What Makes an Influential Black Educator?
There are so many expectations that come along with being a black teacher, particularly in private education, but expectations all come with an ounce of potential- even if they are based on unrealistic hopes.
When I first became a teacher, I was determined to “make a difference”. This “difference” ranged from hopes of becoming a famous author for writing publications about pedagogy and the other boring intellectual material that we touched on in my MAT program. It included the dream of touching lives and becoming my students’ favorite teacher because I was young, cool, and still partied on the weekends. I wanted to be more than some of the boring teachers many of my friends from high school became- spending my nights with friends instead of alone in my classroom stressed out over lesson planning and my ridiculous workload. Teaching became more than what I expected and over a short span of time, I realized that my calling was to do more than be different from the other young black teachers I knew. My calling was to make a difference of my own, which made me realize the three major aspects of being an Influential Black Educator.
Don’t take the color of your skin for granted.
Being black is a beautiful thing, which is something that we are not often taught to remember. The media, television shows, and even the people around us don’t necessarily have to tell us that black is not considered America’s standard of beauty, but it is easily sensed. As a teacher, you are the example. Students watch everything you say and do, and if they like it, they will emulate it. I remember teaching at an all-girls middle school, and I was known for my sense of style. I did not think much of it until one day a couple of girls told me that they liked the way a pink shirt “popped” against my skin. One of them followed the compliment with “I would never wear that because I’m too dark, but it looks good on you.” That, right there, was a teaching moment! I told the student that “There is no such thing as ‘too dark’. And this color would look beautiful on you, too.” She smiled, and walked away. I don’t know if I changed her mind or not, but as one dark skinned female talking to another, planting that seed of positive self-esteem is an opportunity I try my best to never overlook.
I am glad for examples like Lupita Nyong’o and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and although I have personal mixed reactions about the public’s intrigue with the former’s beautiful dark skin, I like that she is unabashed to talk about her struggles with her skin color being accepted as attractive. Because both are dark-skinned, they have opportunities to discuss the power of self-esteem and empowerment on a brighter platform than we teachers, and both have taken full advantage of doing so. As a black educator of English, I use my color to my advantage. I can discuss race and skin color in literature in ways that teachers of other races cannot simply because, more often than not, they cannot directly or personally relate. I, however, can use personal experience- which high school students love to hear about- to put some concepts into perspective.
Share your story.
People always ask me how I ended up becoming a teacher. Those who know me laugh when they hear people ask me this question. It is a funny story when I include the details, and usually that ends up happening once I receive the confused looks of “How in the world did you do that?” Basically, I started out in Interior Design, flunked out of my second year and switched to Management, graduated by the skin of my teeth, which was a blessing because I had miraculously been accepted to a Master’s program in Economics at Georgia State, which I dropped out of after my second semester. This brought me back to Boston, where in a random job search, I found my first teaching job while inquiring about becoming a mentor. I met with the school’s principal, she offered me the last teaching fellow position along with a free-ride for my MAT, and well, the rest is history.
I never lie about my past. Yes, I quit things more than once, but it made me stronger. I encountered people and circumstances throughout my life that challenged me, brought new opportunities, and sometimes made things almost impossible. I learned about the things that were not for me (economics), and the things that I loved, but could never do full-time (interior design). Along the way, I realized my true talents (abstract painting), my natural abilities (teaching and writing), and the ways in which I could incorporate all of those things into one career.
My students love sharing their hopes and dreams for the future, and I remember when I was a younger hopeful- I wanted to be a pediatrician. But now, I know that sometimes the path to where you want to be is not always a straight, perfectly-planned road. Share those experiences with people and be honest. It will help someone feel better about not being sure about their future, and may give them some comfort knowing that you made it through all of the “other stuff” with experience to contribute to your present success. Part of my mission as a teacher is to teach others through my own life, experience, and knowledge. EVERY part of my story contributes to that mission.
Go where others will not go.
