Disappearing acts: The decline of black teachers

February 6, 2013
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As long as I can remember, there has been a perennial plea for black people to enter the teaching profession, and many of us enthusiastically headed this righteous call.

However,  as the nation’s population and students have grown more diverse, the teaching force has done the opposite—grown more white and less diverse; the growing shortage of black teachers, especially black men, is an issue in the nation’s schools.

Although many stakeholders of public education agree that our elementary and secondary teaching force “should look like America,” recent policy has ignored conventional wisdom and has led to the greatest involuntary exodus of blacks from the teaching profession.

In 2000, 52 percent of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students and 41 percent of CPS teachers were black.  Today, 43 percent of students and just 25 percent of teachers are black.  Black teachers are more likely to work in high-poverty schools with high percentages of black students.

In other words, the data indicate that black teachers are employed at higher rates in schools serving students with severe challenges, augmented by their living conditions; these same schools tend to be less desirable workplaces and are disrupted by a revolving door of administrators, plagued by relentless testing and are void of teacher autonomy over curriculum and are more likely to be closed or “turned-around.”

Last year, the Chicago Board of Education moved on school action plans that not only further destabilized black communities but disproportionately led to the involuntarily departure of black educators.  More than 250 black teachers were impacted by the board’s decisions.

My new role with the Chicago Teachers Union provided me a front row seat on how devastating these policies are to black teachers.

Octavia Sansing-Rhodes, a black teacher at Herzl, brought an inspired culturally competent pedagogy to her classroom. Her dedication was recognized and she was named WGN teacher of the month.  Her school was turned over to a private operator and she was fired.

Terrell Thorpe, a product of CPS, purposefully returned to service the communities that inspired him.  Despite the need of black men teachers, his commitment to poor black children was met with ridicule and contempt— he too was fired.

For 22 years, Ms. Marquiette “Renee” Criswell taught in the community that raised her, North Lawndale.  All three of her children are products of CPS and are examples of how neighborhood schools and empowered parents lead to productive citizens, her son recently earned his law degree from Harvard and passed the bar exam.  Despite her years of dedication to her family and community, CPS fired her.

Since the Renaissance 2010 initiative, CPS has closed down schools year after year, leading to the loss of hundreds of veteran black teachers.

This year, CPS is insisting on ramming through these same policies that have led to the loss of black teachers.  Like all communities, black communities require stability and want evidence that the people who service our community have a deep understanding of the racial and cultural values that we appreciate; the corporate “reform” agenda is threatening to destroy our realization of blackness.

Privatization and charter expansion, annual layoffs—which disproportionately affects black teachers– and mayoral control have ruined Chicago’s neighborhood schools on the West and South Sides and has led to the loss of those that have profound love for our children.

These “reforms” pushed by our mayor and his billionaire allies threatens two of the most sacred entities in America, neighborhood public schools and the economic base of the black community.  We must resist this agenda and fight to protect the economic interest of the very families that make up our communities.

Brandon Johnson is an Austin resident, parent and six-year CPS teacher. He’s taught at both Westinghouse College Prep. and Jenner Academy of the Arts. He is currently an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union and the head of the CTU Black Caucus.

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