“Determine who you are and then walk in it daily,” was the final charge nationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Principal Baruti Kafele encouraged the conference participants to take with them as we departed from the conclusion of the BER Conference of 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida at the Lexington Hotel Winward conference room. Principal Kafele’s passionate oratory presentation included a plea for participants to support the organization Black Educators Rock, Inc. by becoming a part of the organization’s membership. He cited his own personal commitment to many organizations and their membership fees ranging from $50-$500 as he reminded us of how significantly low the cost for membership is to support Black Educators Rock, Inc.($50). His message speaks to our challenge as black educators to support BER, Inc. to ensure its longevity and success in providing opportunities for black educators to benefit from the experience of what occurred during the four day conference in Jacksonville. He concluded with a remarkable story of experiencing a heart attack while presenting at the University of Miami to remind us as educators how important it is we take care of ourselves in our efforts to care for those we love and serve.
Self-care was but one of the consistent themes I heard during the time I participated in the weekend’s activities at the conference in Jacksonville. The energy, the atmosphere, cultural relevance, like-minded spirit of everyone in attendance and the rich, dynamic presentations made the daily encounter feel like an oasis. When I give consideration to those I encountered who are in school districts where they are one of few or the only African-American educator on their staff it further reinforced my view of this experience much like an oasis in the desert. It was an environment where you were immersed in the broad spectrum of your culture’s relevance and recentered with a sense of pride in being black and in being a black educator where you felt accepted, validated, respected, valued, and celebrated for just being who you are.
“The experience was refreshing. Since exiting the classroom and being able to now educate the educated educators it was refreshing to be amongst professional colleagues investing a portion of their summer to upload information in preparation of returning to their schools to download to their students.” – Marionne Antoinette, Financial Literacy Account Executive / 2018 BER Conference Sponsor
An educator and entrepreneur on the rise from Georgia, Dr. Marquita Blades, shared, “BER is the only professional development platform so many dedicated and talented black educators are in one place at one time.”
Presenters, keynotes, authors, and vendors provided an assortment of rich content on topics ranging from spiritual inspiration, financial literacy, home buying literacy, classroom management techniques, mental health, wellness, fitness, tips on enhancing professional practice, and much more. Dr. Blades highlighted her appreciation of being able to meet, greet face to face, and connect with so many dynamic and diverse professionals as educators, authors, speakers and entrepreneurs. So our conversation eluded to how one could benefit not only professionally as educators from networking with the great assortment of individuals who were in attendance but also personally as an entrepreneur, edupreneur, authorpreneur; you name it, there was opportunity for all who made the migration to be present at this amazing event. She also alluded to the significance black educators could have teaching in classrooms of predominantly caucasian students to help change the narrative breaking down prejudicial and racial stereotypes. How can we, as a people, rally as a community of professional colleagues to devote time, energy, and resource ensuring school communities that would be open to getting the professional support to enhance professional practice for instructing African-American males can get the service and support needed?
My conversation and interview with Dr. Blades preceded the day’s workshop facilitated by Dr. Marcus Jackson: 10 Daily Essentials for Principals and Teachers. I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Jackson the day before his presentation. Not knowing who he was prior to asking his permission for the interview and then hearing him present the next day; it was as Dr. Blades stated how the conference allows opportunity to meet, greet and network with many diverse people of color sincerely seeking to be encouraged and empowered. There is a lot to admire and respect about the person Dr. Marcus Jackson in meeting him and getting to know him briefly. Professionally, his bio speaks for itself: Region 3 Zone Director of Curriculum Instruction of the Calcasieu Parish in Lake Charles, Louisiana assigned with the mission and responsibility of turning around low performing schools. It was his work, faith, dedication to his craft, and success as an elementary, middle, and high school Principal in Atlanta, Georgia that elevated him to where he stands today. He cited his efforts to use the power of social media and Twitter to post the success of his students which created the opportunities and exposure that opened doors to where he is now. His passion and mission to #changethenarrative of the capability of African-American males to excel and succeed in education fuels him.
Dr. Jackson’s mere presence and success in the field of education also changes the narrative of what young African-American males can achieve through education and their impact as successful positive role models to youth and adults in the field as well. His success should arouse and inspire black male educators to consider the full potential of our ability to impact, influence, and instill in our young black males all the possibilities of what can be to help them rise and shine. Making a connection to culture and having intellectual humility as educators to understand the importance of learning from our students as part of our professional practice and success were mentioned in our interview. During his presentation he posted a quote that stated, “Our choices affect their chances,” which reinforced the importance of valuing our role and responsibility as educators in serving the students in our classrooms. What stood out the most to me during his presentation was hearing him acknowledge and display by his actions how he supported his staff that motivated their initiative in supporting his mission and success in school turnaround within his district. A staff that feels supported will always go above and beyond what they are ‘required’ to do and supports a statement by former head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers Chuck Noll when he said, “People think motivation comes from the mouth. Motivation comes from helping someone get the job done.”
Prior to my travel to Jacksonville, Florida for the 4-day conference I had listened to a podcast on LinkedIn hosted by Rian Reed on the subject of the recruitment and retention of African-American male educators. Enlightened by what was discussed I arrived at the BER Conference with the intent to hear directly from my professional colleagues on this subject. Interviews with Mr. Kenneth Francis and Mr. Todd Parker allowed me to gain a broader perspective of the subject and challenges associated with this topic. Mr. Francis and I met on the first day of the conference during the luncheon that included table guests the likes of Marionne Antoinette mentioned earlier in this article, and renowned speaker, author, and educator Dr. Chike Akua, who I did not know the stature of who he was until I saw him present at Friday’s luncheon at the Lexington Hotel. Everyone at the table exchanged dialogue, business cards, and respect of each other as individuals. It was after the luncheon Mr. Francis joined me on the deck of the DoubleTree Hotel where we had our interview.
