Escaping the Box: Teaching While Black

Let me get some important identifiers out of the way: I am a Black, woman educator who makes no qualms about the importance of the education of Black children. I do not apologize or make excuses for my Blackness and the way it shows up as I work alongside white teachers in an educational system that has yet to figure out how to properly educate Black children.

Read at the risk of your feelings being hurt.

Netflix and chilling with my husband one Saturday, we watched “Last Chance U.” For the uninitiated, the show chronicles the championship football team at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Miss., just outside of Meridian. I was immediately drawn in by Coach Buddy, a hard-nosed, championship-winning guy. His honesty and toughness attracted me. The young men on the show had intriguing back stories and reminded me of many of the students I’ve taught over the past five years. I was almost hooked until, Mmm. Britney (that’s the whiny way players lazily say Britney Wagner’s name) came onscreen.

Ms. Britney is the academic advisor to the football players, who were mostly all struggling students, attempting to get their academic lives back on track to gain recognition by Division 1 teams. My husband almost immediately noticed my cringing reaction to Wagner’s interactions with the players.

“What is it?” he asked. “Why are you acting like that?”

“Nothing,” I lied.

We watched on.

Episode after episode, my disdain for Wagner grew. My cringing matured to exhaustive sighs; those sighs, eventual verbalizations of the underlying issue. I hated Wagner’s relationships with those players and her attempt at loving them that set them up for failure.
White women in educational settings, like Wagner, get to love Black boys the best way they know how. This is generally to pity and coddle them. If you’ve never seen the show, you’ve missed players going to Mmm Britney’s’ office to make excuses for not performing academically. She, in turn, goes to said professor and begs for mercy on the player’s behalf, assuring the professor this won’t happen again. The player awaits the result, eventually thanks Wagner and promises not to fall behind again then confesses his love and appreciation for what she did for him. She cries. End. Next episode. The same or a different player has fallen behind. What’s going to happen? Wagner to the rescue, of course.

But this isn’t just Black boys, and it isn’t just football. A Mmm. Britney kind of love allows students to act however they want to act, say whatever they want to say, and use (or misuse) their circumstance to misbehave and fail. Then Black educators—teachers and advisors—all over this country are seen as bad cops when we challenge the students, push them to face reality and expect them to be their best selves at all times.

But what did she actually do, Melishia? She was just helping, right?

Wagner used her power—her white woman power— and relationships to get in the good grace of professors, on the students’ behalf. She excused and made justifications for their behavior. She cossetted them, allowed them to use vulgar language while in her office and had no other behavioral expectations for the players. They even skip class often to hang out in her office. I got so frustrated I had to stop watching the show.

Black educators, though, are not allowed to love children unconditionally or in any Mmm. Britney-esque way without the great risk of certain stigmas falling upon us. Stains that are so daunting, any person of dignity and respect would avoid being associated with the idea. In an effort to avoid being labeled or seen as hypersexual, overpowering, and flat out mean, we step into a box. The box is erected by unspoken rules and norms Black educators catch on to without ever actually being told: Keep your voice down (literally and figuratively, for fear your white coworkers will label you as angry). Avoid using slang (with students or coworkers, for not fear of not being taken seriously or labeled ghetto). Dress like you’re going to church (so no one assumes you’re a slacker).

Once built, the box is reinforced with pieces of red tape, that doesn’t allow a Black educator much autonomy on teaching her students about the realities of being Black in America. This is further complicated when we teach in areas where the student populations are more diverse, and white students feel left out, intimidated or threatened (all things I’ve heard) by topics that may veer to race in America. The box also causes us to be all too conservative when it comes to what and how we teach our Black students about loving and valuing Black life.

There’s also the matter of vulnerability when you teach in a box. I have a hard time letting people into my box. I don’t want them to see my mistakes. But that’s how you learn, right? From your mistakes? I can’t if I’m too afraid to share them with anyone.

It’s immensely difficult to get out the box, and so the cycle of conservative Black teachers keeps rolling. We wear the masks. The misconception that some have that Black teachers don’t care and are just there to get a paycheck is simply untrue. We do care and always have. Once inside, though, we’re not allowed to mother the motherless or father the fatherless, for fear of professional and social backlash. And in trying to save the careers we worked so hard to build, we fail our communities and the children we vowed to save. Black teachers and educators have got to be freed from this box.

When I researched the faculty at EMCC, I saw many Black professors, teachers and coaching staff. “Last Chance U” never shows those Black young men being corrected, helped or loved on by any of them. Netflix cast Wagner as a savior. Black supporting characters didn’t fit the narrative. I don’t know anything about EMCC except what I have watched on the show, and I know better than to believe that there are no Black educators worthy of camera time. They exist but don’t fit the trope. The problem is everyone doesn’t know that.

