I Finally Had a Black Teacher. Here’s Why It Mattered.

As a tenth-grade student, Kayla shared about her desire to have a teacher who looks like her. “I’ve never had a brown skin teacher—I’ve never even seen a brown skin teacher—and I really hope to have one before I graduate,” she wrote. “I think it would make a big difference. I feel like I’m always pressuring myself and trying to please my teachers just to help them feel better about having a smart Black girl in their class—I hate it.”

Many students of color go through their entire K-12 careers without having a teacher of their same race, despite a growing body of research showing the benefits they and all students get from greater teacher diversity. But Kayla, who’s now a few months from graduating high school, finally did have a Black teacher this year. I sat down with her at the Mighty Writers West Philadelphia location to talk about that experience and what it meant to her.

Did you end up having a Black teacher?

I’m in dual enrollment at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) right now, and I had a Black teacher last semester for my African American History class. He’s the best. I still see him now, and he says I was one of his top students.

The class was great. I got to understand more about my heritage, where I come from, and what actually happened to my ancestors. And I didn't feel as though I had to challenge him or anyone else in the class to get them to respect what I had to say. I was able to sit back, relax, and learn. The teacher understood me. I wasn't out of my comfort zone. I could focus on learning. I didn’t have to prove myself to him.

It wasn’t just that he was Black. He was a great teacher. During his lessons, he’d stop and ask questions to all the students. He knew he talked fast and would check and make sure we were doing okay and understood the material. 

Was there a specific moment when this was particularly true?

One time we were doing a group project, and there was a point in class where one of my group members did not want to be a part of the group or participate. And I said to him, “If you don’t contribute, we’ll all fail. Get over here. We have this project to do. We’re going to ace it, or B-minus it, or do something with it. But we ain’t going no lower than a God-given B-minus. Please take into consideration that it’s not just about you. It’s about the whole group.”

And after that—while some teachers would not have liked me speaking that directly to another student—the teacher said to me, “Yo, you just reminded me of my mom!” 

What did this mean to you?

My mother and grandma are both strong Black women, and they are both so important to me. I look up to them. They’re my role models.

My grandmother is sixty-two. She's active and still runs her hair salon. Both my mother and grandma do their thing. I love it. And they push me. I tell them about my struggles and what I go through, and they try to understand even when they don't understand. There was one day I wanted to give up, I was just so exhausted, and my grandma was like, “Listen, we’re not going to give up.”

She wants me to be better than her, and also better than my mother. And I want to strive to be better than them, too. 

What was the group project like after your teacher said you reminded him of his mom?

When he said that, I felt like he understood me. It also made me want to do better and lose the attitude a bit. My teacher saying this little thing made me rethink what I said to my classmate and realize I was kind of worked up because I just wanted the project done since we had a deadline. So, I apologized to my classmate. I let him know I meant everything I said, but that I didn’t have to say it in that way, with all that attitude.

After that, the project went great. The group was amazing. We all did our part, and if someone couldn’t contribute for some reason, someone else would step up and help out. We encouraged each other, and all wanted to do well. We didn’t want to leave anyone behind. The whole African American History class was like that, all semester.

What’s next for you?

The dual enrollment program I’m in right now allows me to take college classes at CCP for both high school and college credit. It's the only dual enrollment program that allows you to do this in the state. I love the college classes I’m taking. I’m learning so much, and it’s so fun. I get to express myself and go with the flow. And I get to question things.

I'm supposed to graduate high school in the summer. Next semester I’m going to continue at CCP as a college student, so I’m submitting my FAFSA right now. I want to stay at CCP for another two years, then transfer my credits to Temple University or another school. I plan on studying photography and business.

I feel like my African American History teacher helped me feel more confident that I can do all the things I want to do. He expected a lot from me, just like my mother and grandmother. And they all help me expect more out of myself.

Any advice for teachers who want to support their students like your African American History teacher supported you?

Be open-minded—because if you’re not, I can't work with you. I can't really be your student. How can a teacher expect me to learn and keep my mind open if they don’t do the same?

My ideal teacher would be like my grandma, and my mother, and my dad. So, aggressive but not too aggressive. They push me to be beyond my years. They encourage me to be loving and empathetic.

Lastly, it’s important to me that teachers challenge me academically. I like challenges, and I don't think teachers give me enough of them, and that's a big problem for me. I know myself, and I know that if someone gives me something challenging to do, I’m more likely to do it than if someone gives me something easy to do. I like the thrill of a challenge. I like working hard. I love to learn, but I need to be motivated, and I’m motivated by a challenge.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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