gifted as classroom leaders, should hold kids, adults and themselves to high expectations, and must be entrepreneurial self-starters who can take on classrooms no matter what they are. Right now, we don’t have enough of these teachers, either for black children or for all kids. As the National Council on Teacher Quality pointed out last month in its latest report on teacher preparation, one out of every four ed schools didn’t require their ed school students interning as student teachers to spend time with mentoring teachers to learn all the things full-time teachers must do (including engaging parents) once they leave for classrooms. Add in the fact that 54 percent of all teachers are trained at ed schools with low entrance requirements — along with the reality that few ed schools properly train teachers in the science of teaching reading and mathematics — and it will be hard for even a caring, culturally competent teacher to provide high-quality instruction to any student, no matter their race or class.
The case of Jennifer O’Brien does exemplify the need for diversity in teaching staffs. It also shows the problems that black families have in securing high-quality education for our kids, even in relatively diverse suburban communities such as Fairfax County. But, more importantly, it shows the need for improving how we recruit and train teachers in the first place. We need to select high-quality talents who care for children and also can do all the things teachers must do to help our kids succeed. We must overhaul how we train teachers — even starting new alternative teacher training programs outside of ed schools — in order to get those teachers ready for every child and classroom. And we have to hold every teacher, principal and superintendent to accountable for doing the best for all of our kids and especially black children.
Our kids deserve better than to be called criminals by laggard, uncaring teachers and leaders. They deserve a high-quality education fit for their futures.