What 'Black Cool' Looks Like in the Classroom

There aren't enough black teachers in America's schools, but the ones that do have bring a special aesthetic to the classroom.

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week to ensure the contributions of black people would be taught and remembered. Woodson believed that eventually the week—which in 1976 become Black History Month—would eventually become unnecessary because everyone would learn black history.

Seven years later, in his book The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson argued that America’s school system indoctrinated black people instead of educating them. Generations later, his rugged independence and intellectual dexterity remain an undeniable example of cool. That same spirit flows through Rebecca Walker's Black Cool: A Thousands Streams of Blackness, a just-published collection of essays about the many dimensions of "black cool."

As each writer takes on a different dimension of cool, the reader reaches the same realization Henry Louis Gates Jr. lays out in the foreword: "We are not a monolith, but we are a community. And the members of a community talk to each other—and talk about each other." People of color talk to each other frequently about this idea of cool—judging that which we believe is cool and juxtaposing our own standards with that of the general public. No more is this clear than in our schools where children of color actively seek models of cool.

In light of the lack of diversity in thought and culture within our teaching corps, there's an astounding disconnect. I don't believe that only teachers of color should teach diverse students, but only 17 percent of public school teachers and 19 percent of principals are of color, and out of the 7.2 million-plus K-12 teachers, only about 534,000 elementary educators are of color. That number drops to 199,000 by high school, a 63 percent dip in representation.

As a result, when students find a teacher of color, they gravitate towards us—much to the delight of parents and administrators who see the value of teachers of color in the classroom, and to the chagrin of fellow teachers who prefer to have their peers fit a specific and dominant mold of teaching. Teachers of color do disagree on the best pedagogical practice: Some believe in constructivist discovery of material while others believe in rote memorization of basic facts. A bunch of us, including myself, believe in a healthy mix of both.

The best of us can teach well while still connecting with students on a personal level, even without discussing personal matters. We have our worldviews and live them out in a way that our students can discern what we believe without asking. We generally believe that building a relationship on the first day of school matters more than teaching the curriculum outright. We compel students to give their best effort at times when their personal, environmental, financial, and physical problems get in the way of their success. We can speak to students as if we’ve been in their shoes before—because so many of us have. Thus, our students see us as cool.

But what makes teachers of color cool to the broader society? Some of the elements remain the same: the aesthetic of the teacher, the confidence and presence we carry in the halls, and the charisma we emote in our expressions. The delivery of the material, for instance, has a different flavor.

Students often say they understand our instruction better, even if the teacher of color has said the same thing a white teacher did. Even the infamous "teacher look" is different when it comes from someone who looks like the student's parents.

Educators of color see value in working with colleagues on projects and building a positive school environment, yet we also have our own priorities directed toward making learning relevant to our students. Black Americans' contributions have been ignored for too long, and we bring their stories into the classroom so the education system doesn't continue that pattern. We work within our confines and open our classrooms to all comers, but we refuse to let others dictate our delivery for the purposes of uniformity.

Like Woodson's version of cool, the black educator is marked by stark independence and off-kilter intellectualism. We might follow the same curriculum with the same books and the same goals as white teachers, but the power is in our questions and the answers we accept from our students. Do our methods work?

Just ask our students what they think about our classes. They often say, "Yo, it’s mad cool."

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Parker Michael Knight


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