New York’s educational system is comprised of 688 school districts. Out of those districts, 8% of teachers are black.
Even in a state as diverse as New York, black educators make up the minority of the state’s teaching force compared to the 80% of white educators.
English teachers Steven Stewart, Jazmine Gray, and Walter Ollivierre are members of Edison’s black educators. Their varying degrees of experience has allowed them to notice subtle differences in their roles as black educators compared to non-black educators.
“In the way, you might approach a work of literature. It’s good that we teach Shakespeare, but you might also need to include people like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes,” Stewart said.
Although Stewart noticed a heavier influence in which type of curriculum he taught, Gray noticed a difference in how she connected to students. Especially in her old schools, schools mostly with black and Hispanic students.
“I feel like what stood out in those moments when I was in my previous school was that the kids automatically related to me more. I think that a non-teacher of color would have to try a bit harder to get the students to relate to them. And they had to try a bit harder to get the students to feel like they actually understand them or they actually care. I think that when students of color see a teacher of color they don’t automatically have their guard up,” Gray said.
She is not the only black educator to notice this connection. Ollivierre’s Trinidadian upbringing and culture have allowed him to connect with students in unexpected ways.
“I have had long conversations about why Trinidadians say “Curry Chicken” and why Guyanese people say “Chicken Curry.” This is a discussion that not many teachers can have and, by having this discussion, I am able to build a closer relationship with my students,” Ollivierre said.
Ollivierre, in particular, places a strong emphasis on embracing his authentic self as much as possible as a black educator.
“It is our responsibility to ourselves and our culture to not let it change us. There are absolutely things that I would say and do outside of the classroom, that I would not say within the walls of Edison. This is true for ALL teachers. By being myself, and still being great at my job, I can show that Blackness does not equate to badness. With that said, I’ve been seen playing basketball with students in the park after school. I’ve been known to have impromptu rap battles with students in the halls of Edison. Pre-COVID, I would give dap and create elaborate handshakes with my students. I’ve been known to hit the woah and my milly rock has been sturdy for years. All these little things show that professionalism is more than a button-up and a tight collar. By being myself, I am able to create a bond and connection with students that they might not have had with any other teacher,” said Ollivierre.
All three educators emphasized the importance of everyday representation not only for black students, but the lives of any other student of color.
“One way I could impact black students is just by seeing another black person as a teacher, even indirectly. Even if they don’t see it right away. One of the reasons I’m an English teacher now is because of my ninth-grade teacher who was an African American man. Seeing his passion for literature and words stuck with me,” Stewart said.
However, representation can only go so far. Diversity and inclusion in the classroom’s curriculum play a role as well. Gray, Stewart, and Ollivierre recognize how these components matter more than a test score.
“It’s [diversity and inclusion in the curriculum] needed because in all aspects kids need to feel understood. That’s a natural human desire, right. You want to be understood. They want to be understood, they want to be accepted, they want to be cared for. There seems to be a disconnect with [them] if in the curriculum they don’t see themselves in it at all. They might not ever feel those things [understood, accepted, cared for]. Because it’s like why isn’t this ever pertaining to my culture? Why is this never really relevant to me? These are things that I can’t relate to necessarily. It is important for it [the curriculum] to be inclusive and diverse,” Gray said.
In his time as an Edison English teacher, Stewart has made sure to see this belief through. Bouncing off of last year’s Black Boy by Richard Wright, a story focused on a young African American boy growing up in the South and recounting the discrimination he experienced in Chigaco, this year Stewart plans to teach The Secret Life of Bees and The Kite Runner.
Although relatively new to the teaching profession, Ollivierre has already made sustainable changes in how the standard poetry curriculum is taught.
“As of this year, I also was able to implement the use of a new textbook for teaching poetry to my senior students. The book is called Hip Hop Poetry and the Classics. It teaches students the components of poetry and the different writing strategies and tools that poets use. The book is a diversifying tool because it teaches poetry by showing these different techniques being used by classic poets like Hughes, Frost, and Shakespeare. It also shows these same techniques being used by hip hop artists like Tupac, Mos Def, and the Notorious B.I.G.” said Ollivierre.
Gray provided tips for other educators on how to better tackle sensitive topics, such as Breonna Taylor’s death.
“It’s important for everybody to work together. So that when people feel uncomfortable that they can have a safe space to ask “What’s the best way I can approach this because this is out of my comfort zone but I want to try. I don’t want to come across the wrong way about anything.” People working collaboratively and diverse teacher groups help alleviate some of that issue because then you can bounce ideas off of other people,” said Gray.