Gratitude For Black Teachers

I recently came across a piece titled, “Where Did All the Black Teachers Go,” by Brent Staples of the New York Times. I shared the piece with friends and colleagues across the U.S. The recipients have thanked me and agreed with how important this issue is.

A former New York City principal wrote, “So sad.” A colleague in Dallas believes one of his three daughters wants to become a teacher and said, “This is so important and it’s amazing how this was not that long ago.” A former student in Alexandria, Louisiana, said she had posted the article on Facebook, calling it a “good read.” A friend whose daughter teaches in a charter school in southwest Detroit said the article was helpful to both of them.

I asked my friend in Detroit to thank her daughter for choosing to teach. I feel so fortunate to have had wonderful black teachers during my public school education in New York City. Although there weren’t that many, they truly challenged and encouraged me with tough love. I loved the reference in the article to the “steely, well-educated African-American women who were sticklers for grammar, could freeze your misbehaving heart with a glare and had the unnerving habit of engaging our parents in conversation on the street.”

Cottrell Jones, a teacher who taught math at the then all-boys Brooklyn Technical High School, was influential in my life. Jones taught me how to fence after school at St. John’s Recreational Center in Crown Heights. He valiantly tried to discourage me from becoming a teacher. He was aware that times were changing and opportunities denied to his generation were now becoming available to mine. He wanted me to aim higher. However, I knew firsthand the enormous positive power that teachers have in changing their students’ lives. That was more appealing than becoming a medical doctor.

I also know that teachers are not superheroes and lone crusaders who against all odds magically produce miracles. To be sure, several studies show the positive impact that black teachers have on black students’ high school graduation rates and interest in college. However, they cannot compensate for institutionalized inequities that deny essential resources to generations of children of color and handicap low-income communities.

While it is essential to stock the pipeline with competent and dedicated teachers, we shouldn’t ignore the present situation for people trying to complete their education and find employment. That’s the frontline where I teach interpersonal skills to young adults, career changers, and military veterans in several U.S. cities. Upon the completion of their training, several of my students have been hired by General Electric, Prudential Financial, Johnson & Johnson, HP, Sealed Air, Covanta, Turner Construction, and other corporate clients of the nonprofit where I work. I prod, challenge and believe in these students. We are transforming people’s lives through mentoring, education and full-time employment.

While I was a full-time faculty member at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I started teaching a mentoring course for Workforce Opportunity Services (WOS). I had taken a course titled How Adults Learn at Teachers College with the founder of WOS, Dr. Arthur M. Langer. He invited me to visit a class and graduation. The graduation on Columbia’s campus was the clincher because family members who lived nearby and who had never been on the campus, wore their Sunday best and glowed with pride.

Under our traditional cohort, or group model, WOS partners with academic institutions and companies to customize training for specific entry-level positions. The trainees are initially hired as consultants by WOS, given health insurance and tuition to pursue undergraduate degrees. They are subsequently hired by the corporate client. We also help recent college graduates and military veterans find employment through our On Demand services. In 2014, we launched In The Community to offer our training expertise to any New York City resident. We partnered with public libraries, City University of New York schools and other nonprofits to offer workshops in effective communication, resume preparation, interviewing skills, professionalism in the workplace, business writing, setting goals and time management, learning styles and study strategies, and creating a LinkedIn profile. Our goal is to set up a Learning Center in every city where WOS operates.

As I have traveled around the U.S. teaching highly motivated and talented individuals from largely underserved communities, I witness the truth of Dr. Langer’s early research on the importance of self-esteem in people’s growth and advancement. It’s one thing for teachers, coaches and parents to believe in you. But the more lasting effect occurs when you believe in your own self-worth and abilities to overcome obstacles and persevere. Through our mentoring, we provide constructive feedback, support and challenge our students and consultants to dedicate themselves to excellence. But we wouldn’t see the longer-term success for these individuals if corporate partners weren’t willing to take the risk of investing in the training and then hiring these individuals. It’s a winning partnership that makes me proud of what I do and where I work.