No Black teachers in the building
The culture of our schools needs to change. In this episode, we hear from Morgan Jackson and her son and daughter, Kaleb and Aaliyah, about their education in predominantly white schools. Morgan is a Las Vegas educator, and a Ph.D student. She explains how she instills self-confidence and social awareness in her students and her own kids.
- Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
- Website, The Brown Bookshelf
- Article, Why Incidental Diversity Matters in Your Classroom
- Blog, How Librarians and Teachers Can Cultivate Diverse Books That Go Beyond the Trauma Experience
This podcast is brought to you with the generous support from The Walton Family Foundation.
Aimée Eubanks Davis is the host. This series is produced by Priscilla Alabi and Kristen Lepore. Priscilla Alabi is the producer. Kristen Lepore is the supervising producer. Story editing is by Jackie Danziger. Story consulting by Sonya Ramsey. Sound design and mixing by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Music by Hansdale Hsu. Additional music by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Additional engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittles Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Special Thanks to Liz Thompson, Meredith Moore, Acasia Wilson Feinberg and Maya Thompson.
Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. To learn more about the 1954 Project and its mission to fund black leaders in education, visit www.1954project.org
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Aimée Eubanks Davis, Alia, Caleb, Morgan Jackson
Aimée Eubanks Davis 01:19
Before we get started, I want to let you know, this episode contains sensitive content, including discussions of racism and enslaved people. By now, you know, we need more Black educators, our black teacher population does not reflect our black student population. And that is a problem. So how are parents and kids feeling this absence in our classrooms today? What happens when there aren’t any black leaders in the building? I’m AMI Eubanks Davis and this is AFTER 1954. I’m going to be frank with you. If we want healthy and affirming experiences for our Black students, the culture of our schools has got to change. Because here’s the reality. Nearly 80% of public-school teachers at the elementary and secondary level are White. Only 7% are Black. 7%. And it gets even worse in private schools were only 3% of educators are Black. Sure, charter schools tend to be more diverse, but not by a landslide. The lack of Black leaders in education echoes throughout our classrooms. Today’s guest has felt this firsthand.
Morgan Jackson 02:42
I’m Morgan Jackson, high school English teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada, and mother of two children.
Aimée Eubanks Davis
Morgan’s going to get real with us. Because in this episode, she’s sharing her experience raising two young Black children in a predominantly white school. This can be really challenging and sometimes surprising and unsettling. You don’t even see it coming. Because the first thing that I think most people are focused on is like, is this a great school? Right? You’re usually leaning first on the academic side, and then it’s like, oh, wait, hold on. There’s this. Oh, wait a minute. There’s this other part that we should be thinking about here. In Morgan’s case, something that should be simple. A conversation with her eight-year-old daughter Alia about her hair becomes difficult. Because her daughter’s White classmates, their parents, and the teachers have made her daughter question why her hair is the way that it is. So how does Morgan normalize Alia’s beautiful natural hair and instill confidence? We brought them together for a conversation about that and more. Here’s Morgan.
You know, you try not to do any harm. So my husband, I have that conversation when we talk about conversations that we didn’t know to have before we had children of how do we make sure that like no one’s touching her hair? How do we make sure you know, you want to ask but you want to ask in a way that’s like, I really need an answer. But you also don’t want to make it awkward. So you’re gonna like, oh, you know, everyone likes your hair, huh? What they say, what they do? How’d that work out? Oh, did anyone do this? Did anyone do that? She’s like no, well, one person, and you have to you know, it’s like helping her find those boundaries of, especially previously when you’re one of the only if not the only Black girl in your class. It’s a novelty. When she went to preschool, we actually had a parent who stopped the teacher one day to say, are those beads safe for her? Like does it not weigh down her neck, that looks very unsafe. And I was like, wow, thank you so much for caring about my child’s air if only you could care about all of the other things involving Black children, that’d be great.
My name is Alia. I am eight years old, and I would describe myself as a funny yet strong and independent girl.
I’m Caleb. I am 10 years old, and I am currently on my school’s basketball team.
