Teaching and Learning While Black

Slide
Freedom Center Voices
Slide
Freedom Center Voices
previous arrow
next arrow

Guest writer Alexander Pittman reflects on a keynote lecture given by Dr. Bettina L. Love during our virtual 2021 Educator Open House titled "The Idea of Mattering is Essential." We weren't able to record the lecture, but the rest of the program is available to watch on our youtube channel.

December 10, 2021

Teaching and Learning While Black

As an African-American man in the United States, I have experienced discrimination and microaggressions in schools, both as a student and educator. I had the privilege of serving as a public school middle and high school Social Studies teacher for nearly a decade prior to enrolling at The Ohio State University to pursue a doctoral degree in Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education. One reason I care so much about equity in education is because I have never had an African-American male teacher or professor in my entire schooling experience (k-12, undergrad, and graduate school). Knowing that the education system is standards based, I have seen firsthand the harm that can occur to students of Color due to the fact that those standards are almost never developed, implemented or taught with their academic success and personal development in mind.

Teaching diverse, marginalized and historically resilient student populations has always been a desire and priority for me throughout my professional career. Currently I supervise and teacher preservice educators as they prepare to enter the classroom for the first time as a lead teacher. Aside from teacher education and preparation, my research passion, similarly to Dr. Love’s, centers the intersections of race, social justice and education.

The very fact of freedom’s incompleteness (no one is free so long as others remain unfree) necessitates action directed at changing society. Freedom, therefore, is ultimately a practice, rather than a possession or a state of being. – Michael Hames-Garcia

I find it fitting to lead with this quote, as a central theme in Dr. Love’s keynote address and abolitionist work is that freedom is NOT justice. A situation can be done justice, but freedom is an ongoing struggle. Love bluntly proclaims that to be Black in America means to be in a constant state of survival. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in America’s public school system.

During my teaching tenure I worked in schools that served predominantly Black and Brown students from middle to low-income communities. As an educator, I witnessed countless injustices; from over-disciplining of dark bodies, to deficit labeling of students of Color based on standards that center whiteness, to teachers negatively judging parents and entire communities of color, though having little to no knowledge of the cultural values and histories that make up that community. However, my time in the classroom was also, and more importantly, filled with joy as my students and I learned for each other by sharing stories and reflecting on our lived experiences. In so many ways this a microcosm of what dark people in this country must do each and every day; acknowledge and navigate marginalization and oppressive systems, while choosing to focus on our strength, resiliency and joy.

It is extremely frustrating being committed to and engaged in abolitionist teaching, yet knowing the kind of radical change Love imagines must be taken-up by the vast majority of white teachers who are currently teaching in schools to have any chance of widespread success. As I continue to explore my roles and responsibilities within abolitionist education — as a Black man, an educator and a doctoral student — an issue I wrestle with is knowing and agreeing with Dr. Love that you don't have to be Black to do this work (speaking about abolitionist teaching). However, I also know from learned and experiential knowledge that teachers of color help students of the same race or ethnicity perform better academically (Goldenberg, 2014). Never experiencing the joy and affirmation that comes with being taught by someone who I see as having similar social identities as myself did have a negative impact on my k-12 schooling experience.

A 2021 Columbus Dispatch newspaper article highlighted that 94 percent of current Ohio educators are white. Furthermore, 86 percent of students in teacher training programs in the state of Ohio are white as well, these numbers are similar to national trends in teachers and teacher education. Educational inequity is not only related to curriculum, funding and discipline, but also connected to who we are encouraging to become educators. In her keynote Love made the point that often Blacks aren’t part of the curriculum, and efforts to introduce a more diverse and represented curriculum is often met with resistance, this all contributes to the educational survival complex that Dr. Love names, critiques, and resist through her abolitionist work.

Teacher Education Programs, Working for Change or Maintaining the Status Quo?

