A Conversation With Teacher of the Year Nate Bowling About the Experiences — and Importance — of Black Teachers

This Black History Month, Ed Trust honors the rich legacy of Black excellence in the classroom: Black teachers.

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board decision in 1954, there were 82,000 Black teachers. But in the following decade, the number of Black teachers in the United States dropped drastically. More than 38,000 Black teachers and administrators in 17 southern states lost their jobs due to the closing of all-Black schools and the unwillingness of newly segregated schools to hire Black educators. These were dedicated professionals who were committed to educating Black children. They poured into their Black students knowledge and principles. They saw in their students promise and unlimited potential and taught them to the highest levels they could. Today, we still have not recovered from this expulsion of Black educators from the classroom — a mere 7 percent of our nation’s teachers are Black.

As a part of Ed Trust’s ongoing work around teachers of color, the assets they bring to the classroom and the challenges they face, we sat down with longtime educator and former Washington State Teacher of The Year and Milken Award-winner Nate Bowling to hear his ideas about the challenges surrounding recruiting talented Black teachers, the experiences that drive too many talented Black teachers out of the field, and what it will take to ensure that America’s teaching workforce reflects its student body.

On the significance of Black teachers for Black students — and all students…

If I was going to raise a child to be a novelist, it would make sense that I would surround that child with people who were novelists and who had had an impact in the field, right? In the same way that if I want to raise a young Black intellectual, it should make sense that I would want to place young Black intellectuals in that child’s life so they can see them and engage with them.

And it’s bigger than cultural competency, right? We don’t need more Black teachers, we need more good Black teachers. And there’s a difference, like with any teacher. Quality matters.

And it’s not just for the Black children as well. You all know the research. White children benefit as well from seeing, from having Black teachers, rightI don’t think we’d have the political dynamics we have in America if people in these isolated areas were able to see experts of color and had more exposure to Black intellectualism. And they don’t. I think educators of color have the ability — or the potential — to transform some of the racial issues we have about communities of color as well.

“I don’t think we’d have the political dynamics we have in America if people in these isolated areas were able to see experts of color and had more exposure to Black intellectualism. And they don’t. I think educators of color have the ability — or the potential — to transform some of the racial issues we have about communities of color as well.”

On his own experiences as a student…

I can talk about the three Black teachers I had in my K-12 career. As a student in Tacoma, Washington —which has the demographics of a Scandinavian suburb — I remember Kay Anderson in fourth grade and the relationship that she had with me and the other students. In fact, to this day, whenever I do anything, Kay Anderson still cheerleads me on Facebook. She looked out for me. There was a report a while ago about how Black female teachers, in particular, value and see the brilliance in students of color more than any other population. And they’re more likely to recommend them for honors programs, for AP programs, for IB programs, for, for, for, for, right? And that’s because they’re accustomed to seeing the ways in which African-American culture often expresses its intellect. And the way in which African-American culture often expresses its intellect is not the same as it is in a suburban town of 150 people.

My father and both of my uncles passed away my sophomore year in high school, and my teacher James Phillips grabbed me, and he said, “You’re making terrible choices right now and I’m not going to let you do this.” And he basically sat me down every day for about three months and was like, “You need to do this. Do this. Do this.” Nobody else would have done that. But he saw something in me. He saw something in me that he wanted to foster and wanted to grow.

And Mark Miller, I had him in seventh grade for math. I see him now. He’s a friend. These are the teachers who made a huge impact on me because they saw and valued my intellect. I went in other classes where it was, “Why are you so loud? Why are you so this? Why are you so that?” But I don’t have a single memory of being tamped down by my Black teachers. And that’s not to say that all my White teachers did that, tamp me down. But there’s an understanding.

I don’t know the geography around D.C., I’m assuming that if I point one way in 15 miles there’s a suburban town that you could name. The vast majority of people who are our teachers come from those kind of places. And then they go into schools where the population doesn’t look like them, and they have no real understanding of what Black brilliance looks like, what Brown brilliance looks like.

When my kids get loud, that means they’re engaged and excited. Right? I’m not intimidated by that —I’m like [claps], “Let’s go, fam! Ok, channel that, channel that, channel that — now write about it.” Right? I don’t try to tamp that down. I try to encourage that. But that’s because I understand the culture.

On why fewer Black teachers are entering the field…

Well, it’s kind of a two-part thing. The way schools are structured — our schools are designed by middle-class White people, for middle-class White people, in order to produce and replicate more middle-class White people. And if you aren’t able to contort yourself to the confines of that identity, that head space, then you’re not happy in school. And so, if you have a system that’s not built for you, it’s not going to meet your needs.

And if you have a system in which you’re unhappy — why would you ever return there? Right? If you have a miserable K-12 experience, why would you want to go back and work for under-market value with your degree? And so I think that’s a huge part of it. If children of color had better experiences in school, they’d be more likely to become teachers. But they don’t, so they don’t.

