Opinion

To Be Young, Teaching, and Black

To be young, teaching, and black sometimes feels like the most difficult thing in the world. But I am reminded that it is also the most rewarding thing in the world.

It is currently Teacher Appreciation Week. Usually at this time, I am too busy with the end-of-the-year scramble to pay it much mind (although I definitely make sure I slide through the teacher’s lounge each day in order to cop some of that free food). However, with this being the end of my third year of teaching (also known as the first year that I legitimately felt I knew what I was doing) and the end of my time at my current school, I am in an extremely reflective mood; especially as said reflection pertains to how my blackness impacts my teaching.

My strength as an educator definitely lies in building relationships with my students over the course of the school year. I’ve been told that I strike a mama/auntie/big sister type of vibe, which I can dig, because it’s totally true. See below:

  • Mama Wilson has zero problems with telling you to get your life together because your grade is… well, you know what your grade is. GET. IT. TO. GETH. ER. A. S. A. P. (insert claps after each period. Y’all know the drill.)
  • Auntie LoLo will co-sign Mama Wilson, then ask you what music you’re listening to or if you went and saw Black Panther 2 Avengers: Infinity Wars last weekend. She might even slide you a piece of candy on the low.
  • Big Sister Lauren sees you on the verge of tears when you come into the classroom and asks if you need to go to the bathroom or if we need to go out into the hallway and talk about it. With Big Sis, you don’t have to worry about your business being put out in the streets.

Living in these identities as a black woman both inside and outside of the classroom has definitely affected my teaching. For example:

  • In-class discipline. 55% of the suspensions of black students in the U.S. occur in just 13 states (Arkansas included). 65% of those black students are boys. This disproportionate discipline of black students – especially black boys – is partly the result of teachers’ implicit bias and a lack of awareness and teacher training on discipline alternatives. Whereas some teachers seem to write discipline slips like there is no tomorrow – especially in regards to our black male students – I see all my black boys as my knucklehead teenage brothers. Yeah, they can be annoying and act stupid and make dumb decisions, but every little infraction does not warrant a trip to the assistant principal’s office. More often than not, I’ma hit them with a side eye, a stern word, a seat next to my desk, or a sit-down in the hallway, and they pull it together…most of the time.
  • Techniques & topics. “oh, you ain’t heard? ya girl got bars for days / and I use them in the classroom in a few different ways / I’ll write a song or two for a quick review / or to introduce a unit, or just cuz I want to!” lol, yeah, I really wrote that just for this article, but as a music lover and fake aspiring rapper, I have been known to drop a verse or two in the classroom. Remind me to tell you about the time that I remixed four songs from the musical Hamilton as a recap of Acts I, II, and III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I also relish in exposing my students to topics that they may not otherwise learn about. This reminds me to tell you about how, when I introduced this year’s research topic (prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance), I heard everything from, “They’re all BLACK!?” to, “It’s about time we researched people other than old white men!” #same
  • Relatability. “Ms. Wilson, have you seen Childish Gambino’s new video?” Girl, YES! I had to watch it twice in a row, read three articles, and still need to watch it a few more times! “Miss, how long have you been natural? What do you put in your hair?” Oh lawdt, seems like forever. It’ll be ten years in September, and I don’t half do anything to it, but we can talk products and techniques. “How do you have a kid if you’ve never been married?” Child, you know how children are made, right? “Yes.” Ok, you know you don’t have to be married to do that, right? “But you’re supposed to-” I ain’t ask if you were supposed to. I asked if you have to. “No ma’am.” Ok, then. *blank stare* Yeah, the questions get real, but I don’t mind answering them because I think that my uniqueness as a young black mother who has never been married and who teaches in the south helps me understand and relate to my students, no matter how quirky or preppy or outcast or quiet or whatever they are that makes them different from their peers. Also, I have several students who have become mothers before their high school graduations. Having been a young mother, I can interact with these girls with empathy and understanding, and they know that they can come talk to me without fear of shame or judgment. Additionally, I try to stay somewhat current on music, slang, and pop culture in order to up my relatability factor (however, if one more student interrupts my umpteenth playing of KOD or Black Panther: The Album [clean, of course] by requesting a song by NBA Youngboy, I just might scream).

To be young, teaching, and black sometimes feels like the most difficult thing in the world. But when I get feedback like this, especially from my black students, I am reminded that it is also the most rewarding thing in the world:

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To all of my fellow young, teaching, black folks: you are needed. You are appreciated. You are NEEDED. This job gets rough, but you are making a difference, if only for that one kid who looks to you as a role model. This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, so holla at a teacher you know with some words of encouragement as we approach the end of another school year. Especially if they are young, teaching, and black.

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