By Sundjata Sekou
Who a student’s teacher will be is a lesson in segregation!
If you don’t believe me, close your eyes and think about a teacher. Who comes to mind?
More than likely you didn’t think of someone who is Black, Latinx, Asian, or someone whose lineage is from a predominantly Muslim country.
You probably thought of a white person. Being more descriptive, you more than likely thought of a white female.
You almost certainly didn’t think of someone like me. I am Black, male and a teacher. Yes, we exist in New Jersey! But our numbers are bleak. According to New Jersey Policy Perspective, only 1.7% of New Jersey teachers are Black males. This issue of Black men not being teachers in the classroom affects every student, but it affects Black boys disproportionately.
When it comes to educational attainment, as a group, Black boys are normally at the bottom of most statistical categories. For Black boys, this educational crisis starts the moment they are born in a racist American society that applauds their athletic abilities yet shuns their intellectual capabilities.
This educational crisis is exacerbated in K-12 classrooms where most Black boys are placed with teachers who may not understand them and cannot relate to them. In turn, the teacher may seem boring to the Black male students. To them, the teacher may appear scared of them or agitated by their presence.
This atmosphere of bias and educational displeasure turns into situations where Black boys are thrust into special education at an alarming rate and exhibit a lack of proficiency in reading and mathematics compared to their white counterparts. They are punished more harshly than any other student group. Faced with these circumstances, many Black boys drop out and end up being incarcerated.
I was one of those Black boys who was disillusioned by the educational system. After arriving from Jamaica at the age of 9, I witnessed a New Jersey educational system that neglected and showed outward contempt to Black boys. This system of education hid the contributions of people of African descent and exalted the contributions of people from European descent. This New Jersey educational system rarely had any Black, Latinx, or Asian teachers. Even more rare, was the sight of Black men in the classroom.
Faced with a New Jersey education system that derided Black boys, concealed the historical contributions of our ancestors, and rarely had Black male teachers, we rebelled against the system.
Starting in elementary school, my friends and I disrupted the class, our lessons and the teacher. Instead of seeking a program that would reach us, bring out the best in us, and engage us intellectually, our schools suspended us at an alarming rate. By the time we reached the 10th grade, many of my friends stopped going to school.
When I was in the 11th grade, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley came into my possession. That book spoke to my existence, to what was going on in my urban community, and to my role as a Black boy transitioning into being a Black man in America. That book answered the who, what, where, and why of the way things are in America.
At the root of it was that America has struggled and has not sufficiently dealt with the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery, Jim Crow, “Separate but Equal” and racism. These maladies are in the DNA of America and imbued in every system, including the education system. It is not hyperbolic to write that this book changed my life by answering my questions about America.
Armed with this new invigorating knowledge, I graduated high school, community college, state university, and ultimately earned two graduate degrees. Although I endured the educational system and worked for a nonprofit, I kept thinking about Black boys like Jimmy Drama, P-Andre, Debo, Mike, Andy, Sal, and many of my friends who stopped going to school. I wondered what would have happened if these brilliant Black boys were given a book that resonated with them, had a teacher who believed in them, or were introduced to a curriculum that expanded their knowledge?
As I shared these thoughts with my wife and people who I worked with, each individual would say, “You should become a teacher.” For years, I fought the feeling to become a teacher because of what teachers DIDN’T do for my friends. But, I constantly had two questions in my mind. The first one was should I become a teacher? The second and more important question was, “What type of teacher will I be?”
I decided to become a teacher and vowed to be the teacher I never had. I also sought out the opportunity to work in an urban community. It was the best professional decision I made in my life.
I have taught third and fourth grades, but learning is more than what happens in a classroom. Therefore, with support from the principal of my school, I have organized men in the community to welcome students back on the first day of school. I have organized boys-only assemblies where all the men in the building speak to the boys and equally all the women speak to the girls.
Also, every year, I’ve arranged for students who get suspended, written up, and are disruptive in class to go with National Honor Society and Student Council students to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There they witness evidence of their historical African and Mesoamerican greatness. In the museum, students get knowledge of who they are, what can be accomplished, and why there are artifacts from their ancestors in the museum.
Thus, this article is a call to action for the following to occur in New Jersey:
1. All New Jersey boards of education (I am a former board of education member) should hire more Black men as teachers. All students need to see Black men in the classroom. But Black boys, in particular, many of whom are withering instead of flourishing in New Jersey classrooms, need to see Black men in the classroom.
