Living in two worlds as a black educator

Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez

I wish I could say that my experience as an African-American educator in Texas public schools was different. I wish I could say that having a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees in education or earning a doctorate before the age of 30 was an indication of my competence. I wish I could say that my students’ performance, the programs and presentations I organized, or the hundreds of thousands of dollars I raised in grants were an indication of my skill. But they weren’t.

When I started out 10 years ago, I wasn’t a hallmark of achievement. I wasn’t a representative of skill and competence. I wasn’t a record of unparalleled success. I was currency to be exchanged on the free market of education. I was a token.

“Kimberly, we need a black at that school,” I was told more than once. “The district will move you where we need you.”

I looked at every school placement the same. I looked at the “transitioning demographic set” — a term districts use to describe schools undergoing shifts in ethnicity or socioeconomic status — as an opportunity to test my skills and academic training. The school deserved me. It deserved someone with my skill, my competence and my compassion. I naively thought that my color was irrelevant. I had the training and experience to produce results — and I did. I was a success, as I intended to be.

But my first year as an administrator was tough. I knew I was placed as a token, but I didn’t fully know what that meant. It didn’t take long for me to learn. My new colleagues knew my résumé and looked at me like I was an exhibit at a museum. In meetings, I was the copy girl. “Kimberly, can you run and get copies of this document for everyone?” I remember wanting to cry, but my body wouldn’t release any tears; I had to spend that energy on surviving. I remember going into supply closets and secretly praying for strength. The stronger and more competent I appeared, the bigger the threat I posed. Attacks covert and overt tried to break me, but I refused. All their attempts, as ugly as they were, were like ant bites, irritating but not deadly.

To move forward, I had to find my own tokens, my own representation. I had to prove myself, but I realized that to be accepted, my ideas had to come from someone else. My strategy was to help a white teacher solve a school-wide problem and guide her in sharing the solution with the staff. I coached her, making the idea look like hers, and she delivered. It worked, so I did this many times with multiple teachers until colleagues eventually realized who was working behind the scenes. By then, because I had helped so many colleagues gain competence and skill, I was no longer a threat. I was accepted. I quickly transitioned from the token to the savior.

The “transitioning” community looked at me with great hope. The teachers saw me as their secret and trusted voice of advocacy and support. I helped bring together teachers, parents and community groups, and we improved student success. I didn’t see myself as a savior — I was a teacher — but being viewed like that can lead to other forms of tokenism. I watched as my African-American male colleagues were hired and placed in the most difficult schools under the assumption that they knew how to administer the “bat and bullhorn” solution — tough discipline — to difficult students, especially African-American males. I understood my colleagues’ frustration at not being valued as instructional leaders, as they’d been trained. They, too, were tokens on the academic exchange market.

We educators in Texas and beyond have heard a million times that schools are struggling with demographic shifts. That’s true, but it’s the solution, not the problem, that has been difficult to swallow.

Instead, what if solutions to growing racially and culturally diverse school communities involved equipping all teaching professionals with skills and competence? What if solutions meant offering more training in culturally responsive teaching? What if it meant a more diverse group of skilled professionals who were valued for what they could do and promoted because of that? What if we looked at the children in these “changing demographics” as students of remarkable potential? What if the collective solution lay within the reach of every individual?

Maybe then people like me wouldn’t be seen as tokens or saviors. Maybe then we could see beyond the racial identity of teaching professionals — and if we did that, maybe we could look beyond children’s race and cultural communities and recognize their full potential, too. Maybe.

Kimberly McLeod

Professor at Texas Southern University