“I KNOW THAT IF I SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE I HAVE AS A BLACK MALE HE WILL UNDERSTAND ME.”
Wesley was a senior in high school before he finally took a class with a Black male teacher who came from a similar background as him.
“I would imagine there are a lot of students who will graduate without ever having a Black male teacher,” said Wesley, 16, a senior in Amityville.
Wesley is right, and exposure to Latino teachers is even more limited. Across New York, a third of schools do not have any Latino or Black teachers, meaning that close to 42,000 Black students and over 74,000 Latino students are enrolled in a school with no teachers of the same race or ethnicity.
And for white students — who also benefit from a more diverse teaching force — the chance of exposure is even less, with 560,115 white students — nearly half — attending schools with no Latino or Black teachers.
That’s something Wesley feels needs to be changed.
Wesley met the teacher prior to having him for class and the two formed an immediate connection because of their common background as Haitian Americans.
“I never felt that experience, that connection with a teacher until that moment,” Wesley said.
It was a different feeling than with other teachers, who Wesley said don’t always relate well to students of color. He felt comfortable with his Haitian teacher. They shared common interests, including music by J. Cole, a rapper popular with students.
That connection ultimately helped Wesley feel more engaged in the teacher’s classroom, and at ease expressing himself. He feels motivated — and challenged — to put in extra effort.
During a seemingly mundane classroom activity, for example, the teacher asked students to decorate a folder with images that reflected their passions and represented their identity. Typically, Wesley said, he would be inclined to leave the cover blank. But this time he covered it with images, quotes, and other things that inspire him, including a Haitian flag.
“I really expressed myself through that project,” he said. “I started drawing. It went from being blank and me not wanting to do it to me putting all of my effort in it. I filled it.”
Wesley believes his experience demonstrates why it’s so important for schools to work toward more diversity in the profession. Black teachers, he believes, are better equipped to help Black students with their problems because they see them through their own experience. And, he added, they often tend to be more empathetic, seeking to understand students, rather than disciplining them.
Because of his own experience, Wesley is pushing his own local school board to do a better job recruiting and retaining teachers of color.
“You have that teacher you can relate to,” he said. “One of these people who look like me. A young Black male like me. I know that if I say something about the experience I have as a Black male he will understand me.”