Teacher to Leader

by | 02.18.17

After participating in the first episode of Sarah Brown Wessling’s Ask Sarah: the Big Questions podcast, teachers Josh Parker (Maryland’s 2012 Teacher of the Year) and James E. Ford (North Carolina’s 2014 Teacher of the Year) opened up by sharing a back-and-forth exchange on the unique challenges and opportunities of being black male teachers. Josh is an instructional coach for English Language Arts at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, DC. After seven years as a history teacher, James now advocates for students and teachers at the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Josh Parker: I’m going to start us off by just going for it, James. What does it mean to be a black male educator in the 21st century?

The context for the question should include eight years of the first black president, the era of high-stakes testing, a nationwide shortage of black male teachers and the recent presidential election. Add to that mix a changing job climate for high school graduates, and you have got quite a context for the black male educator experience.

For me, the black male educator experience is … complicated. On the one hand, it is important to be both a man and black. Which is to say, to stand true to how you identify as a man and to your understanding of blackness. While standing in both of those truths, you have to be aware of how their expression impacts adults and children alike in a school setting. Additionally, it seems that the role of a black male educator is … comprehensive. In addition to teaching, which in and of itself is a complex, challenging and rewarding undertaking, you are charged with this additional set of informal responsibilities.

We maintain safety (emotionally, psychologically and physically). We help young boys and girls feel heard and appreciated. We create and establish order, and we are sources of praise and appreciation for young hearts that are eager for attention and validation.

Now, in my 13th year of this reality, I think I also understand our role to be results-driven instead of just presence-driven. Which is to say, it’s not just enough for us to be present – our presence has to equal results. What do you think, brother?

James E. Ford: I think you laid it out beautifully. In a sense, it is the same in the 21st century as it was in the immediate past. It is to be no less conscious of your positionality in the world and the myriad ways in which you show up in both society and the classroom. To be present, as the nation awakened from the “post-racial” lethargy, and after young black lives quickly turned into hashtags. It is to understand that things haven’t changed as much as we’d like, and yet still hold true to the calling and the virtues of education. I am altruistic. My function as an educator has always been as a change agent. It has been increasingly harder to keep optimism in the power of my vocation. It has left me feeling that my contribution was not substantial enough to subvert the worst parts of our society. And yet, I still feel like the clarion call is louder than ever for black male teachers.

It has led me to personally explore the importance of our presence in the institution. I think I have a greater appreciation for the characteristics of our pedagogy. That it’s more than just “being black” in the space (which, to your point, is just being present), but an approach based on a worldview that prioritizes social justice for our students.

It’s about meeting the human and academic needs to assist in a much greater and larger purpose.

Josh: You know, I heard a stat the other day that was pretty startling:

4% of children in 1950 were raised in single-parent homes. 40% of children in 2007 were raised in single-parent homes.

This number is higher as it relates to minorities. What makes this statistic so disorienting for me, despite the obvious, is that I have always been a part of the two-parent household statistic. In fact, I always felt like I had so many fathers.

The males in my school (the few that I remember) were like role models to me. In that sense, their presence and the way they acknowledged me helped me continue to feel loved and appreciated, even with my two-parent background. I wonder what seeing black male educators does for students who don’t have both parents.

When you see yourself reflected in a teacher or position of authority, it can act as both a mirror and a crystal ball. As a mirror, you see yourself (a few years down the road) and can possibly begin to imagine yourself as a person of influence. As a crystal ball, it helps you to imagine yourself as an important and well-established male figure. I keep thinking about your question of whether only black males can do this … I am sure that this power is transferable, but how do we cultivate that dynamic between students and teachers in our colleagues?

James: The family composition piece of the puzzle is huge. And not just for the obvious reasons of stability and income, but precisely for the reasons you mentioned. I too grew up in a two-parent household. Most of my peers didn’t have that same experience. To this day, my father is one of my best friends. But more than anything, I think he gave me an image of black manhood – what a mature, adult male in this skin “could” look like. I also found it interesting that for all my students that didn’t have fathers around or community mentors, there were many who were part of nontraditional families. That is, they may be raised in single-parent homes, but their fathers were still involved in their lives. This is the part that doesn’t often show up in statistics, for which a CDC study makes the case.

Still, when it comes to showing them how to navigate this social system to propel themselves forward – one where they are often beginning far behind the starting blocks – it needs to be modeled. I know plenty of teachers who are excellent instructors that excel with children of color. But the socialization aspect of having a teacher that’s also a “brotha” can’t be replicated.

I cannot tell you how many candid conversations I’ve had with young boys of color about things that only we could discuss, laden with references that only we would get. It’s the constant reminder that, “I am you.” A mirror that doesn’t reflect who you are now, but casts an image of who you could be in the future. That alone provides intrinsic motivation for learning and achieving. It cannot stand in isolation of sound teaching and instruction, but it transcends pedagogy.

Josh: I was talking with a female colleague of mine two days ago. When we were referencing just this point and its transferability (not sure if that is a word), I said, almost frustrated, that teachers “have to rub up against the culture of these students that are different than them. They have to get their culture in their bloodstream some kind of way.”

The first school where I taught, Dundalk Middle School, was in a low socioeconomic area in Baltimore. There was definitely a right/wrong-side-of-the-tracks feel to the town. The more socioeconomically disadvantaged section was (and is) called, Turner Station. This part of the neighborhood was as distant to me as the town of Baltimore was to me, a native Washingtonian, as a youth. Although the neighborhood was only five minutes away, I had only heard about it, but never went there.

Then, I started teaching kids from “Turner’s.”

I thought that skin color alone would make me relatable. I was seriously wrong. After many failed attempts to try to connect with them from my middle-class perspective, I decided to take a personal field trip. To the basketball court. To the gym. To the ice cream truck. To the houses of Turner Station. I don’t think I will ever forget their faces when I arrived. Surprise. Shock. Disbelief. Acceptance.

So, we can put on the best professional development possible, but nothing beats the right kind of exposure to the authenticity of who our students are. Maybe that is the vehicle to help all teachers connect with children from different backgrounds and walks of life.

Connect with Josh on Twitter @MDTOY2012 and visit his blog at http://jpmusings83.blogspot.com/.

Connect with James on Twitter @JEFordNCTOY and visit his blog at http://www.jameseford.net/.

Listen to Josh and James on Ask Sarah: the Big Questions over iTunes and subscribe to have the latest episodes delivered to your computer or mobile device.


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