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A Real Black Teacher

By Cara McClellan

February 5, 2015

It was the third time I had to stop because LeShawn was talking out of turn. “You owe me time,” I said, a shorthand that he knew meant he would be serving detention during gym class. Gym was one of his favorite classes, and I knew he was upset. I watched his reaction to make sure he did not show his feelings inappropriately. Instead he just shook his head and looked down. Although he was known around the building as a troublemaker, he usually did well in my class, and I could tell he was embarrassed that he had gotten in trouble.

As I started lining the class up for gym and reminded him he was staying for detention, I heard him mumble, “Man, I wish I had a real black teacher. Black teachers don’t give detention.”


This was not the first time I had been told I was “not really black,” but it was the first time in a long time. I remembered hearing this growing up when I went to a predominately white, private school and would go to afterschool activities programs in the black part of my neighborhood. “You talk proper,” kids would say, or “what part of Philly are you from?” or “you must be rich.” The child of two professional parents, I had been socialized in ways that even 12 year olds could recognize as “different.” Even when I later attended a large magnet high school that was predominately minority, I stuck out as one of the only black students in A.P. classes, such that others students and teachers often said things to imply I was “not like the other black students.” 

There had never been any question in my mind that I was black, and I accepted these comments as just part of being black and middle class, or black and privileged. When I graduated and went to Yale University, I met many other black students who had been the only black in their A.P. program or the only black student in their entire school, and had similar experiences of being told they were not like the others. A major reason I decided to join Teach for America was because I knew first-hand the social pressures that black students face to conform to stereotypes and wanted to be a source of support for others. I have always believed that diversity matters, particularly in education, because of the importance role models have played in my life.

When I graduated from Yale, I remember the dean of my college announcing that I would be returning home to Philadelphia to teach in low-income schools, and how lucky my students would be to have someone who came from the same city as them and had achieved academically. Repeatedly I was told that sharing a background with my kids would be a huge asset in the classroom.

But now that I was back in the same school district I had attended just four years earlier, I couldn’t help but feel that even though I looked like my students, my childhood and my educational experience had been so different. It made me wonder whether I was bringing the value of a role model—whether my students could see themselves in me.

The truth is probably mixed—some did, and would later tell me how much it meant to see me in the front of the room and learn that I had gone from Central High to an Ivy-League university. Others thought I “talked white.”

Like all first year teachers, I worked to figure out my teaching persona, trying to make myself as relatable as possible to my kids. Like many African Americans in predominately white environments, I had learned how to code-switch, how to talk one way for a black audience, and another way for a non-black audience. But the truth was, my non-black audience persona was also the one I equated with “being professional” or being formal.  And so, like many black professionals I struggled with when to code-switch, and how much to code-switch, to be my most authentic and effective professional self and a model for my students.

Eventually, I realized, exactly what my kids needed to see: a black woman, who talked exactly like I talk naturally. They needed to hear new vocabulary words and proper grammar as well as familiar phrases. They needed to know that I watched Girls on HBO, played tennis, and listened to alternative music. But they also needed to know that I listened to Kendrick Lamar, watched Real Housewives, and know how to turn double dutch. More importantly they needed to know how I fell in love with Nikki Giovanni and admired Ida B. Wells. I say more importantly, because I think that is the best gift that a “real black teacher” can give her kids—the perspective of learning to explore racial identity through history and English class—modeling the experience of connecting the academic to the deeply personal. But it also mattered that just being myself in the classroom created teachable moments for my kids.

At the end of his detention, I asked LaShawn what he meant when he said real black teachers do not hold detentions, even though I already knew the sentiment behind his words. On one level he was commenting on my discipline style, my TFA systems of rewards and scaled consequences, which did not map onto how he had seen other black adults discipline. On another level, he was just pissed that he was missing gym and embarrassed that he was in trouble. He was testing to see if he could ruffle my feathers by saying something he knew was disrespectful to say to an adult.

Lashawn looked uncomfortable as he tried to tell me what he meant. “You know… you don't curse at us or act ghetto.” He stumbled. “You don’t seem like you would hit someone,” he finally said. To which I responded, “if not cursing and not acting ghetto and not hitting someone means not being black, then being black means cursing and acting ghetto and violent?” I knew what he was getting at, but I wanted him to really think about what he was saying. “Be careful,” I said. “Not just about what you say about me, but what you say about yourself.”

Our kids need diverse teachers. They need to have more teachers who look like them and more teachers who come from their communities. We are an asset because we are affirming, because we are role models, and because we challenge them to imagine new possibilities of what it means to be black and to be low-income. Our kids also need teachers who do not look like them and do not come from their communities, but care very deeply and can expose our students to difference.

The sad reality is that our country is still segregated and the classroom is a rare moment of contact that our kids have with people outside of the community. Finally, our kids need teachers whose identities are complex. While I looked like my kids, I could not say I came from their community; I was from about 30 minutes further up the expressway, and our moments of disconnect were a reminder of both how big Philadelphia is, and how isolated the inner-city is. But most importantly, our kids need to see authentic adults, who are comfortable in their own skin.