On why too few Black teachers are staying…

There’ve been efforts in my area to go down and recruit from HBCUs, but I think that’s really weird. Because — how do I word this? — why are you going to fly down to the South and bring folks to lily White Washington and then not provide them the supports they need? They feel culturally isolated.

Being a teacher of color is a really isolating thing, right? John King talked about the double taxation, that’s totally valid. Through the early part of my career, before all the awards started coming, I was never recognized for my pedagogy. It was always, “Oh, Nate’s classroom management.” “Nate never writes referrals.” But what they don’t understand is that my pedagogy created the management, right? The reason I have no behavior problems is because my classroom instruction is good. If your instruction is good, you don’t have to manage the kids. So, “Oh, Nate’s a good classroom manager,” was my reputation for years. That’s not what it is at all. And that happens to every Black teacher, right? Well, not everyone — the good ones. You go in, you do your job with a bunch of your kids, you build a rapport, and all of a sudden you’re a classroom manager. No, you’re a freakin’ good teacher! But, in so many spaces, we don’t recognize Black expertise. We think that any time we see Black expertise, we assume that it’s charisma. But we conflate pedagogy and charisma.

Well, so, I’ll say this before I go there: In the deep, dark, in the recesses of my brain that I don’t like to talk about — I know part of why I’ve gotten the recognition that I get. It is that I get “those kids” to do it. Right? I think there’s a huge portion of the teaching profession that has really low expectations for kids of color. And so if you are able to engage “those students” and get them to flourish, then it must be because you discipline well. Or because you’re firm. And that’s not it. Do I discipline well? Not really, because I don’t discipline. Am I firm though?  I am firm in that I have high expectations. And that’s not classroom management, that’s good teaching.

“Do I discipline well? Not really, because I don’t discipline. Am I firm though?  I am firm in that I have high expectations. And that’s not classroom management, that’s good teaching.”

On what advice he would give schools and districts on where to start in changing these patterns…

If you want to create more Black teachers, you have to improve the living conditions and the working conditions of Black students in school. If you want to recruit Black teachers, you have to make your district a place where they want to be in ways Black folks can flourish. If you don’t, they won’t be there.

I think that Grow Your Own programs make a lot of sense to me. In Washington state, and particularly my district with Teach 253 — 253’s the area code — the idea is that we identify kids who are interested in education, and we put them in this program. And they go observe and do volunteer work in classrooms and they get all their career credits for high school. There are then agreements with some of the local colleges where there’s scholarship money set aside for them. And the idea basically is, if they go through the program and they come through university, there are spots waiting for them in the district. You’ve got to grow your own.

There are a couple of groups in Washington state; one’s called the Martinez Foundation. What they do is they have a cadre. They basically identify 50ish teachers of color each year and then give them support. Schools are overwhelmingly White spaces. And education’s an overwhelmingly — there’s a certain brand of like middle-class, White communication that permeates education that’s exhausting to me. And basically they [Martinez Foundation] provide intentional support for those teachers. They meet, I think, every other month. I’ve gone and spoke to them before. And they have a week of bonding. And so they’re each other’s each other. Look, here’s the thing: If I’m a 23-year-old undergrad White female who walks in a building my first year, there’s 12 people like me walking in their first day as well who can be “each other’s each other.” If I’m a 24-year-old Latina who walks in, there’s likely nobody.

And so the Martinez Foundation, what it does is it builds “each other’s each other” across school boundaries and district boundaries. And so like the cohort is built throughout the South Sound. So their community is both online and in person. So if you’re a district, and you bring in teachers of color, and let’s say you do a good job and go out and hire a cadre. You have to provide them with support. Because the cultural isolation of the profession will drive them out.

The other thing I would say is mentoring plays a big role. But the mentoring thing is dangerous because you don’t want tokenism either. Like, “Oh, hey Nate, you’re Black. We hired Jamaal. You and Jamaal…” And we’re nothing alike, right? So it has to be done thoughtfully. But mentoring is huge.

All of it has to be done thoughtfully. You could go out and do everything I’m saying, and do it terribly. And, and, and cause more problems. It has to be done thoughtfully. And, I’ll be honest, I’m glad it’s not my job to fix it. ‘Cause there is a lot to be done. There’s a lot to unpack. But it has to be done.

The majority of students in our public school system are now students of color. And at the K-3 level, it’s way past majority. We have to get our head around that as a profession. And we have to figure out ways to, first, deal with populations. But then also making sure that those kids, some of those kids are getting into the profession. It’s unsustainable to have — maybe it’s not unsustainable — but seems to me it should be unsustainable to have schools in neighborhoods that are 80 percent Black with staff that look like a tour bus for a country music concert.