“Teacher education programs are typically designed to prepare middle-class, European American candidates to teach middle-class, European American students in mainstream schools. But these conceptions often do not fit the shifting student demographics in U.S. schools, particularly in urban communities. The dominant enrollments in many of these schools already are students of color and from poverty” (Gay, 2005, p. 222)

Even though the quote above is from a 2005 publication, I can tell you that nationally this is still very much the case in teacher education programs. In her book, We Want To Do More Than Survive, Love writes “My goal as an educator, teaching overwhelmingly White students, is to get white students to question how they are going to teach children of color with limited understanding of who these children are, where these children come from, their history, why and how they matter to the world, who loves them, why they should love Blackness, why they should want to see dark children win, how to support their quest to thrive, and how it is intentional that future teachers know so little about dark students” (pg. 126-127).

Teaching and learning with these goals in mind is not centered in the majority of our teacher education programs. Institutions of higher education, and teacher education programs specifically, are steeped in white normative thinking and ideals, Love refers to this as the teacher education gap.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

As Dr. Love highlighted in her keynote, abolition is about eliminating not restructuring. The need to eliminate, not restructure extends to teacher education programs as well. Reimagining teacher education is a twofold endeavor: one, completely rethinking the required curriculum, practicum experience and colonial logics of learning, knowledge, research that typically shape teacher education programs. This would be vital in moving the white pre-service educators who are in the pipeline already closer to what Love calls being a co-conspirators rather than ally.

Secondly, given that in 2018 students of color represented 53% of the total student population, but teachers of Color only about 21% during the same time period (source: National Center for Education Statistics), teacher education programs must dedicate time, effort and resources to the recruitment and retention of preservice educator of Color. Love spoke of the coded language used in k-12 to alienate, oppress and push out dark folks based on their appearance, noting professional, inappropriate and distraction as examples of such language. Consider the message that sends to young Black children as they decide rather they should pursue teaching as a career path.

Abolitionist Educational Research

A significant idea presented in Love’s keynote and book is that of freedom dreaming. She describes freedom dreaming, simply as “dreams grounded in a critique of injustice” (Love, 2019, pg. 101). As I reflect on Love’s powerful ideas for reimagining what our k-12 schools could be for our students of Color if we adopted abolitionist teaching as the standard, I’m drawn to thinking about how educational research, especially that which aims to study marginalized communities, could be reimagined with abolitionist principles in mind.

Patel’s 2016 book Decolonizing Educational Research traces the genealogy of coloniality in knowledge production and education research, positing that “education research, though both meaning and matter, has played a deleterious role in perpetuating and refreshing colonial relationships among people, practices, and land” (Patel, 2016, pg. 12). There are similarities and overlaps in the works of Love and Patel, they both draw on the scholarship of great thinkers such as; Gloria Ladson-Billings, W.E.B. DuBois, and Kimberlé Crenshaw to inform their scholarship. Furthermore, both scholars acknowledge and push for the complete dismantling and radical rethinking of the systems they critique, k-12 education and education research respectively. Patel questions “whether educational research could, in fact, become something more than colonizing, whether an entity borne of and beholden to coloniality could somehow wrest itself free of this genealogy” (pg. 4). Patel calls for answerability, and Love for abolition, but they both interrogate the colonial logics of learning and knowledge.

In my freedom dreaming, I think about what abolitionist education research would look like. What would the implications be for all education scholars, practitioners, and researchers, regardless of race, if institutions prioritized educational research that critiques, rather than perpetuates, injustices in education. As an educator and emerging researcher, I must be cognizant of how my actions and research agenda can undo coloniality and create spaces for ways of knowing that honor the histories and experiences of people of Color, this can serve as a first step towards abolitionist education research.

Alexander Pittman served as a public school middle and high school Social Studies teacher for nearly a decade prior to enrolling at The Ohio State University to pursue his doctoral degree in Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education. Alexander currently teaches and supervises preservice educators, preparing them to enter the classroom. His scholarly research interest focuses on the intersections of race, social justice and education.

Posted in Uncategorized.