An Incomplete Identity
A young teacher laments the lack of black mentors
Illustrator: Chris Mullen
Even before I enrolled in my teacher education program, I was aware of the lack of teachers of color in a largely white and female teaching force. In the urban, suburban, and private schools I had attended, I could count the number of black teachers I’d had on one hand. By the time I began student teaching, I still barely needed to use two hands. I had spent three and a half years reflecting on the crisis in American education, with such a mismatch between the faces of the learners and the faces of those in power. I knew how empowering it felt to have a teacher who looked like me, standing in front of the class. I was familiar with the foundational identity work of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, William Cross Jr., W. E. B. Dubois, and others. I had read Juwanza Kunjufu, Lisa Delpit, Jonathan Kozol, Asa Hilliard Jr., and more.
From these readings and my own experiences, I was aware of the negative impact that not having black teachers had on black school-age students. I felt eager, but prepared for the frustrations student teaching would bring. My advisor warned me about the lack of sleep. I no longer regretted the loss of the college student weekend that started Thursday at 5 p.m. I had even come to terms with missing my last spring break, as my university’s calendar was not aligned with the school system’s. I was running on a bubbling passion to reach urban black students.
However, I was not prepared for the impact that the lack of black teachers and administrators in schools would have on me, only one semester from wrapping up my undergraduate career. And I was not prepared for the profound effect that their absence would have on my identity as a black teacher.
For my student teaching placement, I was assigned to an excellent veteran teacher. I was also paired with a supportive university supervisor, who had taught general education for nearly 10 years before returning to school to obtain her master’s in special education. Both were filled with helpful information and shared it readily. And both happened to be white. On the surface, my placement could not have been more positive. There was mutual respect and honesty in each of my working relationships. But, within a few days of teaching, I found myself filled with questions, and not sure who I could ask.
My special education classes confronted me with the overrepresentation of black students. In each class, over 70 percent of my students were black. I wondered how the use of what scholars call Black English Vernacular might affect my students. My ability to “code switch” helped me develop rapport with many of my black students. But many teachers at the school insisted on using Standard English. Though at this point in my life I thought myself fairly well versed in navigating the two linguistic worlds, I found myself slipping up or dancing around certain words and phrases, not sure if they were “proper” enough.
I also struggled to find an individual to model my behavior management style after, a style that seemed to fit my personality. I reflected on the development of my teacher-student relationship with black children who had never before experienced a black teacher. Would it develop differently from relationships with students who had had black teachers before? As a special educator with a particular interest in emotional and behavioral disorders, I thought about my black students whose files indicated maternal relationships shadowed by abuse and neglect. As a black female, how would this history affect my relationships with them?
As I settled in, an increasing number of black students reported racial incidents to me. The number was so dramatic that I wondered whether some were fabricated. Was it simply an expression of comfort level and willingness to reveal hurtful incidents? Or did it have to do with my inability to set limits for attention-seeking students? How was I to make it clear that, yes, I was a black teacher in support of their emerging identities; yet I would not allow racial slurs, nor would I stand for students making a mockery of an issue as serious as racism? Did other black teachers reflect on these same questions? I could pull from my childhood experiences being confronted with racist and insensitive comments, but the question remained: Who would teach me how to teach my students of color to come to the same understanding I eventually did?
I was confused and did not know who could answer my questions. These are not questions that only black teachers can answer, but one distinct element of each of them is the black students’ relationship to a black teacher. Shouldn’t I ask someone who has had firsthand experience — as a black teacher? Who could I observe to help me formulate answers? Where were the veteran teachers who struggled with the same issues when they were novice teachers that I struggled with now?
I re-read my college texts about culture and education, but this only reinforced my feeling that my college had failed to affirm who I was as a black teacher. I sought out my own mentors, both in my teaching placements and at my university. At my student teaching placement, there were only two other black teachers. Within the university’s college of education, there was just one black professor out of 125 employed by the college. At times it felt awkward being the first to voice issues of race; I see now there was too little preparation by my undergraduate coursework to feel comfortable initiating these conversations with ease. What I did find helpful was receiving feedback from a black professor on journal entries I shared. This article is largely the result of those entries.
I could continue to list reasons that made it difficult for me to find a fitting mentor, but should it be solely my responsibility? I was a 21-year-old student teacher — a teacher trying to find her way. Do I, because I am black, deserve more responsibility, additional stress? And though I continued to strive for success, I could not avoid feeling that a part of my teaching identity was at stake.
I ended my days frustrated, with so many questions doing a complicated dance in my head. Yes, my cooperating teacher and university supervisor were duly training me as a teacher, but I wanted and needed to know who I could be as a black teacher. I feared that I would not be able to find all of who I was within the teacher I was being trained to be. My preservice experiences were engaging only a part of me. I would end up nothing better than half a teacher — a disservice to me, my black students, as well as all others I might teach.
It would require another, and longer, article to discuss how to strengthen the preservice experiences of black teachers. However, I will offer two suggestions here. First, practicum coordinators should be more thoughtful about the placement of prospective black teachers. I am not calling for every black teacher trainee to be placed with a black mentor teacher. For one, statistics would prove difficult to overcome, making such a goal unattainable. Furthermore, such actions would ignore individual preference. But all teachers, black ones in particular, need to be placed in school environments that have diverse faculties and administrations, thus increasing the chances of finding suitable mentors, as well as schools that are committed to dealing with issues of race from a multicultural standpoint.
Second, preservice programs should be more deliberate about dealing with race. Preservice courses should discuss race more often, actively promoting critical conversations about the effect of race on teacher-student interaction. It is not only historically underrepresented students of color who would benefit from a deeper consideration of race and culture, but white college students, too, would grow from such exposure.
If my teacher preservice program had incorporated these two suggestions, I may not have felt as isolated in the quest to reconcile my feelings of two-ness: that of black person and that of teacher. Following their preservice programs, black teachers should begin their careers knowing that every aspect of their identity has been embraced, and feel equipped to help black students, while offering a quality education to all.