Alannah Richardson has flourished in the Lynchburg City Schools system. An E.C. Glass High School senior in the division’s early college program, Richardson said she’s encountered teachers who care about her – something that’s contributed to her own desire to become a teacher.
Richardson acknowledged with appreciation the sort of support she’s received from her teachers, but she said, too, that she sees value in a teaching staff with ethnic diversity. That’s something that continues to be a struggle for the Lynchburg division, among other school districts throughout the country.
“I think a lot of African-American students in high schools nowadays feel like there are teachers who don’t understand them because they don’t have the same situations,” said Richardson, who’s also a black student. “So, I think having African-American teachers – a more diverse staff – will help them feel like there are people who understand, and there are people there who can help them get through schooling because they’re in the same situations as [the students] are.”
Richardson said she’s had strongly positive experiences with teachers who are not black, but she still emphasized the importance of having a diverse array of teachers.
In the Lynchburg division, 73 of 687 classroom teachers are black – that’s 10.6 percent – and 12 of 20 principals are black. The student body is 50 percent black, according to division records for the 2013-2014 school year.
As for statewide figures, the Virginia Department of Education does not collect race or ethnicity information about teachers, a department official said.
The issue of black teachers emerged when the division held two meetings focusing on possible obstacles to the success of black students – and, more specifically, on the presence of black students in advanced classes. During the 2010-11 school year, the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education conducted a compliance review of Lynchburg City Schools. The review was not initiated by a complaint, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman told The News & Advance at the time, but he said the department generally does not provide rationales for such reviews.
The division entered into a voluntary agreement with the Office for Civil Rights to address, among other issues, the comparatively small number of black students in various kinds of advanced courses.
The meetings also raised broader concerns about the performance of black students in the division. Danny McCain, retired deputy superintendent of the Lynchburg Regional Juvenile Detention Center, noted striking numbers indicating the performance of black students on Standards of Learning tests. Drawing from data reported to the Virginia Department of Education, he noted that 37 percent of black third-graders passed English/Reading SOL exams last school year, and 28 percent passed math.
In the division at large last school year, 44 percent of black students passed English SOL tests, and 40 percent passed math.
“I would like to see the families of these students come together and really come up with strategies on how the students can succeed,” McCain said later in a telephone interview. “If we don’t do that, then these students are just being set up for failure.”
One of the people who raised the issue of black teachers during the meetings focusing on advanced placement was Carolyn McCain, wife of Danny McCain. Carolyn McCain taught math in the division for about 30 years before she retired a decade or so ago. She described the way young black students are helped when they see black men and women who have succeeded in their careers.
“They need to see role models,” Carolyn McCain said. “They need to see all they might become.”
She suggested, too, that black teachers may have higher expectations of black students than other teachers do. She mentioned the issue of economic struggle.
“Being poor doesn’t make you less smart,” she said. “I don’t think black teachers accept excuses that others may accept.”
Marie Gee, director of personnel for Lynchburg City Schools, noted in an e-mail that a diverse teaching staff is an important goal for the division.
“Diversity in our teaching staff continues to be something that we strive to grow,” she said. “Unfortunately with colleges not graduating increasing numbers of non-white teachers, the pool of applicants is not large.”
Gee said the division recruits “at many colleges and job fairs” locally and in places such as Hampton, Norfolk, North Carolina and at the Pittsburgh Education Recruitment Consortium, where she said many colleges are represented. She also said division officials have extended the reach of job advertisements to Washington, D.C., Richmond, Northern Virginia and beyond.
Gee also stressed the importance of finding the best possible teachers and staff, “regardless of race or ethnicity.
“Students need to see someone that looks like themselves being successful, but the most important factor is that they have great teachers who care for them,” she said.
Mentors and aspirations
Tracy Richardson, principal of E.C. Glass High School, said when she was a young African-American student growing up in Goode, she didn’t see a wide range of black professionals, and so it took some time for her to consider becoming an educator. Her perceptions of what she could achieve started to change, she explained, when she excelled in an advanced placement class in English at Jefferson Forest High School.
She said part of what she can do as principal involves showing students of color that they can succeed academically. She described the way she can show them such a path “just by walking in the door, looking the way that I look, and having students call me Dr. Richardson.”
Richardson earned her doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from Virginia Tech.
“Students need to see people that look like them who have accomplished things,” she said.
Ethel Reeves, director of culture and engagement for Lynchburg City Schools, agreed that shared cultural experiences can help black students establish connections with black teachers. The students might see black teachers, she explained, and perceive that they share “some of the same stories,” including church experiences, holiday traditions and other facets of their upbringings.
“You still don’t know that until you talk to a person,” she added. “But the perception is there.”
But Reeves also stressed the importance of a wide-ranging competency that goes beyond academic expertise.
“While I understand the need for more African-American teachers, I also understand the importance of having qualified teachers,” Reeves said. “What I mean by qualified teachers is not only teachers who possess the skill set in their subject area, but who also understand the importance of cultural consciousness and cultural competency.”
That sort of cultural competency, she said, can be cultivated across racial boundaries.
“What we don’t want to say is white teachers can’t teach black children,” she said. “That’s not the message we’re sending.”
At the same time, Reeves agreed that it was important for children – black and white – to encounter a diverse range of teachers, from standpoint of categories such as ethnicity, age and gender.
“It’s part of growing our children,” she said. “It’s part of helping them understand the world we live in … It’s important to their learning process – their growth and their development.”
Reeves noted the comparatively small number of black students studying to be teachers.
“It’s not just an LCS problem,” she said. “In order to hire African-American teachers, we have to have them in these programs.”