Mmm. Britney’s love is the very kind of love that sets Black children up for false expectations about the world. A reality that will have them believe there will be chance after chance for them to get life right. This type of love will have them believe there will be someone to solve their problems for them when they do not meet expectations. In today’s society, some of the football players’ behaviors in Wagner’s office alone (cursing, vulgarity, loud music playing, etc.), would leave them in jail or, at worse, dead.

There is no Mmm. Britney when police have our children pulled over on the side of the street at night (broad daylight too); when they’re being followed in the store, assumed to be there for mischief simply because … black; and or when they wear their hair in styles that are not acceptable to mainstream culture so they’re impassively labeled delinquents and sent to detention halls or jail when they protest the injustice against them. Mmm. Britney can’t save them from the evils outside of her office or off the football field. There is no Mmm. Britney to save them from being Black in America.

More often than not, public schools all over this country employ teachers like Wagner. A white, woman teacher who loves her Black students unwittingly and liberally (yes, that’s meant in more than one way): by feeling sorry for their individual circumstances, overlooking systems. And the Black teacher across the hall is left to bring the students back to reality.

The more I consider it, the more I am convinced the box has been created and is perpetuated to further break down Black relationships. As a community/race/people, we distrust those that spend the most time with our children, their teachers. If the people that spend the most time with our children, cannot be trusted to love them well, what has our community come to?

The truth is white teachers have severely abused their power with our children, and yet Black teachers bear the battle scars because of high expectations. Of course, there are bad Black teachers and good white ones, but what are we teaching our children when we allow (and in some cases encourage) them to disrespect the teachers that look like them and glorify the ones who don’t.

My first year as a teacher I was put on a corrective action plan for writing too many disciplinary referrals. I referred students for cursing, non-compliance of classroom rules, and behaviors I deemed excessive and out of my control. While on this corrective action plan, I delivered a message to an administrator that was doing an observation of another first-year teacher. The teacher was lecturing at the front of the room and more than 60 percent of the students were asleep. When I later asked her about the feedback from the principal, she told me that he told her to just “write them up when they sleep.”

Now, wait. Here I was being told by the same administrator I can’t send a student out for cursing at me or their classmates. But this Mmm. Britney can send people out the classroom because they’re asleep? How Sway?! This, by the way, was a Black administrator. He, of all people, should’ve understood the importance of having high expectations for our children.

A person may be thinking, “Oh, Melishia, you’re disgruntled because a teacher received a better evaluation than you. You sound bitter.” Well, our justice system also perpetuates this superhuman expectation for Black teachers, while making special allowances for their white counterparts.
Take, for example, a case that happened in nearby Georgia. On Tuesday, April 14, 2015, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that 8 of 10 former Atlanta Public School teachers charged in a cheating scandal in Fulton County were sentenced, and some received more prison time than the state recommended. Judge Jerry Baxter warned defendants they would face “stiff punishment unless they admitted to guilt and waived their right to appeal.” While one teacher accepted a plea, three of the teachers (all first-time offenders) received the following sentences: 20 years with seven to serve; 13 years probation; 2,000 hours of community service; and a $25,000 fine.

In contrast, in nearby Gwinnett County, a 54-year-old teacher, Therese Gunn, admitted to and was convicted of having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student and received a 10-year sentence with 90 days to serve in jail with the rest on probation. 

The Judge xxx Davis said, “I don’t find that you’re the kind of person that needs to be warehoused for years … We get those cases and we get them out of society as long as we can. You’re not one of those. But you clearly betrayed the trust that you had of parents, this parent, putting this child in your care.”

To add insult to injury, the teacher, in this case, blamed her victim, saying he coerced her into a relationship. Note: Gunn was the fourth teacher arrested in Gwinnett County on charges related to sexual misconduct in the 2015-2016 school year.

What are we doing as a society, that a teacher who abuses power and engages in a sexual relationship with a student is a blip on a judge’s radar but teachers who inflate grades (which is not OK) is an offense not even worth an appeal? Yes, I am bitter, because I know all too well who is ultimately affected by these types of discrepancies. The children because of inconsistency.

This isn’t an attempt to convince the Mmm. Britneys of the world to change anything about how they love Black children. Do you. I doubt you got this far, anyway, if you started reading this. I did want to shed light on an issue I think we need to discuss post-haste. We need to continue loving our children by holding them to high expectations. And even if we don’t step out of our box, the least we can do is invite Wagner in, so she can see that real love isn’t always an easy action. And truth be told, I may be a little jealous of Mmm. Britney. It would be nice to be a Black savior to Black children and live in a world where everyone’s reality was the same.

About the author

Melishia Brooks is a Native of Jackson, MS where she graduated from the historic Lanier High School. She is a graduate of Jackson State University where she received a degree in English. She is also a graduate of the University of MS, where she she received her Masters of Teaching degree through the MS Teacher Corps. She is currently a 5th year, public school teacher in MS. She is the devoted wife of Scottie and the mother of 4, Kaylee, BJ, Ava, and Asher.

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