When I first told people that I would be working at a New England boarding school, people simply asked me why. I had no problem stating why. It was the questions that followed that offended me. “Well, why go out there when we have plenty of need for black teachers in the public schools here in the city?” and “So, you prefer to work with the rich white kids instead of with your people?” Yes, in 2014, these were the questions I was receiving, and though I laughed nervously in response before answering, these were serious inquiries from people I know and love.
I chose to accept this position, one, because I needed a job, and two, because I was convinced that it would be the right move. Don’t get me wrong, when I first drove the 2 hours to get here for my interview, I was convinced that I would never work here. I lost cell phone and GPS service an hour into the drive, I got lost somewhere in the woods, and there were no streetlights lining the streets. I finally found the school, and saw nothing but trees and a beautiful, but isolated campus. As I pulled into the visitor’s lot to park my car, I literally laughed out loud, and thought to myself “What am I doing here? This is a complete waste of time.” The chipmunk that crossed my path as I walked into the main building did nothing but reinforce my apprehension. Upon entering the main building, I was greeted by a sign that read “Welcome, Tiye Cort”. I interviewed with no less than 7 faculty members after delivering my sample lesson to a sophomore English class, and at lunch, I interviewed with a panel of 5 students. This is where my mind was changed. The students were amazing. They asked me some tough questions, but I was real with them. They loved my honesty and comfort with talking to them, and I later found out that they were a major part of the decision to hire me.
I was also impressed with the fact that faculty members were not afraid to talk about diversity efforts and the fact that I was black. They wanted me to know that I would be the only black faculty member, but that this was also something that would be a great influence on the school. The student body is very diverse for a New England boarding school, and having a faculty member and example of leadership who looked like those in the minority would have a great effect upon the students. I loved that the school was willing to take a chance on hiring a high school English teacher who had never taught English or high school, but I was also excited to be a pioneer. I would be the first and maybe the only black educator that most of these students would have in their educational experiences. This was an opportunity for me to lead by example, to dispel stereotypes, and to make a huge impression on some young lives.
The school that currently employs me was opened in 1935. I am the first black educator to be hired since its opening. I am very aware of the need for more black teachers, particularly in Boston Public Schools, but I am also aware that there are already initiatives in place to increase the number of BPS black educators. As far as I was concerned, I wanted to challenge myself with being a larger part of history in education through starting an initiative. The opportunity to be a school’s FIRST black educator was huge. Sure, I knew that I was going to have to be more than an adult brown face on a campus in this small town, but I also knew that I would have a chance to set an initiative in motion. Why am I the first black teacher at this school? How can I encourage more black teachers to teach here and in schools like this? What can I do to help? It was all very exciting and made me want to answer the questions regarding why more people like me were not “stepping up” to be just as influential in private education as they were in public education.
As for the last question of my intentions in accepting this job- No, I do not prefer to work with “rich white kids” over “my own people”. First of all, not every child in boarding school is “rich”, so let’s get that straight. And not every child in a New England boarding school is white. Sure, the majority of those investing in private education may come from wealthier backgrounds, and the student body is usually predominantly non-black, but I accepted this position mostly for the minorities. I can relate to being the minority, and for me it was not a big deal in my education until college. I went to a predominantly white private college in Boston, and were it not for The National Society of Black Engineers (shameless NSBE plug), I would never have connected with other black students on campus. I learned the importance of the support and a network of individuals who came from similar cultural backgrounds, without which, I would have developed a very different perspective on higher education. We were all striving for academic excellence and professional success, while increasing the number of culturally responsible young people who positively impacted the community. We had the support of the only black professor in the Humanities department (Dr. Leon Cort, who happens to be my father) as the faculty advisor. He was influential because he could relate to the students through personal experience as a minority who went through struggles but found opportunity and success despite the color of his skin.
So my preference has never been white students over black students or vice versa. My preference has been the minority. I prefer to work with students who may be misunderstood, lacking the resources that they need to achieve their best despite their placement in a privileged and affluent environment. My preference is to work in an environment that will challenge me and help me grow as an educator, building my experience, consciousness, and zeal to make changes beyond education reform in the classroom and deeper into the lives of my students.
Any other suggestions for how to become an influential black educator? Leave them in the comments below!