We Need More Teachers Like Black Panther’s T’Challa, Now!

Feb 23, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by James E. Ford

I am not an avid comic book reader. In fact, I don’t think I own any at all. But I’m going to see the film based on Marvel superhero “Black Panther,” if for no other reason than how completely and unapologetically Black it is. I knew over a year ago as director Ryan Coogler added one Black star after another to the cast, I would bear witness to this constellation. I know this may strike some as odd or even superficial, and I guess I get it. Why would people be so drawn to a movie just because of the complexion of the characters? Why does everything have to be about race? Simply put, because it’s bigger than that. By now, you must’ve read enough think pieces and heard your share of personal takes to understand this concept, but it bears repeating: REPRESENTATION MATTERS! [pullquote position="right"]There is a socio-cultural significance to seeing a film that centers characters of your likeness and way of being.[/pullquote] When you’ve been starved of positive portrayals and dignified examples of Black excellence in the media, immediate enthusiasm is almost a reflex. This is probably why “Black Panther” sold more advanced tickets than any other Marvel movie, bringing in $40.16 million on Presidents' Day.

Excellent Teachers of Color Have a Significant Impact

But the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda and its monarch T’Challa (the central character) teach us something in education too. For the student population, which is now majority non-White, the same general principle applies: Excellent teachers of color have a significant impact. Mr. White and Mr. Kay were the only two Black male teachers I ever had. Both left indelible impressions on me. Mr. White exposed me to the world through his project-based learning and lovingly prodding me to do better. Mr. Kay taught me about dance, but he also kept me out of trouble. I still recall sitting in his office as he pretended to call my mother after I played a cruel prank on a classmate. He made me watch him as he conducted a fake conversation on the telephone, then abruptly hung up, stared me in the face and asked, “Why you do that to that girl?!” He scolded me and told me there better not be a next time. There wasn't. Those were my Black teachers. About 80 percent of public school teachers are White, and 40 percent of schools don’t even have one teacher of color. This means that many Black, Latino, Native-American and Asian students will never be taught by someone who looks like them or reflects their cultural background. When teacher-student race-matching does occur, students of color are less likely to be suspended or referred for special education, and more likely to be identified as gifted and graduate. Research indicates that teachers of color usually have a better understanding of systemic racism than their White peers. They know from personal experience how to deal with the struggles and are typically used to adapting to cultural difference. You can hear this sentiment in the Getting Real About Education series as teachers question, "Why aren’t there more Black teachers? https://www.facebook.com/BetterConversationBetterEducation/videos/768153096716721/ Black teachers in particular tend to enter the profession motivated by a sense of social justice, a tradition within Black teaching that has existed since pre-Brown days, whereby [pullquote position="right"]they serve as both teacher and activist.[/pullquote] The irony is, students of color aren’t the only beneficiaries, but White kids benefit, too. They get exposed to diverse authority figures that help combat negative stereotypes and create greater cultural awareness. As scores of patrons flock to theaters across the country to see "Black Panther," understand that for the Black community there is something deeper at work. Something that awakens the pride of being a person of African descent. The same applies in classrooms all over the country. We need more teachers like T’Challa, now! And in a population fast becoming Latinx and Asian, we need more teachers of color in general. Let’s use the momentum from this film to increase recruitment, development and retention of excellent instructors who look like our students. It is indeed a matter of equity. Everyone deserves to see themselves represented.

James E. Ford

James E. Ford is the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He currently is the Principal Consultant at Filling the Gap Educational Consultants and is a first year doctoral student at UNC-Charlotte. Ford earned a bachelor of science in mass communication from Illinois State University in 2003 and a master’s degree in teaching from Rockford University in 2009. Before deciding to become a teacher, Ford’s early career cemented his connection to children and youth. He worked as a truancy intervention specialist in high schools and director of a teen center that provided educational and after-school activities for youth at risk of dropping out of school. Ford was recognized as Charlotte Magazine’s Charlottean of the Year, and the National Alliance of Black School Educators’ Teacher of the Year.

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