To say that our school was rural would be a considerable understatement. It sat at the intersection of two secondary highways, and the nearest town was the county seat about 10 miles away. The only other building at the intersection was a small gas station across from the school. A handful of children lived close enough to walk to school, and a similar number were car riders. All others rode buses, many of them enduring rides of an hour or more each way.
I don’t recall ever seeing a map of our attendance boundaries. However, based on the distances our buses traveled north, south, east, and west along the two highways — before turning down side roads, many of them unpaved — I’d estimate conservatively that our students came from an area of over 100 square miles.
The school was part of a relatively small county system in a community with limited economic opportunities. Other than a sawmill and a few country stores, there were no noteworthy businesses within our school boundaries. The county seat provided some jobs in retail, government and its one hospital, but the biggest employer of our students’ parents was probably the town’s textile mill. Some families farmed, but judging from the fact that much of the area lining the two highways was thickly wooded, the number engaged in agriculture couldn’t have been very large.
The majority of the students had very few experiences beyond those available in our rural community. Many had never seen the ocean, even though it was only an hour away by car. As much as their parents wanted the best for them, and did all they could to provide it, most of the children probably had a very limited vision of who they might become.
The school’s faculty was about half black and half white. The overwhelming majority had roots in the area, and a number of them attended our school as children. We had many good teachers, but two, who I’ll call Tony and Angela, always stood out in my mind. They were both African-American, grew up nearby, and had attended historically black colleges in South Carolina.
The characteristic that distinguished them most from their colleagues was their ability to connect culturally with the children they taught. They knew how to communicate in words and deeds to all their students that they were valued and capable and could achieve anything in the classroom and the world beyond.
Angela and Tony never looked at children, whatever their circumstances, and saw deficiencies. Instead, they saw potential and shaped their curriculum and teaching strategies around the range of talents their students possessed. Rather than starting the year by imposing a set of arbitrary standards on every child, they pushed their students to ascend one step at a time from wherever they were, and then challenged them to take the next step. In the end, their students’ growth was always impressive, and many of them improved far more than one grade level during the school term.
It wasn’t just what Tony and Angela did. It was who they were. Children saw the professional example set by these two teachers and imagined new possibilities for themselves.
There were other effective teachers in our school, both black and white, but I chose to depict Tony and Angela because they best exemplified the qualities that seemed to matter most in the success of our overwhelmingly poor and African-American student population. By no means am I suggesting that white teachers cannot effectively teach black students or that hiring more black teachers will magically eliminate racial inequality in school performance.
However, as an August 2018 report from the Tennessee Department of Education stated, “For students of color, exposure to a teacher of color can change the way they experience education. Teachers of color can serve as strong role models and raise expectations for learning through relationships with students and their families.”
The same report cited research indicating that students of color assigned to teachers of color have higher achievement, better attendance, fewer disciplinary problems and lower dropout rates. It also noted that poor African-American students who have one African-American teacher in grades 3-5 are more likely to express a desire to attend college.
In 2017-18, 37% of Tennessee’s students were students of color, but teachers of color comprised only 13% of the teacher population. Based on the data I’ve been able to access and my experience as a local educator, I’d suggest this disparity is even greater in our region.
Like this column, the ones I submit over the next few months will attempt to address the problem of America’s racial and economic inequality in academic performance. I should warn readers that I will not offer any panaceas. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I know they can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker.
I’d suggest that an important first step — just one step, mind you — would be to work purposefully to increase the number of educators of color in our schools. Achieving that goal probably won’t be easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.
Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator and public school advocate.