I always knew black students benefited from having black teachers. I lived it. But it’s been interesting and affirming to read the newly-released study from Johns Hopkins University on the correlation of black student achievement and having at least one black teacher. Valerie Strauss published a piece about it this week in the Washington Post entitled “Study: Black students from poor families are more likely to graduate from high school if they have at least one black teacher.”
This article and the study embodies what I’ve been saying for years – black children have more success when they learn from people who look like them. There is a natural understanding and level of expectation from black teachers towards black children that can’t be described, you know it when you feel it. It reminds me of the saying “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” There’s something about having a cultural connection that is undeniable as it pertains to education. It is within our community that we are raised, being taught that we need to “stay two steps ahead” of our white counterparts to be successful. Black teachers know this because they were raised with the same lesson. The kinship is natural. We know, as a community, that we are all responsible for ensuring each other’s success.
I remember my own teachers vividly. Mrs. Washington was my 4th grade teacher. She was a large, black woman who wore a dress to school every day. She walked with the assistance of a cane and had a piercing look that told you all that you needed to know in just one glance – she loved you, she believed in you, and you better not mess up in her class! Mrs. Washington was my mama away from home and my biggest academic cheerleader at school. It is because of her that I, and many of my classmates, are who we are are today. She believed in us in a way that our white teachers simply did not.
And while I can see glimmers of this same thing happening with my children’s teachers, it’s not nearly as pronounced. Both of my sons’ core teachers are white and they all have high expectations for my children and my wife and I appreciate that and them. However, what is still apparent and glaring is the natural gravitation my children have towards their three black teachers and how that pull is reciprocated from those teachers to them.
I appreciate the findings of the study. Knowing that black students from low-income families’ chances for dropping out of high school are lowered 29% when they have a at least one black teacher in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade is remarkable and a data point that we must all celebrate. I agree with Nicholas W. Papageorge, one of the four professors who conducted the study; this is something that could be impenetrable today by going into every school, switching up rosters, and ensuring that every black child has face-to-face time with at least one black teacher. It makes me believe the black teacher recruitment and retention pipeline is beyond critical.
It’s essential to our collective success.
Reggie Barbour lives in Washington, DC and is a husband and father of two sons.