To kick off Black History Month this year I’d like to share some insights on two Black male educators. Both have played a pivotal role in the trajectory of my journey to become a member of the next generation of Black male educators. Richard Bacon and James Johnson.
The research is clear, Black male educators can make a significant impact on the academic and social-emotional outcomes of students. In fact, studies have found that black male students who have a Black male teacher are more likely to graduate high school and less likely to be suspended or incarcerated (Fryer & Levitt, 2004). Additionally, Black male students who have Black male teachers are more likely to feel seen and heard in the classroom and to feel like their experiences and perspectives are valued (Gorski & Taylor, 2011).
As someone who has dedicated my life to public education, I have always known that education is one of the most powerful tools we have to create a more just and equitable society. I have seen firsthand the importance of having positive role models and mentors who look like us in our lives and in our communities.
Unfortunately, despite the clear benefits, Black male students are far less likely to have Black male teachers than their peers. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 2% of teachers in public schools are Black men, despite the fact that they make up around 7% of the population (NCES, 2018). This is not accidental, it’s systemic.
I know there will be some who will read this and say “Wait a minute. What are you talking about? You made it, didn’t you? You even moved up the ladder to be principal at 3 different schools.”
To that I’d say:
- Think about what you just thought. Because I “made it” doesn’t negate the fact that Black male educators still only make up roughly 2% of the teacher population.
- A systemic issue does not magically disappear because an individual may have achieved a certain level of success. The individual likely only did so by navigating the system with the help of those 2% who found their way in.
- Read part of my journey outlined below to catch a glimpse as to how this systemic underrepresentation manifests itself and who, in my story, helped me break into that 2%
Becoming Coach Whit
In the summer of 2005 I set out on my search for a place to begin what I considered to be my dream job at the time – a high school teacher and basketball coach. When I tell you I applied all over the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex (TX) trying to find a job I mean ALL OVER THE DFW.
The few opportunities I got to interview in districts in Northeast Tarrant County were unsuccessful. On one particular occasion I interviewed for a position as a middle school teacher/coach at a school just miles from where my wife and I had settled down in a little apartment in North Richland Hills. As I arrived at the school, the principal, an older White gentleman, greeted me and walked me over to his office. Things seemed to be going pretty good throughout the interview. It was very much conversational.
However, things would turn quickly. As we neared the end of our conversation the principal sat up in his chair and rested his arms on the table. Then he struck a very serious tone. He began, “Now James, I just want you to be aware of something. You’ve probably seen the demographics of this school – it’s predominantly White, right? I just want to let you know that, should you be the selected candidate, it’s ok…the guy you’d be replacing was a colored fella, as well. And he didn’t have any problems.”
I sat in my chair, absolutely astonished. I thought:
In the Year of Our Lord, 2005, did this man just call me a “colored fella”?
Am I being punked right now?
What on earth is going on?
There is no way in the world this man is hiring me – and I honestly don’t know if I want to work for him.
And then he quickly switched gears to talk about the process moving forward. I asked a few questions at the end of the interview, then left. I never heard back from this principal. As was the case in the few other interviews I had in the area, which so happened to be with White principals.
The most common theme of the denial responses was ”not the right fit”. One of those principals who gave me that as his rationale back in 2005 is now the superintendent of a school district in NE Tarrant County who’s district has a whole NBC podcast dedicated to them, highlighting their mishandling of reports of discrimination. I only wish I had the courage to ask for a bit of clarification about that “fit” back then. But, as fate would have it, Black men would be the people who took the first chance on me stepping into the career I’d always dreamed about.
With my brand new teaching credentials in hand, I found myself as a pest control technician for a local company. My search for a teaching/coaching position continued. My little brother was going to be moving in with us to begin his sophomore year of high school and I thought back to what my father always used to tell me – “take what you get til’ you get what you want.” I definitely didn’t want to be spraying for bugs and, in no way am I discounting that work that people do – it just wasn’t what I’d busted my tail through college to do. I wanted to be a Social Studies teacher and basketball coach.
As luck would have it, I reconnected with one of my high school basketball coaches, James Johnson in the summer of 2005. Coach Johnson was one of the few Black men I ever had the chance to encounter throughout my entire k-12 school experience (there were a total of 4). Not only was he my coach, pushing me towards greatness on the court, he set an example as a father and husband. He held me accountable in the classroom and instilled confidence in my ability to lead. What Coach Johnson did for me and so many of my classmates furthered the passion that lied within me to pursue education as a career. I wanted to do for kids what he and so many had done for me.
When we reconnected he was the Head Boys Basketball Coach in Rockdale, TX and was in need of an assistant coach. With prospects drying out here in North Texas I went down to visit Coach and interview with the Athletic Director. Rockdale is a sleepy town of roughly 5,000 people, a little bigger than the small towns in Central Texas that both my mother and father’s sides of the family were from.
I remember driving around town before the interview, which took me all of about 15 minutes. As I drove I reflected on what this would mean if I accepted a role in Rockdale:
My wife, Kerrie’s, business was just beginning to boom as she’d finished school and she’d be unable to relocate.
I’d be leaving my wife, kids, and brother in North Texas as I started my career and I’d commute back and forth when I could.
I’d be coaching everything under the sun at this small school, so being able to get back home with any regularity would be extremely difficult.
All that said, I would be making a significantly larger amount of money than I would spraying for bugs.
