Opinion: It isn’t race that makes a teacher the best role model, for students of any color

A recent column by AJC colleague Gracie Bond Staples about Spelman College’s effort to increase the ranks of black school teachers got the attention of a veteran teacher whose thoughtful response follows. Zach Etheridge, a white man who taught at a majority-black high school in Clayton County 11 years, agrees it’s good for black youths to see people who look like them leading their classrooms. But effectiveness at teaching and value as a role model, he argues, go way beyond skin color.

Here’s his essay.

Kudos to Spelman College for boosting its teacher certification program. (Spelman bets on more black teachers, Sept. 9) The school is to be commended for doing its part to encourage African-Americans to consider teaching careers, but I beg Education Department chair Andrea Lewis to broaden her focus. It's hard not to be troubled by her claim that African-American teachers "are more committed to the well-being of their [black] students and are natural role models."

I suspect Lewis does not mean to suggest that African-American teachers might not dedicate themselves fully to students who look different, or that white or brown teachers would care less about the well-being of students who happen to be black. Nor, surely, does she mean that African-American teachers would be less capable than white or brown teachers of educating and serving as role models for white or brown students.

I fully agree with the argument that many black boys and girls can benefit from more direct contact with real-life examples of successful black male teachers practicing self-discipline, earning respect, and reasonably exerting rules-based authority, for in our most challenged black communities too many households provide inadequate evidence of men’s value as adults, partners, or parents, and little reason for boys to value themselves accordingly.

But you know what? A lot of white students from challenged communities would benefit from contact with those same teachers, and for many of the same reasons, too. Furthermore, it’s hard to maintain prejudices or even simple ignorance when you’re face to face with a real person and a good teacher five days a week.

I don’t think Lewis is suggesting, even accidentally, that effectively segregated schools or classrooms are best for our students. What all kids need are examples of caring adults demonstrating affection, respect when earned, and belief in their futures — and, lest we forget, real expertise and interest in their subject matter, too. In my experience, a successful student-teacher connection is so direct and intellectually intimate that it tends toward color-blindness, and good teachers can make meaningful differences in their students’ lives even if they hardly speak the same language.

Frankly, I think it sounds sensible at first blush to seek teachers who are part of the communities where they teach. I might have been a better teacher sooner if I had started out understanding much more about the circumstances of my students’ early lives. But the dream of a much wider, beloved community that helped draw me into teaching is in a sense about the opposite of homogeneity. Though I did not grow up black or poor, I learned, and eventually was able to help most of my kids understand a bit more not just about their own lives but about lives like mine as well.

At the high school where I was fortunate to teach for eleven years, and at schools throughout our state, the beloved community exists, however imperfectly, in many of our classrooms. When a gifted white student chose a Nigerian math teacher as her STAR teacher, it wasn’t because of their shared ancestry. When a gifted black senior on his way to Georgia Tech chose me as his STAR teacher, it wasn’t because I looked like him. Our kids, natural idealists, take for granted more easily than we do that mutual respect based on the content of each one’s character is the soundest foundation for successful relationships, in the world as well as in the classroom.

Georgia’s youngsters of every race, color, and creed deserve to be taught by caring, well-educated teachers regardless of tribal, racial, or cultural identities. Yes, it can serve students well to see someone who looks like them serving as a role model at the front of the classroom. And it can also do them good to see someone who doesn’t look like them serving as a role model. It’s the role that counts, after all, not just the color of the model.

I want to see Spelman and every other education school in Georgia turn out rafts of well-educated young (or not so young) men and women willing to take on the challenge of teaching, and send them to every classroom in the state that needs talent. And if the urgent needs of so many black students can help motivate more successful black students to be teachers, then more power to them.

But let’s not typecast anyone. Good teachers are needed everywhere, and can help build a better society wherever their talents are put to work. Many of our students already know how to see beneath the skin. Now it’s our job to live up to what we’ve taught them.

Zach Etheridge taught English at Lovejoy High School until his retirement last year. He was named 2017 Clayton County Teacher of the Year.