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For most of his 20-year teaching career, Nathan Jackson ran his classes the way he was taught to: with himself standing at the front of the room while students sat in the back, required to listen and do what they’re told.
But a few years ago, after participating in a leadership training with the Black Teacher Project, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Jackson was challenged to change that approach. He came up with a survey to give 240 of his physical education students at Urban Promise Academy, a Fruitvale middle school, asking them what they liked and didn’t like about his classes. What he learned completely changed his practice.
In 2020, Jackson was named a teacher of the year for Oakland Unified School District, and he credits the recognition to the Black Teacher Project for helping him approach teaching in a new way.
“Without the Black Teacher Project pushing me in that direction, I would’ve never known they’d wanted to do their own workouts, create their own games, and facilitate their own (restorative justice) circles,” Jackson said. “They didn’t want to be teacher-centered, they wanted to be student-centered.”
Since 2015, the Black Teacher Project has served more than 1,000 educators across the country, including hundreds from Oakland and the Bay Area, said Micia Mosely, the organization’s founder and executive director. The nonprofit offers a fellowship, a leadership institute, and other professional development training for Black teachers. When Mosely founded the group, her mission was to help recruit and develop Black educators so that they stayed in the field. But the project recently changed directions to focus more on encouraging teachers to approach teaching in new ways.
“That shift had everything to do with not wanting to recruit and sustain people in an inequitable system, but rather to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to transform the system into something that we have yet to see,” Mosely said.
Mosely began teaching high school in San Francisco in the 1990s and burned out after a few years from not having the support she needed to excel at her job, she said. She decided to take a break from teaching and pursue a doctorate degree in education from UC Berkeley. 20 years after she started teaching, Mosely ran into one of her former students, who had also begun teaching in San Francisco schools—and who was also dealing with burnout and considering leaving the field.
“At that point I was like, “What happened to me is not going to happen to you,” Mosely said. “I basically did everything I could to found the Black Teacher Project, and that’s how it began.”
She realized that the teaching experiences that led her to leave the field—dealing with microaggressions, being the only or one of a few Black teachers in her school, providing safe spaces for Black students while feeling unsupported herself—were not uncommon amongst Black teachers more broadly. And she set out to fill that need.
In OUSD, about 20% of teachers are Black, which is much higher than their share across the state or country. In California, as of the 2018-2019 school year, the latest year for which data is available, about 4% of teachers are Black. The most recent data for the U.S., from the 2017-2018 school year, shows that about 7% of traditional public school teachers are Black.
The Black Teacher Project tries to mitigate some of the barriers that can keep Black educators out of the profession. For example, the group offers tutoring sessions for the exams that individuals must take to earn a teaching credential after hearing from participants that some were having trouble passing the tests. The group also pays a stipend to the teachers who participate, so that having to miss work isn’t a deterrent to attending trainings.
Research has shown that having a teacher of the same race can help students of color excel on standardized tests, improve their attendance rates, and lead to fewer suspensions.
“Some of us may be the first Black teacher our students have ever had. We offer a special kind of social and emotional support that other teachers can’t offer,” said Ray’Von Jones, a teacher at Oakland Technical High School. “There’s additional labor we’re putting in, which we love to do, but it’s additional labor.”
Jones is in her third year of the Black Teacher Project fellowship, while teaching English and community organizing at Oakland Tech and serving as the pathway director for the school’s race, law, and policy pathway. What many educators, including Jones, most appreciate about the Black Teacher Project is that it gives them a place where they can be authentic and be around others who have had similar experiences, like being Black in a predominantly white environment.
For Nakachi Clark-Kasimu, another Black Teacher Project fellow, one of the most valuable aspects of the group is the opportunity to connect and learn from Black teachers all over the country, which has been especially important during the pandemic when teachers lost a lot of what interested them in the field in the first place: being able to see and interact with their students. Over the past 18 months, the fellowship cohorts have met virtually once a month.
“For many of us, it’s about the connection, seeing a child light up, seeing that ‘Aha’ moment that you do not get on Zoom,” said Clark-Kasimu, who teaches kindergarten to second grade at Pear Tree Community School, a private school in Oakland. “Having a space to be able to hear how other teachers were innovating in real-time was clutch.”
Mosely, the founder, said the last year has also brought a boost in funding, prompted by 2020’s racial reckoning that compelled many people and foundations to donate to racial justice organizations, including the Black Teacher Project. But one of Mosely’s concerns is whether the team will be able to maintain that momentum, given that it seems like the pendulum in support for anti-racist efforts is already swinging back to the other side, Mosely said, pointing to the backlash across the country against critical race theory being taught in schools.
Jackson, the Urban Promise Academy P.E. teacher, now works as a teacher on special assignment, providing direction and training to other P.E. teachers across the district. When he mentors other teachers, what Jackson has learned from the Black Teacher Project stays at the front of his mind.
“That’s the revolution of where I think education should go. It’s not just that person in the front, spilling out information and students writing it down,” he said. “I’m mentoring other teachers to step out of that norm, and teach differently. Change your teaching style to fit our children.”