So Caleb is my oldest. And I remember Caleb being about six weeks old. And we’re reading the Berenstein Bears, one of the old ones that my mom had saved from when I was a kid. And he was just so intently staring at the pages. And if you turn the page, his eyes moved with it. And I remember thinking I didn’t know kids could be like that alert. And so that was that was Caleb and Alia must have been about six months old, maybe a little bit younger. And we went out to dinner with friends. And she was a babbler. She, Alia, never stopped talking. Alia wakes up with a story to tell you and she goes to bed with a book. Can I just tell you one more thing? And you’re like, no, no, no, tell me tomorrow. And but I remember going out to this restaurant, she was about four or six months old. She’s in a little high chair. And she’s just babbling. And I mean, there’s tone and there’s inflection and she is saying something. And randomly, she hit on a word. And I can’t even remember what the word was. But it was an actual word. And then she went back to babbling. And we all stop and stare at each other. Like you heard that too, right? It wasn’t just me. But in that moment, I remember thinking she knows more than she can convey. And when you think about the world, in that regard, that there’s potential and their skill, and there’s talent, and she just doesn’t know how to get it out yet. It makes my job as a parent, that much more important, because that means I’ve got precious cargo that I’m just trying to cultivate and get to the surface. And so that’s, those are my first two memories is just remembering how precious these kids were, and praying that I didn’t mess up what they came with. Before we had our kids, my husband, I didn’t talk a lot about race. We talked, you know, kind of anecdotally or about a show or something like that. It wasn’t until we had our son, that things changed. For us, it became a lot more real. I feel like until you actually have the child and now you’re no longer talking about an imaginary child or a figment like now you’re looking at this kid, and suddenly everything becomes very, very real. You hear news stories, or you watch a movie. And I’m like, I’m in tears, because now it’s no longer you know, Billy in this book, it’s like, oh, my God, that is someone’s child. I have one of those. And what if and so I became the mother in every situation. And the emotions just kind of overload. It matters to me that my kids have a Black educator, kindergarten graduation, we were told that the girls could not have braids or bonds for the cap for kindergarten, graduation, their hair had to be straight. And I was like, that’s not gonna work. Those are things that like when you’re dealing with people who don’t deal with Black people on a regular basis, they don’t realize how tone deaf it sounds, they don’t realize how much of a microaggression it is and how much you cringe on the inside of like, yay, you need to wear high ponytail for cheer. You can’t really do that. You know it’s that element that just gets missed. Kindergarten graduation was one I took to the teacher and I cc the principal on the email, because she was terrified. And like, but my teacher said it has to be straight. And like she was like, legitimately, the teacher had stress to them, that their hair needed to be straight. So I did this beautiful hairstyle for her. And she was […]. That’s the part that sucks for me as a parent, when you’re not dealing with Black adults in a building, and not even a Black teacher. But because there were no Black adults in the building. There was no one to like, hey, wait a second. Have you considered that? Like there was no sounding board for that. So I had to go to her because I was concerned at that point that you’re now a detriment to my child. I’m working really hard to get her to appreciate her hair and who she is. And when you say things like that, you undermine it because her hair is going to be straight, but she’s going to look a mess because of it. And everyone else does look nice and pretty. Or they’re going to run some water through it and call it a day. That doesn’t work for her. And you’re not understanding that this is not a five-minute run in the bathroom, grab a brush and some water and make it, no, no, no, if I got to redo this, I need an hour and a half. I need Vaseline. I need a brush, I need to comb I need a bunch of rubber bands, some barrettes and a scarf like this is a production I’ve got going here. And I had to I had to concede and I see to my husband that night, because I was so angry that this teacher had made her feel like she was going to be in trouble. Because her hair couldn’t do what everyone else’s did. How important is your hair to you, baby?
Honest, scale of one to one.
Let’s go 1 to 10.
So when your hair is in braids, when your is natural, what’s the difference in how you feel?
When my hair is in braids, I feel like I am trying to hide my real hair from other people. But where my hair is natural. I feel like […] just I’m letting myself go into who I really am.
I’m practically 40 and I’m just getting there. So the fact that the eight-year-old is like, Mommy, can I wear an afro again? And I’m like, yeah.
Aimée Eubanks Davis
Alia’s confidence is contagious. More on that after this break. As you heard before break, Alia is a really spunky kid. And she’s always managing to figure out how to turn lemons into lemonade. Like for instance, last year, when Alia was in second grade, her teacher assigned a project that honestly was culturally insensitive. So together Alicia and her mom, Morgan had to figure out how they would handle it. So here’s Morgan telling that story. And a heads up, you will hear her talk about enslaved people, some of the phrases use can be triggering.
