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During ISTELive 23, panelists discussed the need for students to see themselves in their teachers--and the need for Black educators.

ISTELive, Abbott Elementary, and a push for Black educator representation


During the opening ISTELive 23 keynote, panelists discussed the urgent need for minority students to see themselves represented in their teachers

Key points:

  • Black male teachers are desperately needed in U.S. schools
  • Getting more Black teachers–and Black male teachers–means suggesting education career paths early on and understanding students’ cultural experiences
  • See related article: 5 ways the homework gap is worse for students of color

Representation matters, and when students have educators who look like them, it does wonders for their learning experience. At ISTELive 23’s opening mainstage event, featured speakers sat down for a chat about the challenges around representation and getting more Black educators—particularly Black male educators—into classrooms.

Director of ISTE Certification Carmalita Seitz sat down with Joyce Abbott, the inspiration behind Abbott Elementary’s name and a recently retired educator; Tyler James Williams, 2023 Golden Globe winner for best supporting actor as teacher Gregory Eddie on Abbott Elementary; and Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development to discuss just how much representation matters for students and teachers.

“Immediately after we wrapped Season 1, we had an overwhelming respect for what educators do and felt a need to advocate for educators,” Williams said. This advocacy is especially critical for Black teachers and Black male teachers in particular, he added. If Abbot Elementary can represent Black educators and give educators a stress-relieving laugh that buoys them as they go back to their classrooms the next day, that’s a win.

“We need Black teachers. Back in the 1800s, in this city, Caroline LeCount said we need more Black educators for Black children,” El-Mekki said. “About 1.3 percent of our teachers are Black men in this country. Invite them into the profession. Continue inviting them into the profession. Many young Black youth say they were never invited into the profession. When you see them doing great things, like great leadership, tell them, “That’s what the best teachers do,” and help them connect the dots. Help them shape the narrative of what dope teaching looks like.”

El-Mekki added: “Black pedagogical frameworks, a Black historical lens, and Black teaching traditions are critically important, and if more people understood it, we’d be in a much better place.”

“It takes people like you looking at this critically saying, ‘OK, here’s what needs to be implemented, here’s what isn’t being taught, here’s how it CAN be taught.’ We see how a lack of education in our world today has led to a growth of misinformation. That education needs to start when they’re children,” Williams told the audience.

Understanding the population they serve is critical for teachers who are not of color to help with diversity in the classroom, Abbott said.

“You have to be in the company of educators of color just to learn some things,” she said. “The Black male educator—that is SO important. A lot of times in our schools, you do see Black females at the helm—they’re the strong ones in the school. This is what students see at home—in our communities, a lot of our students come from single-parent households with a mother or grandmother. They don’t see a lot of positive Black male role models, so when they see that in school—I just think that’s so important. If you don’t understand the population you serve, it’s going to be difficult to make an impact and be successful. You have to understand what [students] go through outside of their [classroom] walls.”

Suggesting education as a career path early on is of particular importance, El-Mekki said, noting that while white women often heard people tell them they’d be great teachers as early as third grade, Black men don’t usually hear the same encouragement until after college.

“Make sure we do the intellectual rigor to understand students’ culture, history, and help them connect the dots between what you’re teaching and real-world relevance,” he said. “Just imagine if they know you see them—and that they’re inspired to be your colleague one day. That’s how you start rebuilding the profession and uplifting the profession.”

Related:
At ISTELive 23, balancing humanity with AI

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