The Legacy of Black Teachers in the Classroom
For Black History Month, educators reflect on the power of sharing an identity with students, teachers, and mentors.
Janee Hardy envisions a day when more Black teachers and leaders enter, and stay, in the profession. It will mark a meaningful shift in education, she says, allowing “students of color to really embrace who they are, their individuality, their uniqueness, and their identity.”
Janee taught early childhood education as a 2015 Greater Tulsa corps member and now coaches teachers in the region. When she was growing up, she did not have many teachers that looked like her. She says there were times when she didn’t always embrace her Black identity. She felt like white was the standard, or she wasn't good enough. “When I got older, I recognized these stigmas were not only untrue but detrimental notions to internalize,” she says.
Research has shown that students benefit when they have a teacher who shares a similar identity and background. Black students, in particular, were more likely to graduate and enroll in college if they had just one Black teacher by the third grade. While having more Black teachers in classrooms can lead to better outcomes for all students, not just those who share their teacher’s identity, there is still work to be done to attract and retain more Black teachers and school leaders in education.
In honor of Black History Month this February, we asked current and former Black educators to share their personal stories about the Black teachers and mentors who made a significant difference in their lives. They also share their hopes for students in the future with increased representation and diversity among teachers in the classroom.
More Than a Teacher
My teachers treated me like part of a family.
"I didn't have any Black male teachers growing up. But I did have a Black male school counselor in middle school who mattered a lot to me. I was kind of a troubled kid. I was almost held back. But he's the person who took me in. I remember I used to go to his office to do work. I felt safe there. He really cared about me and treated me like family. He and my dad also had a really good relationship. They both helped me stay on the straight and narrow and got me through middle school." Jason Terrell (Charlotte ‘12) Co-founder & CEO Profound Gentlemen
"Having a Caribbean elementary school teacher elevated my confidence, taught me discipline, and created high expectations for myself. My assimilation into American culture as a child in Brooklyn was an easy transition for me. I could identify with other children and teachers who looked like me, and who were from the same cultural background as myself. It helped me feel comfortable and safe in school." Ariel Campbell (Las Vegas ‘15) Elementary School Teacher
"When I began school I was really shy and actually had extreme anxiety around being separated from my parents. Having teachers throughout elementary and middle school who looked like me really helped me to get over that hump of feeling like, who am I? Is this a safe place for me? What am I going to be learning? Those teachers were really patient and nurturing and made me feel safe. They helped me to develop early on academically." Jessica Brown (Kansas City ‘09) Manager, Teacher Leadership Development Teach For America St. Louis
I saw role models for what is possible.
"When I went to college, I was surrounded by more professors who looked like me, and I noticed my classroom experience was different. It was then when I began to truly see the importance of an education. As a Black woman and former Black educator, I understand now how important it is to educate myself and carry myself in excellence and represent that for my Black and brown students." Janee Hardy (Greater Tulsa ‘15) Manager, Teacher Leadership Development Teach For America Greater Tulsa
"I had about four educators who were African American. Seeing them in the classroom really shaped my experiences because they gave me hope. I could actually grow up and be an educator, I could be worthy. I think that it also affirmed that people of color do have the skill sets and capability if they want to go on to do something better for themselves, even if society sometimes says that it's not possible." AD Williams (Indianapolis '18) 3rd Grade Teacher and 3rd/4th Grade Team Lead
"Representation matters. Kids become what they can see. During my time in the classroom, it was really important for me to bring in Black professionals from a variety of different sectors so my kids could have that exposure. Just to show them that there are a lot of different people in this world doing a lot of different things. If you get a good education, this could be you as well. It's possible." Shonterrio Harris (Indianapolis '15) Special Assistant to the Governance Team Indianapolis Public Schools
"Being that representation of a Black, female STEM teacher for my students meant breaking down a lot of stigma for my Black girls around math and science. I think having me in front of them, actually doing experiments with them or teaching them math, was an example of not just telling them but showing them that they can do it." Jessica Brown (Kansas City ‘09) Manager, Teacher Leadership Development Teach For America St. Louis
Making an Additional Positive Impact on Students
I showed my students what it means to own your Black identity.
