Black Women Teachers and Youth

How to Turn Self-Hate into Self-Reliance
Shernee "Shay" Bellamy

The current climate in education has shifted from teaching basic life skills in classes formally known as “Life Skills/Home Economics,” to only focusing on academic knowledge through testing and assessments. Research has shown that employers are seeking to hire individuals who possess hard and soft skills such as: self-management, communication, financial literacy, and resiliency. The best individual to teach these life lessons would be someone who could identify with overcoming society’s oppressions and one who continues to have to break through glass ceilings that society has set up for them. That would be black women.

Resilience is the foundation for many people of color and resiliency is something that can be taught, if given the right class, curriculum, and teacher. I propose that Life Skills classes are needed in the American high school setting and that black women should teach those survival/resiliency skills in Life Skills classes. This would be due to their well-documented post-traumatic growth and history of resiliency during stressful life events. Resiliency is not just a word, but a lifestyle and when an individual shows resilience or emerges from a traumatic experience related to stressors, stronger, this is known as post-traumatic growth (Hobdy, 2015) and black women are reported to have the highest number of stressful life events because they are faced with being two minorities.

“The most disrespected woman in America, is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America, is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman.” (Malcom X, 1962)

The opening quote is an excerpt from Malcom X’s ‘Who Taught You to Hate Yourself,’ a speech he gave in Los Angeles on May 22, 1962. This quote made me think of the many oppressions such as: race and gender that continue to plague black women in the workplace, in the classroom, and in society as a whole. These kind of experiences have historically hindered these women. One of the oppressions that have stuck out to me personally, has been the oppression of black female teachers in education.

As a black female teacher in education, I pride myself for wanting to work with oppressed minds that have been cast off to alternative schools and schools designated for mental and behavioral problems. Those are the schools I predominantly see children of color attending. The minds of these students have been systematically colonized from the very beginning with school desegregation and in a way, the character and skill set of the black female teacher was silenced at that time as well.

The desegregation of schools began with a Supreme Court case ruling in Topeka Kansas for Brown v. The Board of Education, in which it was deemed that the state laws which stated “separate but equal” was found unconstitutional in the education system. As Gladwell (2017) explains in his podcast titled: “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment,” he poses this question about that landmark Supreme Court case which was a civil rights revolution, “Why has everyone forgotten what happened next?” Since history does a great job at highlighting victories, we need not forget the rest of history in which children were integrated first, and not the teachers.

Ultimately, the integration of schools set up a disadvantage for the young black minds that were first getting taught by their black female teachers, who had to pass the same state board exams as the white female teachers to teach at all. Consequently, when those black children had to go to those white schools, they faced an uneasy environment from their white teachers and peers looking at them as lesser than. Those white teachers and peers feared the unknown; and the unknown was the black child. Black individuals at the time were viewed as lesser than and not equal, even though they were now allowed to attend the same schools. Then those white teachers were not able to “take an interest in them” (Gladwell, 2017) and that was a huge disservice to the young mind.

Celestine Porter gave an oral review to Duke University in which she said “a teacher is a gatekeeper” and “a child needs someone to take an interest in them (Porter, 1995). Thus, when the administration did not integrate and the teachers did not integrate, those black children who may have struggled with identifying in their new schools were given access to a new education but, not the appropriate educators. Black female teachers were often let go, due to many reasons and one being that white schools did not want white children to be taught by black teachers and parents would often call administration to make sure that it did not happen. Instead of rocking the boat and taking the chances to allow those black teachers to integrate as well, new tactics were used by the administration to let go of those teachers. According to Oakley, tactics consisted of eliminating black teacher’s jobs when federal funding was cut for compliance issues. Other tactics included: abolishing tenure laws where there were high percentages of black teachers; allowing dismissal of teachers without cause; failing to replace retiring black teachers with other black teachers; and assigning black teachers to teach out of their content field and evaluating them as incompetent (Oakley 2009).

