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Black Teachers on Teaching. – book reviews

Does American society want to educate all of its children? An
optimist would respond that of course it does, but it just can’t seem
to provide equity in its distribution of resources and educational
outcomes. Others would argue that social, political and economic forces
create hurdles which slow or completely retard the flow of positive
educational goods and benefits into certain communities.

But such forecasters sit on the periphery of actual classrooms and
schools and hurl their ideas, theories and statistical models. The end
result is often a neatly packaged and publicly distributed report that
blames the victims for their own educational demise.

On the other hand, how would that initial question be answered by
the infantry who monitor the front lines of the educational landscape,
who wage war in classrooms and communities against overwhelming odds,
and who seek to mold the lives, hopes and dreams of generations of
Black youth?

Their answers are contained in Michele Foster’s book, Black Teachers
on Teaching, which serves as a narrative scorecard of America’s
educational success with children of color. Foster, a professor of
education and a consultant, has gathered life-history interviews from
twenty teachers who are drawn from a diverse pool. They vary in age, in
background, in years of teaching, in type of school, in disciplines
taught, and in other demographic characteristics. They were selected
through a “community nomination” process which identified them as some
of the most committed and effective instructors.

The interviews are categorized according to the length of teaching
experience of the speakers. Ranging from elders and veterans to
novices, their words span more than fifty years of tireless dedication.
Black teachers are part of a long tradition with a definite mission and
nowhere is this more evident than through the pages of this book of
narratives The book’s purpose is quite evident: It is to serve as a
testimony and realistic guide to one of America’s most demanding jobs –
teaching Black youth within an educational and social system that is
unforgiving and unprepared to meet the needs of these kids.

At times, the different stories are permeated with the various ways
that Black teachers handle conflict and contradiction with the
students, with the administration, and within themselves. One novice
teacher, Leonard Collins, tries to cope with the fact that schools are
meant to socialize kids into many things with which Black teachers
don’t agree. He can’t, for example, introduce an Afrocentric curriculum
because it conflicts with the existing Eurocentric one. Thus he is
forced to be creative but not disruptive.

Several teachers discuss the self-examination they experience as
they are shifted from segregated, all-Black schools to desegregated
ones. They wonder aloud at the price that has been paid by Black
children who lose pride and self-esteem when they are psychologically
beaten down in desegregated schools.

Elder teacher, Everett Dawson speaks to this outcome when he says,
“The biggest difference is that we were able to do more with the Black
students in all-Black schools.” He later adds, “I got disillusioned
with integration because I could not get to my people and tell them all
the things they need to know.”

It would be quite easy to assume that across twenty separate
life-history interviews, disparities would outweigh the consistencies.
Yet nothing is further from the truth. Across the decades of committed
teaching and generations of student success, consistent themes mark the
parameter of each story.

Each elder, veteran, and novice voices a strong, almost rabid,
desire to create a community of learners. They approach student
learning as a two-way process: As they teach, they simultaneously
motivate students to be actively involved in the learning process.

And how do they accomplish this?

First, they are able to communicate both with the student at the
interpersonal level, and to the student at the level of academic
content. With any subject, they are able to introduce experiential
relevancy to convert sometimes boring content into a lesson about life.
Among the processes that they emphasize in the classroom are those that
enhance group cohesiveness. They convince many students to trade in
individual and narcissistic tendencies for those which promote
community responsibility. They demand that students assert themselves
and take individual responsibility for their actions and the outcomes
in their life.

But all is not well in the social drama which involves the education
of children of color, especially the Black Child. A number of teachers,
both Black and White, are not challenging the myths and misperceptions
attributed to Black culture and its children. Other teachers – those
who adopt a mantle of neutrality – are not speaking on behalf of
disparaged youth. No one disputes that many children, especially those
from tough urban areas, come to school daily with a myriad of problems.

Each speaker offers a different perspective on why these problems
exist. Eider teacher Madge Scott says the students are victims of too
much permissiveness in their lives. On the other hand, elder Etta Joan
Marks blames teachers who do not care as the primary source.

And what will be the price if we don’t address the issues, concerns
and problems that are emblazoned across the educational battlefront?

Teacher Edouard Plummet summarizes eloquently: “This is what I want
to impart to young people. If you are a learned man, you are a
dangerous man, but if you are an ignorant man, you are no threat at
all. Not only will you be a slave to [W]hite people, but a slave to any
type of voices that come along.”

Michele Foster has sought to capture the voices of Black teachers
who withstand blighted classrooms, mounds of administrative red-tape,
uncooperative parents, and students who haven’t learned to dream. Her
interviews awaken the reader to their successes and disappointments,
their fervor and frailties, and their visions and nightmares. Her book
can serve as the educational guidepost for those who seek to transform
and renew a system that, decades ago, lost its direction. Yet, our hope
is sustained by the dignity, passion and commitment of Black teachers
who care.

Dr. James Anderson is the dean of undergraduate studies at North Carolina State University.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

© Copyright 2005 by

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