"As a teacher, I was a beacon of connection between families and as well as students. And a big part of that was just showing up as my authentic self. I have visible tattoos, I like to come in with my hair in waves. Whatever the case is, I can bring myself into my classroom. A lot of my students--especially my males--could see themselves reflected in me, and could see what it looked like to be an educator who shared their background." Jason Terrell (Charlotte ‘12) Co-founder & CEO Profound Gentlemen
"I can remember being in private school and not really having a lot of representation of people who looked like me or sounded like me in the classroom. When I went to college, I really learned what it meant to live into Black excellence. And I was able to project that same image to my students when I began my teaching career." Yuri Thornton Manager, New Teacher Development Teach For America
"With more teachers of color in the classroom, students are less likely to see aspects of their culture (language, dress, music) as inferior or things that need to be left behind to succeed in the professional world. Students look up to teachers, and if they see someone embracing and celebrating their culture, they are more likely to do the same." Ryan Calvin (Indianapolis ‘16) Manager, Talent Teach For America Indianapolis
"As a teacher, I felt this urge to just be myself. I never experienced that in any environment before. Being a Black person growing up is all about code-switching. It's all about how to fit into a certain mold. But what my students pushed me to do was to focus on who I am. I was able to be my full authentic self with my students. They needed to see what it looks like to own your story." Mario Jovan Shaw (Charlotte ‘12) Co-founder & Chief Impact Officer Profound Gentlemen
I shared an authentic connection, and love with my students and families.
"Every day I intentionally made sure to hug my students and allow them to feel like they could be who they are. I always said, if there’s one thing that you should know, it’s that Ms. Hardy loves you, I realized that was the most powerful influence of change. It wasn't the lessons it wasn't achieving strong data or even teaching the content information. It was truly exhibiting love." Janee Hardy (Greater Tulsa ‘15) Manager, Teacher Leadership Development Teach For America Greater Tulsa
"I think because we are in the minority so much, and sometimes when we are in the majority, when my students or their caretakers would come in and see me, I think it would be like a sigh of relief. A hopeful understanding, and an extra layer of trust that we had with one another. I think in particular--my girls--if I had three Black girls in the classroom out of 36, there was something special there, there was a connection." Courtney Cross-Johnson (Houston ‘11) Manager, Alumni Community Teach For America Dallas-Fort Worth
"For a lot of the kids I had the privilege of working with, I was their first Black male teacher. For some of them, I was their first Black teacher, period. I was able to connect with my students in a way that a lot of my colleagues weren't able to do. The same thing was true for my students' parents. Because I came from a similar community, I think we shared a connection that was authentic." Shonterrio Harris (Indianapolis '15) Special Assistant to the Governance Team Indianapolis Public Schools
"I cannot tell you how many times I have had students confide in me for help, assistance, advice or just to receive a hug and feel loved. My students look up to me, they care about me and show me the same level of respect that I show them." Lisa Wills (Metro Atlanta ‘03) Teacher Lighthouse Academies
I made sure students saw themselves in the curriculum.
"I think oftentimes our Black students don't have the opportunity to see themselves in books or to see themselves in anything positive for that matter. As an English teacher, I made a choice in my classroom that anything we read was told from the point of view of characters who looked like my students. We read The Other Wes Moore and Just Mercy. I wanted them to see that there is power in owning your story." Mario Jovan Shaw Co-founder & Chief Impact Officer Profound Gentlemen
"I remember too well what it's like to read books and to not see images of yourself and to not be able to find that connection with the material in the curriculum. And so my biggest push for myself as a teacher was to make sure that my students saw themselves in the books that we read. We talked about how the curriculum or content connects to their personal lives, and to make it relevant." David McDonald, (Dallas-Fort Worth ‘16) Manager, Teacher Leadership Development Teach For America Dallas-Fort Worth
Why Representation Matters for the Teaching Profession
Educators of color will benefit from having more mentors who share their identities.
"I believe that if I had a mentor of color--a male mentor of color--I would have had support with a lot of the challenges and obstacles that I was struggling by myself. I would have been able to overcome them quicker, and I would have been further along in my career." David McDonald, (Dallas-Fort Worth ‘16) Manager, Teacher Leadership Development Teach For America Dallas-Fort Worth
"When I started teaching, the Black male teachers that I knew about were Coach Carter, or Mr. Hightower from The Steve Harvey Show. I didn't really have a lot of images of what it looked like. The teacher who helped me stay in the classroom was Mr. Brooks, a Black veteran teacher who taught right across the hall from me. He's one of the most well-read brothers I have ever met. And because of him, that's how I wanted to see myself as well. We connected on literature and books and he helped me craft my own voice." Jason Terrell (Charlotte ‘12) Co-founder & CEO Profound Gentlemen
When more teachers of color are leading professional development, everyone benefits. Especially students.
