Why Black Teachers Matter by Messiah Toure Cook

In America, it’s pretty common for us to say that we are one of the best countries in the world. And while I have no doubt that we strive to deserve that title, I still challenge us to answer the question, “Best at what?” Allow me, a black male sophomore receiving a public education in the School District of Philadelphia, to briefly challenge our rights to that title when it comes to education.

Recently, I’ve started asking why we have so few black male teachers in our classrooms. And while it’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly why there are so few teachers who look like me in today’s schools, I’ve gathered some reasons why I believe it’s important to have more of them. I’m doing this to shine light on a problem that isn’t necessarily talked about publicly among students who look like me, even though we talk about it privately with one another.

When I start this conversation with my peers (and teachers), I like to start with a quote by Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, one of the founders of the Ember Charter School for Mindful Education in Brooklyn. He says, quite simply, that “Integration didn’t address the roots of the problem.” When activists pushed for integration in the 60s, I’m sure they never thought classrooms would someday have so few black teachers—especially now that data reveals black students who have just one black teacher in grades 3-5 are much more likely to graduate than others.

You also find out from data, that having more black teachers helps to positively shape the worldview of all students, including students that aren’t black. So if we know the answer, why is it so rare to be taught by a black teacher nowadays? My personal experiences with black and brown teachers has done a lot for me. Hopefully after this being known, some of the people who oppose my logic will see that, in at least my case, a teacher who looks like me has had a positive effect.

Now, to fully grasp why it was so powerful to have a black teacher, you’d have to have gone to every school I’ve ever attended. Essentially, your run of the mill, predominantly black, Philadelphia public school. Despite the heavy black population in my neighborhood (and this city in general), it is near impossible to be taught by a black teacher. Because of this, I believe it subconsciously planted a seed of doubt of what I could do in me. It also normalized seeing strictly white teachers constantly.

So when I met my first black teacher it was a slight shift in what I grew up seeing. I’ll call my first black teacher Mr. K. Mr. K was the first teacher to ever identify race at all in the classroom. Before him it was a completely “unspoken” elephant in the room. He showed me data and statistics and said I always had a choice regardless of what any data said.

Four years later (yes four years), I had Ms. J. Of course it wasn’t sunshine and rainbows with her, but in retrospect she was only trying to push me pass my limits. She wouldn’t let my parents come to my rescue when I wasn’t doing well. She pushed ME harder than any teacher ever, but with super tough love. I wouldn’t be the young man that I am today without her pushing me to be my best everyday. That school year, I achieved the highest grades I ever had while learning about African American history.

This doesn’t mean that I haven’t had great teachers from other races, but the ratios don’t make sense. I know in the 60s the fight was against separate but equal education—which lead to the fight for integration but one thing that seems to have gotten lost in the fight was our black teachers. Please create ways to get more people that look like me into our schools.