As a parent, the education of my children is a huge part of my life. I’m not only concerned by what that education looks like; I am equally concerned about who is providing it. I have two children in school—age 9 (4th grade) and 3 (Pre-Kindergarten)—at two entirely different schools in two entirely different places. Because of where their schools are located, as well as the types of schools, (my 4th grader at a private school in Virginia and my PKer at a charter school in D.C.) the “who is providing it” part looks very different. The more and more conversations I have with parents about their school choices, and sometimes issues, the more I become interested in the desire for my kids to have black teachers, something I didn’t even realize I lacked until recently.
A few months ago, I remember seeing some thread on Facebook asking folks about how many black teachers they had during the entirety of their education. To that point, it wasn’t something that I’d ever thought about in the slightest. I think because I went to Morehouse College where the vast majority of my professors were black (and male at that), the color of the providers of my prior education seemed fairly inconsequential.
But seeing the comments of many of the respondents caused me to examine my own experience and examine how that impacted my education, if at all.
Until college, I had two black teachers, in total, and I never had a black male teacher until college. My second-grade teacher was a black woman named Ms. Williams (because perfection, my second-grade class picture features her staring at us instead of the camera in standard Black Mother Style because apparently somebody was actin’ a fool) and in high school, my French teacher was a black woman named Mrs. Sterling (who also taught Spanish). I can’t speak much to that second-grade life. Maybe my parents had more feelings about how that might have impacted my esteem.
But Mrs. Sterling, though, in retrospect, was a godsend.
Let me say now that I think, as a black child, having black teachers and/or administrators makes a difference. Until college, I had no idea what it felt like to be in a majority black educational environment. Based on what I saw as part of the discussions about having black teachers, it clearly has an impact. My daughter’s first-grade teacher was the only black, non-PE teacher at her private school, and it was clear and evident my daughter was excited to see a teacher who she said “looked like her mother.” We still have a special bond with said teacher to this day because she similarly took an interest in my daughter.
But let’s get back to Mrs. Sterling. In high school, I took French for all four of my years. We had two different French teachers, both of whom I liked very much. Maybe they had a tremendous amount of love to give, but I always felt like they had a special love for a certain group of us students. Of course, they were concerned about our French education, but it was nothing for Mrs. Sterling to pull me to the side to ask me about other classes. Or pull me to the side to talk to me about my plans for the future or about making the right decisions or tell me I needed to get it together. I had a lot of what I’d consider good teachers in high school, but I don’t remember many of my other teachers taking an active interest in life outside of their classrooms the way Mrs. Sterling did. And I don’t remember it because it didn’t happen.
Do I think she cared more because I was one of her black students excelling in her class? Yes, I do. I think she was a teacher who saw something in me and decided she was going to ensure that if I made bad decisions or didn’t focus, it would be because I made bad choices, not because nobody was looking out for me. When I told her that I was going to Morehouse College, you’d have thought she won the lottery. She beamed so proudly. I vividly remember it because, well, most of the teachers at my school had no clue where Morehouse was, though my church and personal communities were very proud. But Mrs. Sterling, man, she was all in on it. I didn’t realize until much later how much time and attention she invested in me because maybe she knew what I realized with my own children: I’d probably make it, but the road would be rockier because nobody else cared like she would. As an educator, she was there everyday no matter what.
I saw that care first hand when I got to Morehouse. I’d never had so many teachers...care. Teachers pulling me to the side to tell me something I’d turned in was trash or that they knew I could do better and also telling me that I was somebody whether I liked it or not, so deal with that reality (actual quote from one of my English professors). I’d like to think that I thrived in that nurturing environment specifically because I had professors who cared and showed it and never let me (or the other 3,000 students on campus) forget it.
I don’t want to imply that you can’t have a good education or can’t succeed if your school experience is entirely full of non-black teachers. But it does say something that of the, probably, 40 or so teachers I had growing up, the only one I actively remember taking an interest in me was the one black teacher that I had in high school. And she took an interest for all four years. I don’t think any of my other teachers intentionally didn’t take more of an interest, I just think that Mrs. Sterling intentionally did because she knew that it mattered.
I’m sure other students at my high school might have similar stories of her. And maybe she treated all of her students that way, though considering what I came to learn of her after I left for college (when she passed in 2004, there was a rather lengthy article written about her and her educational work and background; she was down for the cause), I wouldn’t be surprised if she was looking out for the black students because she knew she needed to.
I didn’t intend for this to become an ode to Mrs. Sterling, but until people started talking about their experiences in education, I never fully valued her impact on my life and education and how she helped me get to wherever I was going. Representation matters, and black teachers (and administrators) matter.
Mrs. Sterling mattered and she made sure I did.
Cheers to black educators.