Dr. Giani Clarkson is an 11-year national award-winning teacher in the nation's capital.

By Dr. Giani Clarkson 

I love urban education. It means the world to me. I love the challenges, the ups and downs, the rewards. Nothing warms my heart more than to see children who come from nightmarish places achieve their wildest dreams of success through the pathway of education. I am immensely cognizant of my privilege. I grew up in a two-parent household with highly educated parents.  I do not personally know some of the challenges that some of my students must deal with on a current basis. Therefore, I work hard, I offer them grace, I do not pity them, but instead love them through the journey. I love urban education but something weird is happening. I have noticed something bizarre happening in the landscape of education over my last eleven years. Walking the hallways of schools across America, black men in education are taking the pathway of the dinosaur. Disappearing from the classroom and instantly reappearing in other careers. I am becoming a dinosaur…and no one seems to care. 

The world of urban education is becoming staffed with more white women. My question is not if they are credible but whether this influx of teachers does not match the current student body which is mainly children of color. A recent study done by the Stanford Graduate School of Education revealed only two percent of teachers across the country are black men. We must ask these questions: why is this happening and why does it feel that no one cares about this? I have joked that one major reason for this small percentage is because no one wants to work on a teacher’s salary, but I believe that the problem is much bigger than that. It is a mixture of black men being pigeonholed into various roles inside of school communities, failure to recognize good pedagogical practices of black male teachers, and communities that do not see the need for black men inside of the classroom.

I remember when I was teaching social studies at a school, and I was really having a great year. I had won two national teaching awards and had my students involved in various community service events. In addition, I was the sponsor for the school’s student government association, and we appeared on the local news because of a city-wide community service event. I was having an uncanny year. There was an end of the year banquet to celebrate accomplishments and close out the year. At the end of the year, I won teacher of the year because of all my accomplishments, and I was happy because I had worked hard, and my students had done some remarkable things throughout the year. However, when I sat back down after accepting my award at the banquet one of my colleagues opened a conversation at the table that made me feel completely uncomfortable. She stated that the only reason why my students had performed so well in my class was because the students did not have any father figures in their lives, and they were working for my affection. This was really a disrespectful thing to say to me, my pedagogical practices, and my students. Never did my colleague consider that my hard work, talking to parents of failing students, holding after school tutoring, planning engaging lessons, and providing weekend tutoring were factors in my success – only that my kids did not have a father at home. Sadly, this was not the first time that I had heard something like this.  Why was my work being minimized solely because I was a black man by colleagues? 

Minimizing my pedological expertise also pigeonholes my capabilities as a teacher. Often when talking to other black male teachers, they talk about how they are often mistaken inside of their school communities as building technicians or parole officers for students. We have the capabilities of teaching many various subjects and even leading schools. Another role black men are pigeonholed into being inside of urban education is that of a disciplinarian (School Deans). This effects how black students see black men if you only place them in those roles. One of my colleagues who happens to be a former high school football player left urban education because every school that he worked at wanted him to be a dean. He is over six feet tall and weighs over 250 pounds. One of his school administrators even said that is physical presence would prevent students from misbehaving. I do not need to even unpack why that statement alone is toxic and highly unprofessional. He went to school as an English major, not to play football, and wanted to teach English but schools would very rarely hire him to be an English teacher. He was discriminated against because of his looks. Why was it okay for schools to only view my colleague due to his stature as nothing more than a disciplinarian or an educational bouncer outside of a nightclub? This type of pigeonholes would weigh any person down – and it made him totally leave urban education. We lost a good educator and, in a field, where often there is a huge shortage, he would have been a major difference maker in the lives of many children.

What is being failed to recognize is that black male teachers’ pay that “invisible tax” of doing the job that they love but is secretly a burden that weighs them down. The invisible tax can be described as the after-school mentor, the father figure, providing meals for black boys, teaching them about the birds and the bees, providing them with meals, and sometimes even a financial support system for families in crisis. One year, I had a student whose father was lost to gun violence, and he asked me to help plan his father’s funeral. His mother had a very estranged relationship with the father but because I could tell that my student wanted to give his father a proper burial, I helped. After designing a program and doing everything I could for a man I did not know or never seen, I stood inside of an empty funeral home with my student next to a casket. No one showed up to this man’s funeral. I carried that invisible tax home and it weighed on my spirit, but I understood that teaching inside of urban education is part of the job.  

This peculiar cocktail of not being viewed as “competent” with a mix of not being felt like you are an “equal thought partner in the building of the future of your school community” leads many black men to leave education. Consider this – would you really want to be in a field where all you did was achieve but you were never recognized for your accomplishments? I am not saying this is all urban education environments, but it is enough of these environments existing if only two percent of the teaching pool from across the country is represented by African American men. 

Having black men in the building as teachers help black girls and black boys especially see a past and a future. It helps our young ladies see that black men can be successful, educated, leaders, and community servants. It breaks down stereotypes that are built around black men through the media and refute those negative images.

We are all aware of issues regarding age expectancies of black men who grow up in urban areas due to acts of violence. When a black boy sees a black male teacher, he knows that there is someone who immediately identifies with who he is and who he is trying to become. I told my students that when I was in high school, the algebra books had the answers to the questions in the back of the book. I tell them that I am the answer at the back of the book; however, you are still responsible for doing the work to gain success.  My students know that I am willing to do more than just teach them social studies but give them answers and have conversations about life.  My presence, along with the presence of many black male teachers, are the rising tide that lifts all boats to success. 

Various acts of racism in our country are not becoming extinct and they often affect black children. The goal moving forward in all educational communities is to have black teachers in places who can help navigate these tides with brave talk and school administrators need to be aware of the power of the dinosaur….do not make us extinct. 

Dr. Giani Clarkson is an 11-year national award-winning teacher in the nation’s capital.  Dr. Clarkson serves as a Board of Trustee member for Ford’s Theatre.

Follow him on IG: @drclarksonloveshistory  &  Twitter: @mrclarkson3