2. Once Black men are hired, value, support, and invite your Black male teachers to be a part of the school leadership team.
3. DO NOT SIMPLY MAKE YOUR BLACK MALE TEACHERS THE UNOFFICIAL DEANS OF DISCIPLINE!
4. The New Jersey Department of Education should make existing laws more robust by recruiting Black men to become teachers and supporting those Black men who are teachers. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed S-703 into law in 2019, establishing a pilot program within the Department of Education to recruit disadvantaged or minority men to teach in certain underperforming schools under an alternate-route program. Also, the New Jersey Legislature should pass Senate Education Chair Teresa Ruiz’s recently introduced bills to diversify the state’s teaching profession.
5. Become culturally competent in order to academically motivate Black boys. The New Jersey School Performance Report indicates that 83.6% of teachers in the state are white. A report from New Jersey Policy Perspective titled “New Jersey’s Teacher Workforce, 2019” points out that New Jersey teachers are overwhelmingly white and female. The report states that white women made up 66% of the teacher workforce. Because of residential segregation in New Jersey, a classroom could be the first time that a white female teacher is interacting daily with Black boys. To build relationships with Black boys, white female teachers should become knowledgeable about different aspects of Black culture. They must not disregard the impact of racism on Black boys’ schooling experiences. They must keep in mind the effect of a lack of resources in their communities and parents’ negative interaction with the educational establishment.
6. When teaching Black boys, train and educate yourself on how to CHECK YOUR BIASES AT THE DOOR! This means to make sure that your stereotyping of Black boys is not causing lower academic expectations and a refusal to recommend them for gifted and talented programs.
Over half of all public school students in New Jersey are students of color, but the teaching workforce does not reflect this reality. Thus, moving forward, districts should hire people of color and, in particular, more Black men!
Sundjata Sekou is a third-grade math and science teacher at Mount Vernon Avenue Elementary School in Irvington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 908-247-7136.
TCNJ: The Center for Future Educators and the Urban Teacher Academy futureeducators.tcnj.edu
The Center for Future Educators (CFE) at the College of New Jersey is a focused, organized, grassroots campaign designed to usher in a new era in the field of teaching. It offers a unique vision for the recruitment and development of middle school and high school students. These future educators, in the capacities of scholars, leaders and social entrepreneurs, will help to shape New Jersey’s communities. As such, they must have rich and varied opportunities to prepare for this reimagined role—a role that will bolster the image of the teaching profession across the state.
The College of New Jersey’s Urban Teacher Academy (UTA) is offered to high school juniors interested in pursuing careers in urban education and/or high shortage subject areas. This intensive, two-week summer program is designed to attract students to teaching in high poverty schools and/or high shortage subject areas through exposure to a curriculum and practicum experiences that focus on teaching.
New Jersey Department of Education:
Educator Recruitment, Preparation and Recognition
The Office of Recruitment, Preparation, and Recognition (RPR) leads policy development to ensure that every student, school, and district will have access to well-trained, effective educators that meet the particular needs of their local communities. To do this, we must attract and retain excellent educators in New Jersey, ensure that they are prepared to be effective on their first day on the job, and recognize their contributions to our students and to the profession.
NJEA Members of Color Network
The NJEA Members-of-Color Network is an intentional organizing effort to connect and engage with an underrepresented affinity group within our association. Our goal is to elevate the advocacy, engagement, and ownership that all members have in their union. Through targeted conversations and continual advocacy and educational opportunities, we believe we will grow a stronger association reflecting our rich diversity of membership.
NJEA REAL Movement
Join NJEA’s REAL Movement, which stands for racial equity, affirmation, and literacy. Racial equity is our aspirational purpose in this work of transforming New Jersey’s public education system. Racial affirmation challenges the “colorblind” narrative with the power of diversity and visibility. Racial literacy connects NJEA members to their power as educators to be generational gamechangers. Movements elevate a collective vision for a better world by activating and organizing the power of the people. By joining the REAL Movement, you will embark on a learning journey with a diverse community of colleagues who are connected through shared values.
Source: New Jersey Department of Education, state.nj.us/education/data/cs/cs19.
*According to New Jersey Policy Perspective, only 1.6% of all teachers are Black men.