London

Did you ever have a Black teacher? We spoke to 3 educators who want the answer to be yes

Many institutions are reckoning with how they reflect the communities they serve, including local school boards, where Black children often go through their entire education without once seeing a face that looks like theirs at the front of the classroom. 

In a survey, only about one per cent of Thames Valley staff identified as Black

George McAuley is a math teacher at Catholic Central High School in London, Ont. (Supplied by George McAuley)
Many institutions are reckoning with how they reflect the communities they serve, including local school boards, where Black children often go through their entire education without once seeing a face that looks like theirs at the front of the classroom.

Statistics Canada numbers from 2016 suggest 15 per cent of Londoners who are visible minorities identify as Black, but in comparison to the share of Black teachers in the region's two largest school boards, the group appears to be woefully underrepresented. 

At the Thames Valley District School Board, one per cent of staff surveyed said they identify as Black. The overwhelming majority, 89 per cent, identify as white and the director of education admits there's a lot of work to do to diversify. 

The London District Catholic School Board doesn't keep statistics and it doesn't survey on the racial identity of its staff, but a spokesperson said the board would consider doing so in the future. Those familiar with the makeup of the board say the numbers are likely similar to those at Thames Valley. 

Meanwhile, at the Faculty of Education at Western University, two thirds of students who plan to graduate to be teachers say they are white, middle class and Christian. 

It's a glaring disparity, and one that the Thames Valley District School Board has recently moved to address. It comes as no surprise to Black teachers at both boards, who say schools have long failed to reflect the diversity of their students. 

"I think students at the high school and elementary level are at a vulnerable age where they are influenced by their teachers," said Melissa Allder, an ESL learning coordinator in the public board who spent much of her career as an English teacher and department head at Banting Secondary School in London. 

"I think there are obstacles that you face as a Black student that a white teacher can't understand."

I'm always walking a thin line between not offending and pointing out that there are injustices happening.- Dayne Munro, kindergarten teacher

Allder said her presence as the only Black teacher in her school often drew racialized students to her with concerns about treatment. 

"I've had students come up to me and tell me, I think this white teacher has biases, has preconceived judgments about me. They have someone to talk to, someone who doesn't force them to assimilate or appease the white teacher just to make her feel comfortable." 

Born and raised in London, Allder said she never had a Black teacher.

Melissa Allder is a learning coordinator with the Thames Valley District School Board. Before that, she was an English teacher. (Supplied by Melissa Allder)

CBC News also spoke to George McAuley, a math teacher at Catholic Central High School and Dayna Munro, a kindergarten teacher at Woodland Heights Public School. Both also went to elementary and high school here and neither had a single Black teacher. 

Challenging racism can be difficult for racialized students, Allder said, and having a Black teacher as an ally within the school can help. 

"Sometimes students would come to me, and they would be worried about only being able to say so much without getting pushback or silent treatments for being vocal. As a Black teacher, I was able to use my lens and my culture to help them and to broach that with other teachers," she said. 

"White educators need to stop being defensive. You can't help someone if you're not listening." 

It's very important to have someone interrupt and reconstruct the stereotypes kids have of racialized people.- George McAuley, math teacher

It's also important for non-racialized kids to see Black teachers, said McAuley, who said when he was growing up, there were few positive Black role models.

"It's important for all these kids to see me doing something like math. I'm six feet tall, 210 pounds, I've got dreads. That's not what your math teacher usually looks like," McAuley said. 

"It's important for the racialized kids to have a role model and someone to look up to. It's also very important to have someone interrupt and reconstruct the kids have of racialized people." 

Varied curriculum

Allder said she introduced her students to stories and histories her white counterparts found uncomfortable. Many of her students still contact her 25 years later to share how she influenced their lives. 

In her kindergarten class, Munro looked at the classroom books, which featured predominantly white protagonists. She added books she feels better reflected the diversity of her class. 

Dayna Munro is a kindergarten teacher at Woodland Heights Public School in London, Ont. (Supplied by Dayna Munro)

She said she didn't realize the lack of Black educators in her life until she became a teacher herself and the impact she had on racialized children in her own class. 

"We might not have the blatant racism like in the United States, but we have a lot of microaggressions. I can relate to those kids," Munro said. 

White educators need to stop being defensive. You can't help someone if you're not listening.- Melissa Allder, English teacher

One year, a young Black girl was upset because a friend said her hair wasn't as nice as her's. 

"She told me, 'I want straight hair,' and I was able to have a conversation with her about hair, how her hair is just like mine and that it's beautiful.

"When I worked at a school where there were a lot of non-white students, they gravitated toward me. They'd have problems with other teachers and I don't know if it was unconscious bias, but the students can feel it. They told me, 'That teacher doesn't like me because I'm black.' I'm someone they can talk to, someone to be their voice without being accused of being the troublemaker or, quote, pulling the race card." 

A need for change

Munro says she still struggles with how to approach white colleagues who seem to be singling out Black children. 

"I'm always walking a thin line between not offending and pointing out that there are injustices happening. It makes people feel uncomfortable, but this is a time for people to feel uncomfortable." 

Western's faculty of education, where the majority of teacher candidates are white and middle class, has changed its admissions process to make sure more diverse students are applying and being accepted. 

The department also has a strategic plan to hire more Indigenous faculty and to make the curriculum more reflective of Indigenous experience, said Kathy Hibbert, the associate dean of teacher education. 

Representation matters

The Thames Valley school board conducted the survey of staff to diagnose how to change hiring practices, said Mark Fisher, the board's director of education. Growing up in the Ajax and Whitby area east of Toronto, Fisher said he also never had a Black teacher. 

"I think it's important that students see role models in all facets of the organization and that we have a staff that's representative of the community we serve," Fisher said. 

We need to have teachers unpack how education is a form of oppression for some, and is not supportive to all.- Melissa Allder

The board is working on meeting with different communities to see what barriers exist to diverse groups applying and getting hired. There will also be job fairs. 

The board as well as teachers need to take a hard look at why racism exists within education, said Allder. 

"We need to build a system that can protect our students in school and make sure that we are giving them the tools to compete in a world that they are going into," she said. 

"We need to have teachers unpack how education is a form of oppression for some, and is not supportive to all. Teachers are a product of this system, so how do we ask questions that are uncomfortable so that we can create a system that is for all." 

now