"Our people, Black people and people of color are innovative. When you put in more opportunities for them to present professional development, things are going to change. You will put in people that will challenge your biases and challenge your stereotypes that you might not even know you have, or challenge the way you have a cultural understanding about the way our students are learning. We're about to raise a whole new generation out here, and we cannot keep doing the same things. So when we come together and innovate, it'll probably have a great impact." Courtney Cross-Johnson (Houston ‘11) Manager, Alumni Community Teach For America Dallas-Fort worth
"I think sometimes the conversation is easier when we're talking about class. But the minute you jump into a racial conversation, it seems like all of a sudden the water is murky and people are not as willing to engage. I feel like if there were more teachers of color, that race conversation would be uncomfortable for fewer people. And the chances of those conversations actually happening and continuing to happen would be much higher." Kwame Adams (Massachusetts ‘14) 9th Grade Algebra Teacher
"By adding more teachers of color to professional development spaces, then by very nature, the quality of that learning expands. We're going to have more wealth of experiences being talked about. We're going to have different approaches to teaching that will help to engage and support our students of color. And that will create a more equitable learning in space for our teachers." David McDonald, (Dallas-Fort Worth ‘16) Manager, Teacher Leadership Development Teach For America Dallas-Fort Worth
More teachers of color will allow more students of color to gain proximity to relatable role models.
"Having more teachers of color in schools would allow students to come in contact with people who share their identity and are working in a professional setting--people that they may not otherwise see. Oftentimes in communities, especially communities of color in inner cities, the only professionals that some kids see are police officers, to be quite honest, and kids don't have that ability to leverage that." Quenton Martin (South Carolina ‘17) Elementary English Teacher
"If there were more teachers of color in the classroom, I think students would be able to see beyond stereotypes that exist for racial minorities. This is a chance for kids to truly learn about diverse cultures. I also believe that Black teachers require and demand excellence from all of their students. We see so many examples of Black excellence in our history, and the old adage of "Black people having to be twice as good to be successful" is the driving force that produces excellence in the classroom from students--mediocrity does not exist." Deion Jamison (South Carolina '17) High School English Teacher
What Teachers of Color Wish More People Knew
Teachers of color need to feel seen and heard.
"I wish that people understood the tax that educators of color have. Because there is that additional fight for my race, fight for my community, fight for the fact that I grew up in the same neighborhood. That investment that teachers of color have because they're often in the community. I wish more people understood that there are these added costs. And if you didn't share a number of identities with the population you were working with, you wouldn't experience at the same level." Kwame Adams (Massachusetts ‘14) 9th Grade Algebra Teacher
"I want people to understand that the number one thing about our teachers of color is that if you do not genuinely listen to their voice, then you will not create anything of value for that teacher. In order for our teachers of color to produce and be as effective as others want them to be, they need to be heard and they need to know that their voice matters. Because the minute they feel like their voice does not matter, you've just lost a great teacher." Sonia B. Scott (Greater New Orleans ‘17) Teacher/Case Manager
Every Black teacher’s experience is unique. There is no single story.
"Teachers of color can make authentic connections with students of color and serve as role models, but beware of tokenization. People of color are diverse in experiences, languages, and socioeconomics. A Black teacher from a wealthy neighborhood will not perfectly align with a student who is from a low-income background. We are not monolithic. Teachers of color should not simply be assigned to connect with students who look like them. They should be asked for their input and consideration must be taken of their needs to determine what role they want to play for students. Teachers of color are more than the color of their skin." Anthony White (Las Vegas ‘13) Read by Grade 3 Literacy Specialist, Tier I and EL Learning Strategist
Educators from all backgrounds have the potential to make a meaningful difference.
"Just because we are saying that we need more representation of teachers of color in schools, it doesn't mean that we are saying that all urban schools should only have Black and brown teachers. But having more of that representation in the classroom is essential in order for students to grow and develop in ways that are really going to impact our future. If students of color don't see a role model of someone who looks like them, telling them what is possible for them on a daily basis, then they may never reach their full potential." Jessica Brown (Kansas City ‘09) Manager, Teacher Leadership Development Teach For America St. Louis