First Person

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Allen Smith of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team and the author's former principal.

The professional journey of a black male teacher can be completely isolating: Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.

Do not get me wrong — there are amazing teachers and leaders of all backgrounds in schools across Colorado and the country. But there is so much power in being able to see someone and work with someone like you.

I know because I am one of few black male teachers in Denver, and I’ve taught in schools where I was alone, and in schools where I worked with people who looked like me.

Across the country, only 2 percent of teachers are black men. In Colorado, that proportion is even smaller: Just 4 percent of the state’s teachers are black, men and women. (Colorado’s black population is just under 4 percent.)

For the first two years of my career, while I was in graduate school, I worked as a paraprofessional in a Jefferson County school with an amazing staff that embraced me and showed me nothing but love, but I could not help but feel alone. There was not one teacher of color at that school while I was there.

Being the only person of color at the school meant that I received a great deal of attention while still feeling alone — and under a great deal of pressure. I felt like I was always on stage, always “representing,” because I knew for many of the people that I worked with, including students, their interaction with me might be their only meaningful connection or communication to a black person. Even with people that I felt had true love for me, it was a lot to shoulder day in and day out.

Have you had the experience of being the only person like yourself in your school? Take this survey to share your story.

So when I was 27 and looking for my first full-time social studies teaching job, I set out to look for a school where I would not be alone. At a Denver Public Schools hiring fair, I met Allen Smith, a black man who was then the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Early College. He invited me to his school but first connected me with an assistant principal, Nick Dawkins — another black man. I left the fair without talking to anybody else, and a month later, I got an offer to teach at MLK.

Teachers’ first years are tough, but having two black men available to support me made all the difference in the world. I knew they were cut from the same cloth as me — and because of that I was able to share my experience with them without fear of judgment.

Mr. Dawkins was the assistant principal directly over me as well as my mentor, and his support was invaluable. He allowed me to sit and talk with him about the troubles and successes I was experiencing in and outside of the classroom. His insight into building curriculum as well as the advice he gave me as a young black man in my first career changed my life. He shared his stories of teaching and how he was able to be successful, and where he struggled. He let me know places I should go out and relax and have a good time after a hard week.

We laughed, we cried, we grew, and it was all rooted in us being able to recognize one another as black men in this world and all that came with that.

Principal Smith showed a confidence in me that I had never had anyone outside of family show me before. In my first year at his school he was already grooming me and asking me questions about what I wanted to do next in education. He began encouraging me to look into administration programs and ways that I could continue to grow as a professional. He never told me explicitly but he made me feel like he was an older “brotha,” who wanted me to know I could do anything I wanted to, and that he would support me all the way.

When he announced that he was leaving for Oakland, California, I was nervous. But his replacement, Tony Smith (no relation), was also a black man, and his leadership was even more familiar. While he was a little rougher around the edges and a little more in your face than his predecessor, my father was the same way and the transition for me was seamless.

The next time the school hired a principal, I got someone who was just like the black women that I had grown up with my entire life. Kimberly Greyson pushed me the same way those black women did. She never told me that she had a special place in her heart for me because I was a black male — like her son, like her father, her uncles, and her friends — but she didn’t have to. I could feel it in our interactions.

As black people, we are so hard-pressed for self- and communal preservation that we find ourselves treating each other like family, because that is the best way to survive and thrive. That is the kind of the feeling I got working under Kimberly, who guided me to become a teacher-leader and trainer not only for our school but nationwide.

When Nick Dawkins became principal of Manual High School, he invited me to join him there, and that’s where I teach today. It could sound like I was given some special treatment in the way that my supervisors looked after me and helped me grow. But the privilege that I received is just everyday life for most teachers in a profession dominated by white women.

Now, Allen Smith has returned to Denver, where he is on the school district’s culture, leadership, and equity team. As he always has, he is is pushing me into spaces and work that are new to me because he believes in me and wants to give me a shot. He asked me to join the steering committee for the district’s African-American Equity Task Force, which is working to find out ways for more teachers to share my experience, and for more students to benefit from having teachers who look like them.

For the last nine months, we have been working with over 100 volunteers to develop ways to improve outcomes for black students in Denver. We’re looking at all aspects of education, from curriculum and instruction, to discipline practices and interventions, to teacher training and mentoring, to the persistent challenge of hiring and retaining teachers of color. We know that our black students are an underserved population in our district and our job as a task force is to develop a comprehensive solution to the problems we face.

I know that my story is not the story of the healthy majority of black males in education. As a matter of fact, when I tell other black males my story, I have to help them get their jaws off the ground because they cannot even fathom a situation like mine exists. They tell me that because they do not work with anyone who shares their demographic profile, they find it hard to see who and how they want to be professionally.

And that is the problem. I found the colleagues who changed my life through sheer luck. But teachers’ ability to have colleagues who share their experiences should not be left to kismet.

William Anderson is a teacher at Manual High School in Denver.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.