Gee pointed out that problem, as well.
“We are not seeing the diversity at job fairs or in statewide ratios,” she said. “We need to start the teacher recruitment process into education earlier.”
Reeves described the way the problems – relatively small numbers of both black teachers and black students entering the field of education – exacerbate each other.
“You have a cyclical situation here,” she said. “If I don’t know, as an African-American, that African-Americans are being successful as educators, I’m not so sure I’m going to follow in that track.”
Altra Witt, a second-grade teacher at Madison Heights Elementary School in Amherst County, agreed that the small pool of black teaching candidates may reflect the experience of black students.
In many cases, she said, African-American students “didn’t have a lot of positive experiences in school.”
To address that problem, she described the importance of what she called “culturally responsive teaching,” nurtured by diversity within a teaching staff. Witt herself is African-American.
Witt, along with others who spoke about the topic, said teachers who were not black, as well as teachers who were, could all participate in this kind of culturally vibrant instruction. But she also said that sort of atmosphere needed ethnic diversity in order to thrive.
Witt, 29, earned a Master of Arts in Teaching with a degree in Curriculum and Instruction at Randolph College in 2013. This is her second year teaching at Madison Heights Elementary.
Witt mentioned, too, the importance of teaching more thoroughly the accomplishments of black historical figures – and doing it beyond the month of February, which is nationally recognized as Black History Month.
“You would talk about their successes more often,” she said.
One student who’s helping to replenish the reservoir of young African-American prospective teachers is Alannah Richardson, the E.C. Glass senior.
“I started to notice how there are students who felt like teachers didn’t care,” she said, “I always felt like my teachers cared, and I wanted to be one of those teachers who cared and who wanted to help them succeed.”
Alannah Richardson is the daughter of Tracy Richardson, the principal of E. C. Glass High School who taught World History at the school as Alannah was growing up. Having a mother who taught history helped Alannah to develop a love for the subject. Alannah Richardson recalled her mother taking her to places such as Monticello, letting her absorb stories of the past, and letting her imagination catch fire.
“Because my mom was a history teacher, I think that kind of helped me really enjoy history,” she said.
What all teachers can do
It’s possible that some of the connections African-American students develop with African-American teachers may, in some ways, be irreplaceable, based on shared histories and stories that people from other backgrounds simply cannot reach. But Tracy Richardson noted barriers that sometimes spring up between black students and other teachers that might be chipped away, regardless of a teacher’s race.
Sometimes, she said, teachers might subtly convey lower expectations to black students than the ones they express to other students.
“I don’t always know that it’s intentional or that people are conscious of it,” she said.
She recalled a colleague at E.C. Glass, when she taught at the school about 15 years ago, who whispered to her that “these kids can never do this” – meaning, they couldn’t learn 1,500 years of World History in about seven months.
“I thought in my mind, ‘Your kids may not be able to do this, but mine will.’ And they did,” Tracy Richardson said.
She also described the way students returning from Project Inclusion, a retreat sponsored by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, presented a skit last year to the faculty. They depicted teachers asking non-minority students, “Where is your homework?” and asking minority students, “Do you have your homework?”
“It’s just something that’s subtly different,” Tracy Richardson said.
Jamison Spinner, a senior at E. C. Glass, explained how he, as a student who’s African-American, may find a higher comfort level with black teachers – especially in the early stages of a class. It’s something he notices in other students, as well.
“I see a lot of kids in this school, who are African-American, who are more willing to talk to a teacher outside of school who’s African-American,” he said. “You can assume, ‘They know the things I’ve been through. Any obstacles I’ve struggled with, I can assume they’ve possibly been through the same thing.’”
But Spinner also said the feeling of comfort with other teachers can grow, even if it doesn’t start out at the same level.
“After a couple of weeks for me, once I know how [the teacher’s] personality works, I don’t have any problems,” he said.
Spinner noted some things teachers who aren’t African-American can do more effectively when they’re working with black students.
“Be more willing to change your teaching style, because not every kid learns the same way,” he said. For students who are struggling, he said teachers “should go toward the students and tell them they need help instead of waiting for the students to come to them.”
Spinner said it’s also important for teachers to reach out to African-American students who are doing well, encouraging them to try for advanced classes. He said teachers might say, for instance, “I see that you’re doing well. I believe you should take the next step.”
Tracy Richardson also mentioned discipline, and the way African-American male students, especially, may sometimes be perceived in the classroom.
“I think gender can be a factor in how students are perceived,” she said. “If it’s someone bigger than you, that could impact how you deal with them.”
And intimidation, she said, can occur even if the student does not intend it.
“Sometimes, through cultural norms, some of our kids are loud,” she said. “And then, if they’re bigger, it’s intimidating as viewed by an adult – and the [student’s] intent is not to be intimidating.”
Beyond the classroom
If paying close attention to students once they’re in the classrooms and corridors is important, Tracy Richardson believes knowing something about their lives outside of those boundaries can also help teachers. She described the way E.C. Glass staff members took teachers around the city by bus last year to see where their students lived. She said Assistant Principal Rob Quel, who has a commercial driver’s license, was able to drive them.
“We put all of our new teachers on a bus and drove them around Lynchburg, so they could see where all of our students were coming from – those who were privileged, and those who were not,” she said. The excursion, she explained, helped teachers to “understand what was coming through the door that was never part of their reality.”
Richardson explained why seeing the conditions of students who came from challenging places in the city might be helpful for teachers.
“We think they need to understand where the students are,” she said, “and to understand why we have to push them so hard.”