Last week I got an email that one of my son’s two kindergarten teachers, Ms. Ashley, is starting her maternity leave and he’s getting a new co-teacher for that class. I instantly felt happy for her and a little sad for my son. You see, my son has something special in his class that not a lot of other kids at the school have. In fact, he has something that’s rare in classrooms across the country. In Ms. Ashley, my son has a Black teacher. For many Black children like mine, getting a teacher who looks like them doesn’t happen often, if it happens at all. Nationally, only 7% of teachers are Black. In Leon County, Florida, where I live, we’re lucky to have 24% of teachers check that box, but that varies by school and at my son’s school, we’re on par with the rest of the country. Of the 27 teachers at our school, two of them are Black. That’s about 7.5% of the teaching staff, and with Ms. Ashley leaving, that brings us down to—well, you get the idea.
Right now my 6-year-old has no idea how unusual it is to see a Black teacher in the classroom. He doesn’t know about the
research that says Black students who have at least one Black teacher by third grade are 13% more likely to go to college and that those with two black teachers are 32% more likely to go. (By the way, having Black teachers is good for students of other races, too.) He hasn’t heard about the fact that Black children are “
three times as likely to be placed in gifted-education programs if they have a Black teacher rather than a White teacher.” All he knows is that he’s got two teachers who love him, and one looks a little more like his family than the other. No big deal. But to me it feels like a big deal. When I went in for the last parent-teacher conference a couple weeks ago, I asked Ms. Ashley about the process for identifying gifted students. Within less than a week she had reached out to the person who manages that process for the district and let me know I’d be getting a response from that person. In late February, I happened to be walking into the school building at the same time she was. I hadn’t seen or heard about any Black History Month-related class work from my son, so I asked her about it. She told me they had a couple things happening and within two days I saw work come home in my son’s backpack about the contributions of a Black inventor. Weeks later, just the other night, in fact, I saw a “book” come home about the first Black female astronaut, Mae Jemison. The book was just a few half-sheets of paper stapled together with some simple text and images. But my son read it to me, and then he turned it over to read me the two sentences he had written on the back about the story. (Kudos to any school like mine that realizes you can and should teach about Black contributions outside of the month of February.) I love that my son is exposed to Black men and women who’ve made great accomplishments, both on paper and in real life. Now don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying only Black teachers are capable of being responsive to requests like those I’ve made of Ms. Ashley, or that only Black teachers can see my child “
in a way that’s untarnished by the stereotypes, biases and cultural disconnects that fuel inequality and injustice.” I think all teachers are capable of that and all teachers should be seeing children like mine that way. I’m certain many do. But I also know that sometimes biases are hard to see in ourselves. So having a diverse mix of teachers provides more opportunities to check those biases and overcome them. I’m sure the new teacher will be great and that she’ll also grow to love him in the couple months we have left in school. And Ms. Ashley will likely return to my son’s class next year. (Our school teaches kindergarten and first grade together and they generally try to keep the kindergarten students with the same teachers when they advance to first.) So thank you, Ms. Ashley. We will miss you. And while you are out caring for and getting to know your baby girl, please know that there is a little boy and his dad who are so very grateful for you.
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...