Black Veterans Are Stepping Up to Lead Young People in the Classroom
Black Americans have a distinguished history of military service to this country. Our service is needed again, but this time it’s in schools.
On May 13, 2012, at Ogden Hall on Hampton University’s campus, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.
I remember that day vividly. I remember my uncle, Lt. Col. (Ret). Terry Albritton, administering my oath of office. I can recall my mother and father and how proud they were to pin my gold Second Lieutenant bars onto the shoulders of my freshly pressed blue Army service uniform.
That day was symbolic in many ways. It not only represented Hampton University’s long lineage of Black military officers, but it also represented the continuation of Black leaders throughout history heeding the call to step up and serve this nation. It was only right that my first unit of assignment would be the 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, one of the first all-Black regiments—a unit that personified Black Americans’ commitment to this country, the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
I learned some of my toughest leadership lessons through deployments, rotations, and training exercises in this unit. It was here where I learned the importance of leading through relationships and respecting an individual’s unique experiences.
While stationed in Korea with Darkhorse—our affectionate nickname for the 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment—I can recall a counseling session that I had with one of my Soldiers. He was a 25-year-old Black man from Philly, like myself. The counseling was about a verbal incident he had with his first-line supervisor. I don’t remember the details of our talk, but I do remember the feelings that I walked away with from our discussion. I remember feeling like I wasn’t doing enough to support young men who looked like me. I remember reflecting on the many young men and women who looked like us and came from neighborhoods like ours, and how lucky we were to get the opportunity to see something outside of our neighborhoods. It was at that moment that I decided to do more.
The decision I made would lead me to serve in a different capacity: as an educator in the classroom. I use the word “serve” because teaching is service. To teach is to serve your community and your country. The way we entrust teachers to lead our children in the classroom is not much different from the way we entrust our military leaders to lead our young people in peace or deadly strife. The stakes are just as high.
A lack of leadership in the military can very quickly equate to loss of life, the same way that a lack of leadership in our classrooms can equate to the loss of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I’ve taught eighth-, ninth-, and 11th-grade English, and today I serve as the director of curriculum and instruction at Freire Charter School Wilmington. In my role, I not only have a seat at the table to determine what and how my kids learn but also who teaches them. I have the distinct honor of leading a team of educators who are committed to justice, equity, anti-racism, and the social and economic liberation of our Black and brown babies in Wilmington, Delaware. Every day this team does the work to ensure that our kids feel physically, mentally, and emotionally safe, are academically challenged, and are ready to lead in their community.
The leadership lessons I learned in the military are put to the test every day in my school, and our teachers truly live out the motto of mission first, people always. Teachers must be able to lead through relationships, listen to their students, treat them with dignity and respect, and also be able to plan and prepare for every possible social and academic scenario.
Our kids are little human beings with so much genius and leadership potential, and when all of these things happen, that classroom is magical. All they need are leaders to step up and be their advocate. In a time when 27 percent of educators are considering leaving the profession due to COVID, who better to step up to lead the young people of America than those of us who already have the experience leading the young people of America? Black military veterans.
The most rewarding and fulfilling aspect of the military is developing relationships and mentoring future leaders. In the classroom, nothing is more rewarding than when a student has that “ah-ha” moment during a lesson or when a kid who is usually quiet has that breakout moment in a class discussion. I have witnessed, firsthand, the impact that Black educators can have on Black and brown kids. Black educators’ cultural awareness allows them to comfortably forge authentic relationships with students and then leverage those relationships to create goals and a shared educational purpose with their students.
A study published in 2015 by Adam C. Wright measured how Black and white teachers perceived Black students’ behaviors and found that the perception of Black students’ disruptive behavior improved by 50 percent when they had a Black teacher. And in a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found that Black male students exposed to just one Black teacher between 3rd and 5th grades were 39 percent less likely to drop out of school, and students of both genders were 19 percent more likely to say they wanted to pursue a college degree.
The impact of Black educators doesn’t just exist for Black students, but white students as well. In an EdWeek article, Gloria Ladson-Billings, an educator and critical race theorist, spoke to the impact that Black educators can have on white students. “There is something that may be even more important than Black students having Black teachers and that is white students having Black teachers! It is important for white students to encounter Black people who are knowledgeable and hold some level of authority over them,” she wrote. In a time that finds our country so divided, the need for Black educators has never been more compelling.
So, how do we get more Black educators into classrooms? The answer is simple, but the work is hard. We need to train, pay, and develop our teachers with the same energy that we put into paying, training, and developing our men and women in uniform. Districts and charter networks need to collaborate with organizations like Profound Gentlemen, Profound Ladies, and the Center for Black Educator Development, who are already doing the work to recruit, retain, and provide targeted professional development for Black educators. Federal, state, and local governments need to do their part to ensure that teachers are adequately compensated for the critical work that they do.
Additionally, they must do everything in their power to promote and honor the teaching profession in the same way that we promote and honor the military profession. Teaching is a tough job, and not everyone can do it. It is hands down the hardest job that I’ve ever done, but it’s time that we begin to acknowledge and uplift tough and honorable professions, like teaching, that aren’t dominated predominantly by white males.
The time is now. Black educators are a small percentage of the teaching force, but they have always understood that the purpose of education, especially for Black and brown students, is liberation. If we truly want to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, then there is no one more poised to transform these words in our founding documents into a reality in the United States than Black educators.
Since transitioning out of the military, my mission has changed, but my commitment to mission success has not. My mission is clear: to recruit and retain Black educators, especially Black veterans. When I think of who has taught and led me, and who I want to teach and lead my son, I think of Black educators. This is a no-fail mission and our children’s future depends on those who step up to shape it. Together, we can and we will.
Darren Rainey (Delaware ‘17) was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and works in Wilmington, Delaware. He attended Hampton University for his undergraduate studies and received his master of arts in teaching from Relay Graduate School of Education. After a short career in the U.S. Army, Darren transitioned to the classroom as a Teach For America corps member in the Delaware region where he has taught eighth-, ninth-, and 11th grade English. He serves as the director of curriculum and instruction at Freire Charter School Wilmington, an adjunct professor at the Relay Graduate School of Education’s Delaware campus, and an impact leader with Profound Gentlemen, Inc.
We want to hear your opinions! To submit an idea for an Opinion piece or offer feedback on this story, visit our Suggestion Box.
The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.