Many researchers have written about the subjugation and discrimination against black teachers during that era and even in the education field now. Current research shows that while the number of teachers of color in public schools has more than doubled over the last three decades; teacher diversity still doesn’t match student diversity (Barnum 2018). Through all the disadvantages of the past, there has always lived a resiliency in the face of oppression within the black female teacher and within the lessons she can teach. Anderson (2018) interviewed Dr. Vanessa Walker, an Emory University Professor, who has studied and written about the segregated schooling of black children. She stated,

“there were costs that we forgot—like losing control over what black children learned. The black educators taught math and science and everything else as best as they could with the limited resources that they had. You also saw the infusion of blackness in their classrooms. They were teaching black children how to be resilient in a segregated society. They seeded the civil-rights movement with this curriculum.”

Growing up I had only a handful of black teachers from 1st grade up until college. I will never forget a woman by the name of Ms. Birmingham who taught me English in 7th grade. She was a woman that students listened to and learned from because she knew our population and she had come from the same low income neighborhoods as us. She became a role model to us because she could teach English but, also wanted to check-in to see if we have ate the night before. Her instincts to care enough showed that she knew our backgrounds and could identify with us. She would always say: “there is a method to my madness” and I believe that method was tapping into us as products of our environments and understanding the struggles that we were facing as young people.

I have also been very strong in my conviction to have survival/resiliency Life Skills in the high school curriculum because I truly believe that Life Skills can save lives. This is not only based on my personal accounts and beliefs but, based off of most texts that I have read throughout my research for this piece. I truly believe that a teacher can’t teach a skill like resiliency unless they come from it and have truly lived through it. For example, if a student is in a Life Skills class where they are taught about the many ways society can oppress the young, the weak, the elderly, the poor, etc. Those skills would be essential for them to know so they can exhibit the proper ways to be able to face those oppressions head on, instead of shying away from them and becoming depressed or angry about those oppressions.

Resilience is a skill that is needed to be taught so children are able to survive the harsh reality of real world problems and difficult situations in a changing society. Overall, a high school curriculum surrounding the teachings of resiliency and skills such as: self- esteem building, financial literacy, healthy relationships, social – emotion regulation, sustainability, and etiquette would help many generations be able to transition into the real world better equipped. Some of these classes do exist but under another name of Family Consumer Sciences or FCS. Although, according to an article about revamping ‘Real Life Skills’, those classes are “dwindling” and in 2012 only 3.5 million students were enrolled with a 38% decrease over a decade (Danovich 2018). Unlike classes such as Biology and History, Life Skills class is one that students will never have to worry if it would be relevant or not. These exact classes are needing a teacher who can identify with becoming relevant in society over and over again and in a sense, help others become ‘woke” about society’s oppressions. One who continues to have to break through glass ceilings that society has set up for her historically and currently. Not only as a woman but, as a woman of color.

Some of the most stressful situations that an individual will go through is during the transition from adolescence into adulthood. As a black woman who teaches Life Skill classes called ‘Leadership’ to high school students, I have witnessed so much desire from students to learn skills that I have thought to be very practical in nature but quite difficult to execute these days. Students need to be provided with tangible skills that can be transferable from the classroom, into a career setting, their neighborhoods, and for future generations to come behind them.

These classes would not only help the student identify with their employers and themselves better but, identify the resiliency that makes a person keep going. Again, resiliency is the foundation for many people of color and resiliency is something that can be taught if given the right class, curriculum, and teacher. As stated before, this will teach young individuals the survival strategies needed for the harsh reality of real world problems and difficult situations built around oppressions in our changing society.

According to Octavia Gordema, who has researched the impact of black teachers as role models, a consensus of researchers, educators, policymakers, and parents have agreed that teachers are the most important school-provided input. Effective teachers are crucial to closing socioeconomic and demographic achievement gaps and teachers vary widely in their effectiveness. Furthermore, among the persistently disadvantaged black boys, having at least one black teacher in grades 3-5 reduced the probability of dropping out of high school by 39%. For low-income black students of either sex, having at least one black teacher in grades 3-5 increased the probability of going to college by 18% (Gordema, 2017). Thus, indicating a likely way of closing the education gap; increasing the number of teachers identifying with their students in anyway (same walk of life, same ethnicity, and same belief systems) and in turn, increase the potential that students display in the classroom.

