Written by Vernon Birmingham
I was fortunate to experience my first black teacher in my first year of school. I rarely share this story, but here we go. I had a crush on my kindergartner teacher. She was fine! She was the one. How sure was I she was the one? I chose to take a pair of my mother’s earrings and gave them to her as a gift. When she flashed her smile and whispered thank you, in my mind, my first black teacher also became my first girlfriend.
Well, that didn’t last long. My new girlfriend gave me a note to take home but, there was one little problem, it was in cursive. When I shared it with my mom she looked at me and asked, “What earrings?” That was the end of our one-day relationship.
Thinking back, it still shocks me that I had my first black teacher in my first year of school. It is also unfortunate I would not have another black teacher for six years. This experience in sixth grade was different not only because it was my first black male teacher, but the first black male teacher I had ever seen. Even in middle school, I remember looking at our yearbooks and asking the question, “Why are there only 8 black teachers?” The question was an important one that still begs to be answered today. Why are there not more teachers that reflect the population of the students?
A 2017 study by the Institute of Labor Economics showed that low-income Black students who have a Black teacher – man or woman – for at least one year in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider college. Only seven percent of teachers nationwide are Black. Black men make up only two percent. What can we do to help change this narrative? I told myself I wanted to follow the example of the few black teachers in my life. I wanted to be a black educator who impacted the lives of black students.
And I did it. I went back and taught at my high school for five years. I also spent seven years working and teaching in entrepreneurial education focusing on students from low-income schools. One of the highlights of my life still today is being afforded the opportunity to work with students from at-risked communities and travel around the country with them to learn about entrepreneurship and economics. One of these students ran into my oldest daughter recently and shared how much she loves and appreciates Mr. Birmingham for the time I invested into her education.
So why did I become an educator? Because I had teachers who looked like me who impacted my life. I like to think I played an important role in the lives of the students who came across my path over the years. The same black male teacher I had in middle school he ended up being a high jump coach for my club track team I coached in 2015. That tells us two things: 1) He was that important in my life and development that more than 30 years later, we were still in communication; 2) Because he was respected and admired, I trusted him to be involved with something close and dear to me–dozens of kids under my care. On this same track club I have former students who still travel far distances for me to coach their kids. They find me as a valuable asset based on their positive experiences with me as an educator.
Recently I supported a former student in his “side hustle”, which is selling meals on Friday—The Friday Fills. When I picked up my meal, his mom shared a story I didn’t remember. She said,
“Mr. Birmingham, I don’t know if you remember but, I am still thankful for the recommendation letter you wrote for D back when he entered college. It meant a lot then, and it still means a lot today.”
“As a black male, you were critical in his growth as a student in high school, and to have someone who looked like him not only holding him accountable but showing him love meant the world to me.”
This young man is now an elementary school teacher educating young people in Kansas City. I asked him recently why he went into teaching. His answer gives me hope that we will continue to see more black men enter the education space to impact lives. He explained to me he was going into architecture but volunteered at a neighboring school in his senior year in high school. He also worked in the summers at the Wyandot Center for Community Behavior. Both experiences helped him realize that teaching was the field for him. He thought about those teachers he had in school that were phenomenal and gave young African-American kids hope, despite their background and upbringing. It was important to him that students see someone like themselves in the teaching profession, and after doing it for ten years, he has no regrets.
Many black teachers have similar stories that led to them being in the classroom. They all realized two valuable truths. One, they can make a difference. And two, students need teachers that look like them. For some it was recognized early on, and for others later in life. For those who are just now discovering these truths, there is good news. It is not too late to take on this challenge and be an agent of change.
At KCTR, we are excited about new initiatives created to help put more black teachers in the classroom. In 2020, KCTR was selected for a grant that would help recruit, develop, and retain new black teachers. Through financial assistance, scholarships, and enhancing the work of affinity spaces we hope to be a catalyst and trusted partner in increasing the numbers of black educators in Kansas City. Trust me, it is rewarding and life changing, and you will make a difference. We hope to see your application soon!
Today’s Post is written by our Talent and Placement Manager, Vernon Birmingham. Vernon has a long history of working in the community and education sphere. In this post, he shares the impact and need for having more Black teachers in the classroom.