From the Blog

A Contemporary Perspective on Public Education From a Veteran Black Teacher

by Dr. Michael Browner, Jr. 

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I have always believed that Black men can best serve their families and their communities by expecting and demanding more of themselves. My career in education and my own personal pursuance of higher education, specifically the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Education, further supports this belief. Throughout my years of service as a public school teacher in the realm of urban education, I have remained steadfast in my ability to communicate and relate effectively to my students and their families. My mantra as a teacher has always been the same as my mantra as a parent: Once you have a child or become responsible for the life and well-being of another, it is no longer about you. Years of teaching, grading, evaluating, mentoring, parenting, encouraging, and loving have shown me that it is not about me; it must always be about doing what is best for the child.

It is no secret that in the state of Rhode Island, there are few Black teachers for the masses of students across the state who would benefit from having one. American schools today are experiencing a significant student demographic shift, with increasing numbers of students of color. Unfortunately, the teacher workforce in the U.S. does not reflect this shift, and diversifying the teaching profession is an act of disrupting educational inequities. Most supporters of public education agree that the American elementary and secondary teaching force should “look like America.” Moreover, it has been expressed that, as the nation’s general and student populations have become more racially and ethnically diverse, the teaching force has grown less diverse. As a result, students of color in America’s schools are increasingly lacking in adult role models who look like them as well as in having the opportunity for consistent contact with teachers and other qualified, educated professionals who better understand their racial and cultural backgrounds. The shortage of teachers of color is one of the major reasons there are achievement gaps between White students and students of color, as well as unequal occupational and life outcomes. A diverse teaching staff across districts with diverse populations and socioeconomic status is beneficial to all students, including White students who should be afforded the opportunity to recognize that not every qualified teacher or well-educated professional is White.

As I begin 2021, I find myself halfway through my twenty-third year as a classroom teacher. I also find myself at a personal and professional crossroads. I continue to be the only Black teacher (and the only teacher of color) among the faculty in my school building. Though this has been my lived experience for the majority of my career, I have grown physically, mentally, and emotionally tired of carrying the weight of the “invisible tax” of being the only one. I have experienced microaggressions from administrators and colleagues who have felt justified in using the n-word in my presence while referencing their own limited disdain for the word when used as a term of endearment among Black students. I have experienced many instances of mail or correspondence related to Black history or old issues of Ebony and Jet magazines being constantly placed in my school mailbox, attached to the unspoken yet enduring message, “Give those to Mike Browner. He’ll know what to do with them.” The experience of White colleagues rushing into my classroom to relay the news of the deaths of Mrs. Rosa Parks and Mrs. Coretta Scott King or to “check on me” the day of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. As if I am the resident of knowing all Black people’s experiences, for which they share no responsibility.

At this particular juncture in my life, I cannot help but to think of Dr. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967) in which he is at a crossroads in his own life and career, wrestling with his own religious-based beliefs of nonviolent direct action versus the beliefs of the new advocates of Black power. Dr. King titled the first chapter Where Are We? At a crossroads of my own, I ask myself a similar question: Where am I? I have prepared myself and have become anxious to move my career outside of the classroom. At the beginning of an international pandemic last March and throughout the summer and fall of 2020, I took a closer look at my career path and applied for various administrative positions throughout the state. I applied for over fifteen positions and was invited to interview for five. I was not hired for any new position. I did not envision my options for post-PhD career advancement to be this adverse. I figured as a young Black man in Rhode Island, a seasoned and respected educator with a PhD, I would have many options and little difficulty moving out of the classroom. I was wrong. Dead wrong. I had to take a step back and take a good look at the problem and why I have yet to secure an administrative position. The answer: Aside from the factor of timing, the reality is I stayed in the classroom too long. It became clear that I do not possess the often desired and sometimes required administrative experience for many positions outside of the classroom because I stayed inside the classroom. How can one gain the administrative experience if they are not given a chance? But why did I stay in the classroom? I stayed because I was the only one, the only Black teacher, the only teacher of color on the faculty. I could not leave the kids. I could not allow there to be an all White faculty at my school. My mantra: It is not about me, it is about the kids. And so I stayed.

Where do I go from here? Do I continue to teach grade 7 social studies and leave my masters in school administration and doctorate in education on the shelf simply because I do not want my school to have an all White faculty? Is it my responsibility to the kids and their families to stay? These are all questions I have asked myself over and over again. I find myself still standing at the same crossroads, by myself.