I have seen first-hand the effect that I have had on students of any ethnicity because many students have said that they have had me as their first and sometimes, ONLY black teacher. The impact of telling them about my struggles as a black woman and how I was able to still rise through so much has opened up doors to facilitate discussions about poverty, trauma, and local resource help. Once students are exposed to a black female teacher who can then educate them about places to go for help with their utility bills, food assistance, housing, dollar deals, etc. students lives could be transformed by that kind of information. Whether these students have experienced that hardship or not, they now know where to find help if that was a problem they had to face down the road. The only way they are able to be publicly educated about these types of life lessons is through Life Skills classes. The only teacher is the black woman who can use her knowledge of black girl magic to turn her oppressions into a teachable moment for many students to come.

 


References

Anderson, M. D. (2018, August 10). The Secret Network of Black Teachers Behind the Fight for Desegregation. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/08/black-educators-hidden-provocateurs/567065/.

Barnum, M. (2018, November 29). Is the number of teachers of color skyrocketing or stagnating? Retrieved April 8, 2019, from https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/us/2018/11/29/teachers-of-color-diversity-public-school-trends-data/.

Danovich, T. (2018, June 14). Despite A Revamped Focus On Real-Life Skills, 'Home Ec' Classes Fade Away. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/06/14/618329461/despite-a-revamped-focus-on-real-life-skills-home-ec-classes-fade-away

Duke University Digital Collections: Celestine Diggs Porter Interview [Audio blog interview]. (1995, August 02). Retrieved March 7, 2019, from library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/behindtheveil_btvct08070/.

Genius, R. (2015). Malcolm X – Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? Retrieved from https://genius.com/Malcolm-x-who-taught-you-to-hate-yourself-annotated

Gladwell, M. (2017, June 29). Revisionist History: Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment [Audio blog interview]. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from http://leopard.megaphone.fm/PPY7758175647.mp3 .

Gordema, O. (2017, April 14). Study shows the impact of black teachers as role models. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from http://twentytentalent.com/study-shows-the-impact-of-black-teachers-as-role-models/

Hobdy, D. (2015, September 23). Where Does Your Resilience Come From? Retrieved March 7, 2019, from http://www.essence.com/news/essence-poll-where-does-your-resilience-come/.

Mayers, A. (2018, May 05). 10 Most Stressful Life Events. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from https://thriveglobal.com/stories/10-most-stressful-life-events/.

Oakley, D., Stowell, J., & Logan, J. R. (2009). The impact of desegregation on black teachers in the metropolis, 1970-2000. Ethnic and racial studies, 39(9), 1576-1598.

 

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About the author: 

Shernee Bellamy is the 31 year old Co-Owner of Concrete Dreamers, LLC., a full-time Youth Leadership teacher in Gainesville Florida, and in May completed a master's degree in English and Language Arts from Mercyhurst University. She also holds a B.F.A in Theatre, minor degree in Speech Communications, served two years in AmeriCorps, and has over 10 years of experience teaching students K - College. Taking from her personal experiences as a black female who grew up in poverty, Shernee uses Experiential Learning Design to develop innovative lessons for her students at Project Youth Build in Gainesville, Fl. Her well-developed curriculum centers around culturally sensitive issues such as: poverty, trauma, systemic oppression, resiliency, privilege, financial literacy, empathy, and much more.Her passion from theater enhances each lesson using role play and team building. She stands firm in her conviction that this curriculum is best taught by black women. Her goal is to empower more people of color to enter the Education Sector; where our voices are often absent. She envisions herself getting a Ph.D in Educational Leadership so she can educate teacher candidates about best practices when teaching students who are enrolled in schools that are referred to as alternative.

 

Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: Shernee Bellamy (2019). Black Women Teachers and Youth. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). http://geo.coop/story/black-women-teachers-and-youth
Publication Date: 
Thursday, May 30, 2019