I know that seeing someone that looked like me helped me become an educator. It was important then and it’s important now.
I read this article the other day and it got me to thinking about my experience in the education system. First, as a student and second, as an educator for 44 years. My first Black teacher was Miss Judith Smith for 7th grade English at Gilbert Stuart School in Providence, RI. Gilbert Stuart, now an elementary school, housed grades K-9 during my day. Yes, it was a while ago.
Miss Smith. Tall. Fashionable. Smart. Black. She and my school counselor, Mr. Gilfillan (I’ll write about him in a different article), were two of the most important people for me during that year. I remember hoping that one day I would be everything that Miss Smith represented.
During the summer after 7th grade, Miss Smith invited some of her students to her military wedding and I attended along with some of my classmates. Ironically, I cannot recall her married name, but I remember how she made me feel. Valued. Smart. Seen.
Junior year was a boom year for Black teachers for me. Enter Mr. Hamilton, my school counselor and Mrs. Cook, who taught Biology. Mr. Hamilton, knowing my desire to teach, recommended me for my first job directly related to teaching. My new employers paid me to correct the assignments given to their students. They (a married couple) let me go when I started critiquing their lessons. No one likes a critic! The bounty continued with Mr. Dowd for Black History and Mrs. McDonald, school counselor extraordinaire, during my senior year. Mrs. McDonald, understanding the challenges of first-generation college students, made sure I dotted every i and crossed every t when I applied to college.
Top: L to R – Mrs. McDonald, Mr. Hamlin Bottom: L to R – Mr. Dowd, Mrs. Cook
It’s funny. I didn’t realize at the time how fortunate I was to have these role models in my life. Even though numbers have increased, this graphic paints a dismal picture. It brings up many questions for future articles.
When I taught at East Providence High School (EPHS) in East Providence, Rhode Island, a Black mom (a teacher in another city in RI) mentioned that her daughter, one of my students, expressed concern about me. Her daughter wanted to know who did I talk with when I was in the teachers’ lounge because I was the only Black female teacher in our high school. Wow! That took me aback. Kids notice everything and absorb the unspoken lessons, but this one caught me off guard.
Later in the week, I had a conversation with the students in the Multicultural Club (I was the adviser) about code switching and being a minority of one. Too bad this podcast wasn’t around then.
Several years later as a professional school counselor at EPHS (the only black school counselor), I witnessed how the lack of cultural competence manifested in our school counseling department. Unofficially, I looked out for all the Black students because that was important to me. For example, a student mentioned causally in the hall that he dropped his AP History class. When I asked why, he replied, “I’m tired of being the only Black kid in the class. Every time something come up about Black people, I’m expected to give the Black view.” I knew exactly how he felt. I experienced similar occurrences and it’s a familiar refrain for Black students even today. Back to this young man. He had a decent grade in the class and was doing well in the rest of his classes. “It takes a village to raise a child” so I called his mom, explained the situation and gave my reasons why I believed it was important for her to request his reinstatement into the AP class. Fortunately, she heard me out and subsequently, had him back in the class without missing much time. Yes, I asked her not to share our conversation with his appointed school counselor because I wanted to keep the peace. Did I overstep my boundaries? Maybe. A wise woman I have the honor of knowing once said, “Kids are advantaged or disadvantaged by what we do.”
During our next department meeting, his situation came up. When I asked his counselor why she was okay with a student with a strong grade transferring out of an AP class, her response was that he requested it. “You were okay with that reason?” I remember asking. She was. Once again, the explanations. Exhausting work.
Not too much has changed according to this article. Where do we go from here?