"You don’t wash your hair every day? How often do you wash it? Every other week?!”
The fifth grader with blonde hair that reached just past her shoulders practically had to blink to keep her green eyes from rolling on the floor in amazement. The round-faced girl with dark brown skin hunched her shoulders embarrassingly,
"That’s when my mom has time to wash it."
This is when I knew I needed to intervene. A combination of things was happening all at once, but I was most frustrated with my student’s embarrassment about a common practice in the Black community.
"A lot of black girls get their hair washed only a few times a month. I know I did growing up. I really only wash my hair around once a week now, if that. Even with that, we have to put oil into our hair to keep it from drying out. And, whew! It’s a process that can take hours because most Black girls have thick and curly hair like mine. There’s nothing like 'wash day' isn’t that right, Janiah?"
Janiah’s face changed and her head lifted.
Was this the first time she had connected with a teacher in this way?
I wonder how many other times she was put in this situation because she was Black, most of her classmates were White and there were things she and her family did, well, differently.
When I first trained as an educator, I pictured myself in a school in the heart of a poor, urban community. I went through extensive training to learn to be a great teacher in such a school. Instead, I ended up teaching in a suburb just west of Chicago, in a community that, while diverse, is very different from the one in which I grew up. In the beginning, I asked myself if I was making enough of a difference.
After 20 years of teaching in this district, I know that this community needs a teacher like me, too, because the Brown and Black faces in this district need to see themselves in their teachers.
They need to know that their reality is not an “other,” “alternative” or “minority” reality. Their reality is just as real and valuable and I’m here to mark and bring such moments to the forefront.
When a young Black boy is struggling with a concept I am trying to teach, I can encourage him to keep trying or to look at the problem from another perspective. When the class is talking about our favorite Thanksgiving dishes and a little Brown girl says, “sweet potato pie,” I am able to chime in, in agreement, amongst a bunch of confused White faces. I can also get into a full out argument over whose family makes the best baked mac-and-cheese, a staple at our Thanksgiving dinner (mine does, Elijah!), while the onlookers wonder why we are even having mac-and-cheese at Thanksgiving dinner.
When we talk about where our ancestors come from and I see my Black children’s embarrassed faces because the timeline only goes back so far as a result of the fact that our history was stolen and our lineage lost, I can help lead them to that realization and to an eye-opening class conversation about slavery in America.
Research bears out my own experience. Having just one Black teacher between third and fifth grade makes a significant positive difference for students of color, including reducing a Black student’s chance of dropping out of school by 39%. Research has also shown that student graduation rates have increased, as have their aspirations to go to college, when classrooms have greater racial parity.
I was recently out with a friend when a young woman with light Brown skin and curly hair approached me asking if I was Mrs. Thompson. When I said yes, she reminded me that she was in my class some 10 years ago. “I was actually just talking about you in one of my college classes,” she said. “We were discussing the impact that minority teachers have on minority students and how important it is for students of color to have teachers of color. And, I remembered you and brought you up as a teacher of color that I had.” It turns out that I was the only Black teacher in her entire K-12 experience; the next time she had a teacher of color was in college.
Our communities need teachers of color. All students benefit from Black and Brown teachers in the classroom. Not only do students of color have greater opportunity to relate culturally to a teacher during their schooling and increased success in their overall experience, but White students also benefit from the diverse perspectives and cultural experiences that teachers of color bring to their classrooms.
It is important that we continue to prioritize and push for reflecting the student population with the teaching population at schools. We will all be better for it.
Arnetta Thompson is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow. Arnetta is a fifth grade teacher in the Oak Park Elementary School district. A National Board Certified teacher, Arnetta is the Region 46 Vice-Chair for the Illinois Education Association and organizes the fifth grade service team at her school. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in elementary education and American studies from Lake Forest College, received a master's in curriculum and instruction from Olivet Nazarene University, and a master's in supervision and leadership with a Type 75 endorsement from Concordia University in Chicago.
Your donation will support the work we do at brightbeam to shine a light on the voices who challenge decision makers to provide the learning opportunities all children need to thrive.