Morgan Jackson 14:23
So Alicia comes home from school. She’s telling me about this project she has to do. So I’m waiting to go to the Google Classroom to find it and find the packet and stuff. And one of these, is this migration project. And I’m very excited about it because I think it’s important to understand how America came to be America. And I’m going through the packet and I’m looking at the different things and cool, and then I get to like the list of requirements and one of the four required activities is that you must have a flag for your country of origin. So the first thing I see when I see this family migration project I look at my husband go, it’s not really my Gration if it’s forced, like that feels like a very European view of this. So I get to this flag portion. And I just stare at it for a little bit because I know what’s coming. And she’s like, so and she wants to go through it and you’ve met her. She’s animated. And there’s lots of hand movements and voice inflection about this project and what she’s gonna do, and we get to present it, and it’s gonna be great. So can we do the flag? Like, here’s where I put it? Because there’s the spot for you to draw your flag. And I’m like, well, baby, we’re not gonna be able to put a flag there. She was, well, why not? So what flag would you put there? She goes, I don’t know, what flag what I put there, like, baby, I don’t have an answer. And we had a very honest conversation about the fact that we’re fortunate that we can go back about five generations, from me, with families on both sides. So grandparents, great greats, great greats, we can get to about 18-17 I think with like census information, I can’t go past that. And so I had to kind of explain to her that I don’t have it. And then we talked about why I don’t have it. And she was what can you just find another census, like baby the other census is don’t have that information? And she’s like, well, why not? And then I have explained well, because now we’re like an active slavery. So I asked her, what do you want to do? And I thought we were going to just put a little thing on the PowerPoint that said, you know, didn’t have a flag or can’t find a flag because of slavery. And my little firecracker of a seven-year-old goes, can we put a slave ship there instead? Yes, yes, we can. And my husband’s like, oh, Lord, you’re gonna get the kids kicked out of school. They’re not going to be invited back next year. And we went through Google Images, and we found a picture of a slave ship that showed what she wanted it to show. And I just kind of sat there and chuckled because it wasn’t so much me. I wanted her to understand why she couldn’t do this part of the assignment from a great perspective. I never anticipated that she was going to take it where she took it.
I mean, I honestly I didn’t mind. I mean, it was a chance to show the rest of my classmates, how black people was drawn, and they raised up to any challenge that they faced. I was nervous, but at the same time, I was really excited to show where I’m from and who I am. What I want people to know is if you ever do a project like that, don’t start feeling different be just because you don’t know, start feeling better about yourself, because your unique.
I love you, you’re my favorite daughter. So teaching is I believe right now, the teaching profession has about 80%, White female. What we know is that demographically, our students are not trending at 80% White, nor 80% female. But it’s really hard to get people to see things they don’t have experience with. All I want when I’m talking as a parent or the teacher is to balance that. So everyone knows a little bit about other cultures. And so if it’s okay for my kid to read 57 books with white characters, it’s not wrong for me to try and balance that a little bit. And say, hey, if my kid can read the stories, why can’t your kid read these stories? So I tend to run my classroom and my home. Very similarly, I’m very sarcastic. I’m very silly. But I also like I do get serious, but in a lot of ways, who I am as a teacher definitely impacts how I raise my children. Because I see that result. I taught middle school for six years. I’ve been at high school now for nine. I taught before I became a parent. And it’s funny because I refer to my students as my kids, and it’ll throw people sometimes they’ll say something like my kids, blah, blah, blah. And then I’ll look at me like, wait, aren’t your kids in elementary? Oh, no, no, no, no, no, sorry. My students. Like I tell them all the time if they want a Nobel Prize, I’m going to believe that a piece of that is because I sat in my room. There are a couple of things about having a Black teacher and why think that having Black teachers are important to all students. I have the students reading for outside reading and they’re all reading their own books and it’s super quiet. I’m reading my book we read for 15 minutes and it’s quiet. I’m talking dead silent. People start talking, you get shushed and at this point, the kid is sitting there reading, it’s super quiet. He goes, wait next Black. This is a White student. And of course at this point, the class is about 60% Black, So eyebrows get raised and people got started looking around like, you got a problem with that? What’s going on here? And we have to have a whole conversation. He’s like, well, I just didn’t know, like, what are you reading? So he tells me what he’s reading. And what page are you on, he is like, 140. I want to figure out these Black like, and of course, no one’s reading now, because we’re all trying to figure out how this kid didn’t know this kid was the character in the book was Black. So we thought, like, okay, walk me through what’s happening, like, explain it to me. And he’s like, okay, so reading this book. So I didn’t know Nick was black, like, and we thought it’s like, and then right here, it says, and I realize he’s Black. And one of the Black is like, so how did you not know he was Black before? And like, no, no, we’re not. So we have the conversation, though of default status.