Mr. Francis is the Internship Coordinator at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida whose mission it is to target African-American males interested in becoming elementary school educators. My first interviewee was responsible for the recruitment and retention of African-American males so my steps were ordered to aid me in achieving my desire to engage in purposeful dialogue about the subject and learn from others! Talking with Kenneth I learned less than 1% of the 160 elementary schools in Duval County and three other surrounding counties (Clay, St. John’s, and Bradford) have African-American male educators on staff.
“I am excited about the conference bringing back a sense of urgency in a tangible way apart from school and district goals on the subject of academic success and classroom instruction for the African-American male student,” Mr. Francis stated.
He cited his belief that integration removed the example of a successful male role model as an educator and upstanding member of the community as part of the impact to hindering success in the classroom for today’s children of color. When he served as a former principal, who was appointed as the first principal in Clay County since integration, he successfully led his school community to an A-rating 8 years in a row. Mr. Francis also owns and operates his own mentoring program called Call Me Mister providing mentoring and instruction for students in becoming effective role models. Kenneth mentions, as a former principal, the biggest challenge in working with educators is their inability to consistently give praise to students for positive things they do in relation to the amount of negative criticism received for the negative things they do.
I interviewed Mr. Todd Parker the day after I sat in his workshop that preceded mine. His workshop was titled What’s In Your D.N.A.? My take away from his energetic and enthusiastic facilitation of the workshop was reinforcing the need for educators to be authentic, genuine, and intentional about establishing rapport with their students: in particular our male students of color that breaks the narrative of the ‘bad boy stigma.’ Todd has served as an educator, assistant principal, and principal in the urban communities of Chicago and currently serves as a Dean of Students in an Alternative Learning Environment. He also owns and co-operates an LLC, Parker Education and Development with a vision and mission of preparing adults to be their best for all young people. During the interview the reference to what we do as educators in relation to the #humanbusiness of working with youth was expressed multiple times. Remaining cognizant of the importance in understanding that all children are human beings first was the focal point of the entire conversation. Todd believes it is important for educators who are African-American males to carry the mantle of supporting the recruitment and retention of future generations of men of color to the field of education. He stresses this with the contingency we find a way to #makeitsexy or appealing in a way that is relevant to the population we are seeking to target as we would make our classroom lessons culturally relevant to our students of color. When asked about what is needed most for our male students of color when working with them Todd offered this point; Wisdom from the educator that includes being knowledgeable, understanding, and displaying experience in being culturally relevant to connect with male students of color that included being patient and communicating in a way that captured their attention. What is appealing about being an educator and how can we change the narrative about educators not making enough money if we want to attract males to the field of education?
Todd concluded, “I feel that the BER conference is addressing needs at a good time. It is at the grass roots stage of growing with an upside for potential future growth.”
Returning to where I started this article, the final day of the conference allowed me to hear from the CEO of Black Educators Rock, Inc., Dr. Melissa Chester, who I had the privilege of meeting in person at the event. I felt her energy and saw in her interactions with me and others someone who is inspired and sincere in wanting to be a source of encouragement and empowerment for others. As a nonprofit executive I could relate to her sense of mission and found myself being motivated by seeing where all of this has derived from. I see her as a visionary and I was amazed at the breath to which her networking skills and passion has been able to bring this organization in a short period of time which she is to be commended for. Dr. Chester spoke briefly about the direction and goals of where she aspires BER to go with plans for expansion in creating a professional development institute. Her goal is to expand the reach of service and support to educators of color from the many diverse and exceptional professional speakers and professional colleagues in the field of education connected to her network. As a real estate agent herself she is working to ensure BER, Inc. can connect members to agents across the nation through their website www.blackeducatorsrockinc.com in their efforts to find their new home. Dr. Chester acknowledged the many volunteers who are responsible for aiding her in successfully planning and organizing the event. Educators who connect with her from distances across the nation including Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, New York, California, Arkansas that have local or state Facebook chapters to keep educators connected to Black Educators Rock.
Only time will tell if people of color and black educators will elevate above the narrative of not supporting their own to create a firm foundation from which this organization can rise and thrive and become a bright light, like a star in the universe, by which we can all benefit from. Considering this began with an idea one male student of color Dr. Chester taught, who shared the idea of making it a Facebook page, imagine what will happen as we nurture this mustard seed grass roots concept from where it is now. It will be through our prayers, financial support as members, and continued presence at various events on the local, state, and national level that will help to cultivate its growth. Here’s something we have in front us we can own and take pride in knowing it is wrought by us, for us, and can be a legacy for generations to come of what people can achieve, as those who lived before us gave to ensure we could live, thrive and triumph, that can inspire generations to come. Will you be remembered as one who gave to support this movement as so many gave of themselves to further civil rights?
Cortland Jones is an educator in Prince George’s County Public Schools entering his 26th year of service. He was distinguished by the city of Greenbelt in 2015 with the ACE Educators Award for his service to the middle school he teaches at and the community of Greenbelt implementing the Greenbelt Middle School Art, Literature, Leadership initiative. His program promoted principles that taught students to be positive contributors to self, home, school, and community through creative self-expression, service, and literacy. Cortland is an author, entrepreneur, and speaker www.cortlandjones.com.