Black Teachers Make Their Colleagues Better Educators of Black Students

Jan 8, 2024 3:21:24 PM

by Sharif El-Mekki

Black teachers are powerful.  

Black teachers propel the learning and broader success of their students. 

New research shows that they also improve the racial competency of their white colleagues.

Researchers from American University, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard presented their finding that having a Black same-year colleague “improves academic performance and decreases suspension rates among white teachers’ Black students.” The effect is most substantial with early career teachers.

The researchers applied a mixed-methods approach, analyzing data from North Carolina and open-ended interviews of public school teachers in the same state. The interviewed educators validated and gave texture to the quantitative findings: Black teachers make their colleagues better educators of Black students.

Man, what can’t dope Black teachers do?! 

The findings are consistent with feedback I’ve received from white colleagues during my 30 years in education:

Working with strong Black teachers was better anti-bias professional development than they received while in service and a better learning experience than any classes in their undergrad, master's, or doctorate programs.

Now, before you all start calling for a “Black teacher buddy for all white teachers” campaign, it’s worth interrogating what this research tells us about the experience of Black students, Black and white educators, and the de facto segregation of our society. 

I can’t help but wonder how this research also indicates how little cultural understanding and connection the majority of white teachers –and white people generally– have with Black students, people, and communities. 

Recent research shows that 67% of white Americans have zero Black friends, and their friendship networks are composed of exclusively white people. Friendship networks of white Americans continue to be 90% white. That same study finds that Black friendship networks are the fastest diversifying among racial and ethnic groups. Less than half (46%) of Black Americans' friendship networks are exclusively Black.

The fact that the country is more residentially segregated than even a generation ago means most white teachers did not grow up in or currently live in diverse neighborhoods.

What the Black educator research underscores, other than the fact that the Black teachers are dope, is that white life and Black life are on whole different planets orbiting around a shared center point of history.  

White people, on the whole, possess a stunning and consistent lack of grounding in Black life.

They shop at different stores, attend different elementary and high schools and colleges, and live as adults in a place by and large apart from their Black peers. That personal separateness means that their only “understanding” (read mid-understanding) of the Black experience may be through mass and social media in a dominant culture with a pronounced anti-Black bias.

It’s no wonder then that simply being proximate to a Black educator colleague would have a significant impact on the cultural fluency of white teachers (and hopefully cultural humility) and their ability to better connect with Black students — even if that went from effectively zero to the most modest of measures.

But having the benefit of “Black Colleague PD” isn’t enough. We need our entire systems of teacher education and development to equip teachers of all backgrounds with the skills and understanding to provide diverse students with a positive racial identity as it is foundational to their learning, social and emotional development, mental health, and overall well-being.  

It’s not enough to be empty vessels waiting for our Black colleagues to pour their understanding and cultural fluency into receptive colleagues. It is also not equitable to lean on Black teachers to lead in addressing school and district policies that hold back Black students, teachers, and communities.

What’s needed is allyship and humility. It takes cultural humility, integrity, intellectual rigor, and radical candor to acknowledge one’s shortcomings in understanding and be open to the learning that Black and brown peers can provide.  

Anti-racist work is, after all, an all-hands affair. If that’s not your work, teaching probably shouldn’t be either.

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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