.Speaking Their Teacher Truth: Oakland organizations collaborate to support Black teachers

“Every child deserves a Black teacher.”

When Micia Mosely founded the Oakland-based Black Teacher Project in 2015, she was already an experienced educator and an expert on leadership, cultural competence, data-based inquiry and school design, with a doctorate in education from UC Berkeley.

She created BTP’s motto, above, with both belief and data showing that Black teachers have higher expectations for Black students, who thereby perform better, and that non-Black students benefit from Black teachers by having role models across racial differences. BTP would work with teachers, listen to their stories and create programs and models that enhanced their classroom experiences and improved retention.

“We are pushing for Black teachers to bring their full, authentic selves to class,” Mosely said. “It isn’t enough to say, ‘There aren’t enough Black teachers.’” Current statistics show that about 25% of Oakland Unified School District teachers are Black, according to Mosely.

Executive Director Precious J. Stroud founded the Black Female Project at almost the same time as the BTP. The BFP’s vision was based on examining “examples of how structural racism and sexism play out in the workplace.” 

An associate with Leadership for Liberation took Mosely to a BFP event, and she realized how aligned the missions of the two organizations were. They began to collaborate. One of the first fruits of this partnership is the “Teacher Truth” project.

“We embraced the opportunity to go really deep into one industry, and we received a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for the project,” Stroud said. Both organizations began soliciting teacher stories. “We already had a rich network of educators,” she said.

And teachers, both Mosely and Stroud pointed out, were eager to tell their stories. In fact, what was envisioned as a Bay Area-based project quickly morphed into a national one.

Responses were then winnowed down, according to lead researcher Britte Cheng, Ph.D. The survey asked respondents to answer questions about whether they had experienced racism and/or sexism as teachers within the past two years. “Every [racism] category was in the 80th percentile,” said Cheng. These experiences might be with administrators, colleagues or parents. Teachers also reported that 63% had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The atmosphere created by these experiences leads to “isolation, self-blame and a myriad of physical and mental conditions,” Stroud said. Not surprisingly, Cheng said, other studies show that 59% of Black educators have considered leaving the profession.

On Sept. 1, the two organizations screened a video created for the project, Teacher Truth Perspectives, in which Black teachers—both male and female—shared parts of their stories. Some of the quotes: 

“I wanted to be the teacher I never had.”

“I didn’t feel I could be my true self.”

“I want my Black students to take up their space.”

Abdul-Haqq Khalifah, longtime OUSD teacher and now a lead mentor in the district, was one of the educators featured in the video. He became involved in the Teacher Truth Project because he wanted to “hear stories beyond the people I talk to on a daily basis,” he said in a subsequent interview. “I don’t know if everyone hears these conversations—they happen in silos,” he said.

Teaching, particularly teaching as a Black teacher, “challenges who you are,” he said. As a mentor, he helps teachers with classroom management, asking them questions such as “What do you tell a student who is still behind?” and “Why do you think that student would want to come to school?”

His role, he said, is helping define what a teacher might do differently, noting that, “even if a student is misbehaving, they are still communicating.”

Khalifah has witnessed firsthand the effects of burnout. Two teachers he was mentoring quit in the middle of the last pre-pandemic, in-classroom school year. “We need to make sure teachers know they are not alone,” he said.

All those interviewed voiced concerns about the current state of public education, both local and national.

Citing the furor over teaching critical race theory, Cheng said, “I am concerned at the way education is being viewed.” Mosely pointed to a lack of support for Black teachers from administrators, some of whom “play the face of diversity,” but actually try to force Black teachers out.

But they expressed hope as well.

Evidence shows, Cheng said, that Black elementary school students who have a Black teacher will stay in school. The Black Teacher Project plans to get the data collected to OUSD administrators, “as well as getting them information about what to do with it,” Mosely said. The ongoing Black Female Project’s programs “Ignite Your Imagination,” “Your Winning Story,” “Eight Weeks of Self-Discovery” and others can help “reimagine what Black women leaders look like,” Stroud said.

The BTP and Liberated Genius have presented a new report: “A Space to Be Whole: A Landscape Analysis of Education-Based Racial Affinity Groups in the U.S.,” a national-landscape analysis of racial affinity groups focused on supporting educators of color.

And there are things allies and parents can do to support Black teachers and contribute to a shift in the narrative, those interviewed said.

“Pay attention, be involved and ask for the kind of support Black educators need,” Cheng said. 

Khalifah would like to see OUSD, as well as other East Bay school districts, partner with the Black Teacher Project, particularly in an effort to recruit Black male elementary school teachers.

And Mosely emphasized talking to young people: Do they have Black teachers? Where is Black leadership showing up? “Talk to them about choosing the teaching profession,” she said. “Help us rebrand the profession at this historical moment.”

For more information about the Black Teacher Project, visit blackteacherproject.org.
For more information about the Black Female Project, visit blackfemaleproject.org.
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