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Reflections on the importance of role models – an African-American teacher defends use of Black role models

Thirty years ago I graduated from high school. I can still remember how excited I was getting ready to start college. I was salutatorian, of my high school graduating class. Tenths of a point separated me from the valedictorian and the student who was third. All three of us were interested in mathematics and science. We had not been told that as Blacks we weren’t supposed to do well in these areas.


Despite the dismantling of discrimination practices, being a Black female seems harder to me in today’s world. Perhaps it is because I took so much for granted during my public school years. Sure, I was younger, but I was also excelling in school. Most of my friends were excelling as well. Even though we competed against one another, it was never negative. Of course, all of my friends and teachers were Black. Could that have had any bearing on my feelings then and my feelings now being one of only very few Blacks and even fewer Black females in higher education?


During my public school years and in college I was surrounded by strong Black role models. These individuals were not just adults, but also my peers. They challenged me in a manner that made me extend myself to greater heights and never doubt my abilities. My career goal was to become a research mathematician. Upon graduation from college, I was ready to pursue my career. But where? It was then that the hard, cold fact hit me. Who would hire a Black female research mathematician in the south in 1969?


The 1970s


After trying unsuccessfully to obtain a job in my career choice, I discovered there was a short supply of mathematics and science teachers. I applied for a mathematics teaching job and in 1970 1 began my teaching career. I really liked teaching. I had a very strong background in mathematics, having an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics, and I had good interpersonal skills.

But in the public school system I wasn’t qualified. I did not have a teaching degree. I enrolled in a master’s degree program, obtained the required certification and subsequently a master’s degree with an emphasis in secondary education.

Teaching and enrolling in a predominantly white university to obtain my master’s degree were my first encounters, with white America. Sure, at Xavier University in New leans I had had a few white teachers — and even mi few white students — but Blacks were in the majority.


Desegregation on was being pushed in the ’70s and many Black teachers were transferred to white schools. At my first teaching assignment I had only one Black student in all of my high school mathematics classes. Ironically, in many of my master’s courses at that time, I was also the only Black student.


Many white parents and even white teachers challenged Black teachers. For some reason, unknown to me, it seemed as Blacks we were not considered as intelligent as our white counterparts.

In my master’s courses I felt the same challenges. Yet, I remembered my parents, my teachers, and my peers and the impact they had made on my life. They provided me with the skills I need to be self-confident. They instilled in me a pride for myself and a desire to help others. I pride considered myself a resource person then as a teacher and I still use this terminology today to describe how I feel about myself as an assistant professor in higher education.


During my first nine years of teaching in pubic schools, I was transferred to four different schools. At each school the white students and teachers were in the majority and the Black students and teachers were in the minority. Without realizing it, the school system had provided me with an enormous amount of experience to further advance my knowledge of people and the skills needed to work with them. I was able to observe a variety of administrators and decided to enroll in graduate level courses to obtain certification as a school administrator.

Taking these courses I began to realize that not only was this something I really wanted to do, but something I felt I could do. I really wanted to pursue a career in school administration. But how could I do it? As a Black female in secondary education I suddenly became aware of the many obstacles I faced. Even though education is dominated by females, the majority of the leadership positions are held by males, white males. How would I fit into this picture?


The 1980s


I did become a secondary administrator. First as an instructional specialist, then a high school assistant principal and finally a middle school principal. I even continued my education and obtained a doctorate in educational leadership. I now have more than twenty years of practical experience in public schools. This is my fifth year at the higher education level. I even served two years as a department chair in educational leadership. With all of this experience behind me, why do I feel frustrated now?


As I reflected back to try to understand my frustration, I realized that during my early years as an educator I had distinct role models that I could relate I to as teachers and as peers. Now I have very few. I did not have one Black professor during my masters course work in secondary education nor in my doctoral course work in educational leadership. I did not have a mentor to encourage me to write for professional journals. I did not have a colleague to suggest that we collaborate on an article of similar interest. Nor did I have any Black or female colleagues in educational leadership until I accepted a job at my current university.


In order for me to continue to believe I could be successful I needed to see other Black females in similar positions who were successful. I accepted my first position with this idea in mind. I did not realize that my frustrations would lead me to seek out females and Blacks like me to continue to feel good about myself. it seems odd. But it is true. We feel successful when those successful around us look like us.


The 1990s


There may be many individuals in higher education who are sincere about their desire to help Black females succeed. But, for these Black females to be successful, more must be hired to provide the role models needed to inspire them. It is for this reason that I remain in higher education. Yes, I still get frustrated. But in my new position I do have Black female role models who encourage and challenge me just like in the 1960’s. With their help, I know I will be successful and be able to serve as a role model for other Black females in higher education.


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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