Morgan Jackson 20:48
So often, when you read a book, a character defaults to White. And if they’re not White, you get told Billy’s Black neighbor, […], or, you know, the Chinese girl who is we know what skin like porcelain who lived next door, like you get that qualifier of who they are. Well, because this book was also written by Black person, there are none of those little qualifiers throughout the story. So you get halfway through, and then it kind of throws it at you. And you have to think about like, why did I assume this character was White? And we have this whole conversation about that. And you think about it, you’re like, huh, that’s an interesting point. I wasn’t told they were White. I just assumed they were. And once you get there, you then say why? Why did you make that assumption? And then we investigate that and that becomes a theme. And it becomes you critically are now reading and looking at while you’re reading what’s happening in the story, and what am I bringing to the story? And you find those things, and you find those biases, and you find those blind spots of like, I guess this is why I never thought about it that way. And like you think about it, like that class we talked about? How many books have you read with a Black main character? And the kids just sit there staring. And the one book they could agree on that they’d read was A Raisin in the Sun. That’s okay. A book with a Black character that does not involve slavery, civil rights, or, you know, and they’re like, […] there might have been, and that’s the conversation, we start to think about, why is that? Where does that come from? Do they not exist.
Morgan Jackson 22:42
And then, you know, you branch out. So it’s important, though, for everyone. And I think that that’s the part that I struggle with, and that I push as a parent, when my kids get to do stuff, they read a lot of books, they read it whatever they want. But I make sure that they have ample books written by Black authors, involving Black characters. I think that’s important, because I think it’s important for everyone to see what we’ve always seen. We see a lot of stories with White characters. I know that there’s a real big push right now about, you know, not seeing color. And I know there’s lots of feelings on both sides about things like CRT and things of that nature. But I want to be very clear. It’s not about indoctrinating anyone. I want my children to have the same ability to see themselves and what they read as every one of their White classmates. I’m not trying to change me, I’m trying, all I want is the opportunity. When I go to the store, and I buy birthday party invitations, they’ve got little White girls on them. All I want is to not have to special order three weeks in advance birthday invitations with Black kids on them. My son when he had his Black teacher in fourth grade, it was the first time he’d been assigned a whole class novel with a Black character, like a Black main character.
Oh, yeah. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.
And I feel like part of that is because you reach for what you know, and you reach for what’s familiar to you. So I think that unless you get a teacher who’s very conscientious, and very intentional, conscientious means they put a lot of thought into it. Like they’re very thoughtful about it. So if you have a teacher who is actively thinking, I want to make sure that I’m representing all of my students, then you get those things. But a lot of times we default to what we know we default to the stories we liked as a kid; we default to the stories that resonate with us. So having a black teacher, their default is a little bit more inclusive. Their new school is very diverse there are a number of male teachers. There are a number of Black teachers and teachers’ aides. There’s of diversity of student. I just heard from my husband that you want to tell the story yesterday what you guys did in class yesterday and what you learned about Christmas. When they were sharing traditions, what did you tell dad?
Oh, that Ethiopian Christmas, January 7th. And that’s actually like December or January 29th. Because they have, Ethiopia had two different calendars.
And so the conversation was, I didn’t know they had an Ethiopian Christmas. And it’s that those are those elements of diversity, even the idea of like, there’s not just one way to be Black, you know, so they’re getting a wide experience of things and people. And that has been one of the biggest things for me.
Aimée Eubanks Davis 28:42
The educator we’re getting to know in this episode is Morgan Jackson. She’s not only a high school teacher, she also schooled herself to get a PhD in education. One of her long-term goals is to work with educators in training to help them identify their biases and blind spots before they enter the classroom. But she knows even in that training role, her presence in the classroom is a big part of the solution to creating more culturally affirming schools. And so because of that, she doesn’t plan on leaving her students any time soon.
I am focusing my doctoral studies on curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on literacy. I still want to stay in the classroom. My first love and my first passion are my kids. And I still think that there’s work to be done there. And I think that I need to be the one to do it. I used to say when I taught middle school, we’d have conversations about all of our students wanted to be athletes or entertainers. The school was about 90% Black. And I remember having the conversation that the problem isn’t that they don’t want to be other things. The problem is that they don’t know what else to, be when you know that you want to live in a particular lifestyle, you want to live in a particular place, you want to able to take care of your parents, you want to have nice things. And you look at what presented to you as your options. People who look like you who have those things, what do they do? So it’s not that they don’t want to be an anesthesiologist, the doctors they’d seen were White. How do you wake up one day and say, I think I want to be the like, how do you learn that those things exist, you have to be exposed to them at some point. When you say you can be anything you want to be, it’s hard to believe that if you never see anyone who looks like you, so I want them to have those visuals to think back on and to remember, I saw someone who looked like me in this position.
