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Why white students need black teachers

One of the key arguments often given for why it is important to increase the diversity of America's teaching force is that students of colour do better academically when they have teachers of colour.

A 2010 study titled Diversifying the Teaching Force: An Examination of Major Arguments found that “teachers of colour use their insider knowledge about the language, culture and life experiences of students of colour to improve their academic outcomes and school experiences”.

In this post, a white teacher explains why it is also important for white students to be taught by people of colour.

She is Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. Lamb-Sinclair is returning to full-time classroom teaching this autumn after a sabbatical working with the Kentucky Department of Education. She teaches high school English and creative writing, and authors the www.beautifuljunkyard.com website. She is also the founder and chief executive officer of Curio Learning, an educational technology company launching a platform for teacher professional development. (Twitter handle: @AshleyLambS)

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair:

Robert Trumbo was the first person to ever tell me I was going to be a teacher. He didn't just suggest it, he almost commanded it, or at the very least prophesied it. I sat in his Avid class — a class to help students gain skills for college readiness — helping a fellow student with his essay, and Mr Trumbo said to me: “You're a teacher, Ashley Lamb.”

I believed him, even though I openly disagreed at the time, mostly because Mr Trumbo was one of my most respected teachers and his presence in my life was almost mythology.

He had taught my mother and aunts, and was one of their favourite teachers, too. If Mr Trumbo told you something, you had better take heed.

He demanded that all of his students memorise their social security numbers because “trust me,” he would say, “you're gonna need it”.

He explained to us the importance of maintaining “good credit”, something I remembered ashamedly when I started piling on my own credit card debt in college. Mr Trumbo would become unreasonably furious when someone passed gas in his classroom, storming around spraying Lysol and doing his best not to curse, much to our amusement.

He was the only teacher I ever saw cry. Our high school suffered the tragic loss of two students in a drink-driving accident, and I will never forget the crack in Mr Trumbo's voice when he brought up the parents who had lost a child. We knew Mr Trumbo had suffered his own unspeakable tragedy and in that moment, he wasn't Mr Trumbo — my teacher, the myth — he was a man who had lost his son. And Mr Trumbo was the person who openly and thoughtfully talked to me, a young white girl, about being a black man.

I wasn't isolated from black people. I grew up next door to a black family who took me in as one of their own. One of the oldest girls was my babysitter, the youngest boy my best friend. I went to church with them and I often spent the night at their house. Throughout my life, my schools were diverse: pretty much 50-50 black and white students. My exposure to people of a different skin colour was much broader than what many other young white Americans experience. White students tend to attend schools where they are in the majority and “white students rarely attend schools where they make up less than 25 per cent of the enrolment”.

Yet, even though I did have some insight, how could I have possibly understood the experience of black Americans unless someone took the time to speak openly about it with me? Mr Trumbo did that.

As a white teacher who teaches in a primarily white school, I find myself encountering issues of race all the time, and ill-equipped to address them. When teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I inevitably face a classroom full of white students who want to debate the pros and cons of using the N-word in the text. Or worse, they want to ignore it.

Or when we read The Other Wes Moore and students want to discuss current events similar to those in the book, such as the recent police shootings of black men, and suddenly I, a white female, find myself in front of inquiring young minds who need perspective to help them to make sense of what they read on social media or hear from their peers. But I cannot explain to them what it feels like to be a black person in America.

Mr Trumbo reached me one tragic morning because he helped me understand what it feels like to lose a loved one, and I have never forgotten it. And when he hit pause on an important scene in Roots and explained the context of that moment with his own life experience, we understood a little more what it felt like for Mr Trumbo to be a black man and all the history that came with that.

What would happen if our white students in our primarily white schools across the country had the opportunity to empathise with a respected adult who could speak with experience about issues of race?

Yet, as many of our schools have grown more diverse, our teaching population has grown more white. Many argue that this is an issue especially for minority students who benefit from having teachers who look like them. Obviously, students of colour need teachers of colour, but from experience I know the importance of white students having teachers of colour, too, especially in our present political climate when bullying has been on the rise in schools.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, “teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail”. We need minority educators in these classrooms who can bring perspective to the words and actions of bullies who prey on those of other ethnicities.

But, the thing is, Mr Trumbo wasn't just black. He was a phenomenal teacher. He pushed us. He saw who we really were. He made us laugh and he sometimes had to make us cry. Occasionally, he even made us angry, but we respected him as a person and as an educator first and foremost. But because he was a great teacher and a black man, the white students in his classes had a person of colour who was also a person of authority and expertise.

It is difficult to believe generalised racist comments when a human being who defies them stands before you every day. The answer to this problem is not simply recruiting minority teachers just to increase the numbers of minority teachers, but to provide pathways for everyone capable of becoming a phenomenal teacher to be given the opportunity and autonomy to do so.

My mother's father once said to her: “I would rather see you in a casket than for you to ever date a black man.”

He forbade her from listening to Fats Domino, one of her favourites, because he was a black man who dated white women. She grew up in a home where it would have been easy to accept and to repeat racial stereotypes as truth. But she had Mr Trumbo in high school and she loved him. He was a human contradiction to the rhetoric that she might have otherwise believed.

What would happen if every white student were taught by a Mr Trumbo?

I would like to think that racist rhetoric would be much harder to swallow and much more difficult for young people to speak.

•Valerie Strauss covers education for The Washington Post and runs The Answer Sheet blog

Comanding respect: the character of Sidney Poitier's Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love reminds us of the difference an inspirational teacher can make

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Published August 23, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 23, 2016 at 12:58 am)

Why white students need black teachers

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