I think it really means a lot to me to know that might even my own parents think that I should be able to have role models and people in my life that I can look up to and hopefully be like one day.
But our parents, our people are role models that you can look up to and be life one day, and isn’t a parent’s job to help that their kids have role models that they can see as themselves in the future.
But still, you need to have someone while you’re young, you shouldn’t really have to wait for you to be that 16-17 years old. And then you get that, oh, look, I have my first black teacher as go, or whatever. But still, you need to get that role model while you’re young. So show y’all have time to like reflect back on that person. And hopefully have a few more Black teachers that can help add on to that influence.
Okay. But whatever why that role model that you think is your role model isn’t who they turn out to be in the end, then what you do, cause you have always looked up to them, but the when you’re at the end, you don’t feel like that person you can look up to anymore.
But then you also get that, okay, so this is what I shouldn’t do when I grow up. So it’s a good thing to get that influence while you’re young show, you’ll know who you can like trust, how you be like them, and all that.
Okay, but how do you know that if you have like the same amount of height and the same amount of weight? How do you know how to balance them with who you should and who you shouldn’t be?
I think you brought up something I’m going to interject here. I think Alia you brought it up and right there, it’s perfectly safe. You have both how do you balance it? Think about how many White teachers you’ve had, think what how many Black teachers you’ve had, no one’s saying one versus the other. It said, if I want you to have a bunch of both. I totally just put my finger up to her and said we are moving forward. And she gave me the look of death.
I don’t know what the death look is. I want to be a doctor, I want to be a baker, I want to be a […], I want to be a volleyball player. I also want to play for WNBA. I also want a cookie factory with my tea factory at a cup cake factory.
For me, it’s pretty simple. I want to be a mathematician, or an NFL slash NBA player.
Lots of conversations in our house that those things can all go together. And there’s no reason why you can’t do one and have lots of hobbies.
Now, one of the role monitored for me being a mathematician is Katherine Johnson, not only being the first Black person, but the first Black woman to be a mathematician at NASA. So that someone that I can really like look, look up to if I want to take that mathematician.
I’m curious, Cay, do you know any other mathematicians? Like, could you name any others?
So at least the one that I know is a Black woman so…
So I think that goes back though, to the credit of exposure and you know, making sure that they have a plethora of people to look at and things to read because those books are going to expose them to far more things than I can expose them to.
It’s kind of surreal. My kids are 10 and 8, so you don’t hear a lot of 10-year old’s say they want to be a mathematician. You don’t hear a lot of eight-year old’s who say they want to be a doctor and she’s playing coy. She has a suture kit at home. That is like a silicone skin and actual sutures that she practices her suturing on. And we play games of let me act like your leg is broken. I’m going to pretend to perform surgery which includes her wiping down fake iodine on my body before she cuts me open with a wooden skewer. So it’s crazy. It’s a little crazy because it makes you feel like you’re doing your job. You’ve done your job right when your kid is striving to be something you would have never thought to be.
Aimée Eubanks Davis 36:00
Morgan is an awesome mom who’s painting a full picture of what it means to be black for her kids. And we need more Morgan’s in our classrooms. Next week on after 1954 we address our country’s teacher shortages. Why can’t our schools retain black educators? What’s next in the decades long fight to make education equitable for all? See you then.
AFTER 1954 is a production of Lemonada Media. This podcast is brought to you with generous support from the Walton Family Foundation. I’m your host Aimée Eubanks Davis. This episode was produced by Priscilla Àlàbí And Kristen Lepore. Priscilla Àlàbí is our producer Kristen Lepore is our supervising producer. Story editing by Jackie Danziger story consulting by Sonya Ramsay sound design and mixing by Andrea Kristinsdóttir music by Hansdale Hsu. Additional music by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Additional engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Special thanks to Liz Thompson, Meredith Moore, Acasia Wilson Feinberg and Maya Thompson. help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. To learn more about the 1954 project and its mission to fund Black leaders in education visit 1954project.org. You can also get more bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium. You can subscribe right now in the Apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo, and then the subscribe button. To find resources about the topics in this show. Go to the show notes on this episode. Thanks so much for listening.