With Kerrie, the kids, and my brother on board, we were going to make that sacrifice, should the opportunity come.
I met Coach Johnson in the gym at Rockdale High School for a tour of the campus. Reuniting with him in such a way was so surreal – a true full circle moment. He was as I remembered – calm, collected, assuring, and full of faith in me. I was his guy.
We went to visit with the AD and, in a matter of about an hour, it was a done deal. I’d been offered the role as a teacher/coach at Rockdale High School. I drove back that afternoon, conflicted over the decision. I knew my family was supportive, but the thought of being away from them for extended periods of time made me sick to my stomach. Literally, I stopped along the access road of I-35 on several occasions to release my anxieties.
Nonetheless, it didn’t do unnoticed that the first person to put their neck out for me was a Black man. I reflected on all my experiences up to that point in my search, all the “colored fellas” and “not the right fit”. Eventually, I came to rest in the fact that it is what it is. I decided to be grateful for the opportunity that was presented rather than sitting in the bitterness of those denials. I went back to spraying for bugs and prepared for the day that would soon come – my journey to Rockdale, TX.
In the spring of 2005 it was decided that my little brother, Michael, would come to live with us. My Grandmother had done an amazing job filling in the gaps for us when our mother passed in January of 1997. She’d been through so much since she retired in the late 80’s, losing my grandfather and her baby girl. While Mike was an A-Honor Roll student and amazing young man, it was just time. Additionally, Mike wanted to play basketball/baseball in a larger city and North Richland Hills was much larger than Itasca.
The school he would attend was Richland High. As I began my research, I saw that the Head Coach was Richard Bacon. He was a legend in Texas High School Basketball, having won two state championships with perennial powerhouse, Dallas Lincoln. I wanted to meet this guy I’d heard so much about in basketball circles. Additionally, I wanted to know the man who would coach my baby brother, so I reached out and connected.
His response was swift and I took a day off to go and meet him at Richland High School. As I pulled up, Coach Bacon stood outside the gym waving me over. I walked up and was immediately embraced in what most know of as the “bro hug”, then we walked upstairs to his office. We sat and talked for what seemed like hours about basketball, life, and the area, which I was relatively new to at the time.
As our time was drawing to a close he asked me “so what is it that you do?”
I responded “well, I want to do what you do – make a positive impact in the lives of young men.”
I went on to share my struggles to find a role in the area and the opportunity I’d been offered. He listened intently and validated what I’d been feeling throughout the journey. He encouraged me to keep my head up, continue looking, and let me know he’d keep an eye out for opportunities in his network and let me know if anything came up. After another “bro hug” I left Richland High School feeling a bit more at ease about my circumstances.
Having the opportunity to speak to someone who understood what I was up against – someone who wasn’t dismissive of what I was feeling – left me feeling hopeful about however my story would unfold. If nothing else, I’d met a wonderful mentor in Coach Bacon.
I put my head down and continued my role as a pest control technician. If you know, you know. It isn’t the most fun job, but I was doing what I had to do to help pay the bills. But there are always those days in any role where you just feel done. Whether it be the work, itself, or the people you’ve interacted with throughout the day – you’re just DONE.
This was one of those days. It was mid-July. It was hot. And I was done. After a long day, I pulled my company truck into our spot at our apartment complex. I shifted into park, and just sat there, staring straight out the windshield. Before my mind could begin to drift, my cell phone started ringing.
I grabbed it and looked at the number. I could tell the number had to be from a school district. Those of you who have been in this school job hunt situation know what I’m talking about. Those numbers just scream “ANSWER ME”. I didn’t know who it was but I was definitely about to take this call.
I answered, “Hello, this is James.”
The voice on the other end of the line said, “Yes, is this Coach Whitfield?”
Pleased to hear the “Coach” in front of my last name I responded “yes, this is he.”
The caller went on “Well, Coach Whitfield, this is Coach Bacon at Richland High School. I just had an assistant coach accept a head coaching role at another school and have an opening. Didn’t you say your certification is Social Studies Composite?”
Trying my best to hold back my excitement I responded, “Yes sir, Social Studies Composite.”
Coach Bacon then said, “Good, that’s what I thought. I have a role for you at Richland High School if you’re still looking.”
After all the hell I’d been through I was having a hard time believing what I was hearing.
I replied, “Yes sir! I’m definitely interested. When do you need me to come in for an interview?”
The next words he uttered I’ve carried in my heart since, “Coach, you interviewed the day I met you.” A great reminder that first impressions are so very critical.
And, just like that, the whole trajectory of my life changed. I called Coach Johnson and let him know how my circumstances had changed. Those in hiring positions know how much this call can rain on your parade. But Coach Johnson was who I’d come to know him to be – that guy that always spoke life into me. He congratulated me and expressed how happy he was for what this would mean for my family.
I let him know just how much I appreciated him taking a chance on me. We vowed to remain connected as our journeys continued to unfold.
Over the next seven years I was able to do that which I’d sought out to do, teach and coach. As it turned out, after our first year in 05-06, we’d go on to win numerous district championships, play in prestigious tournaments, and make it to the state playoffs year after year. I was able to teach so many wonderful young people and work with amazing colleagues throughout the course of my time at Richland High School. None of which would’ve happened without Richard Bacon, a Black man, taking a chance on another Black man and speaking life and power into him.
I’m a better educator, man, and leader because of these two phenomenal Black men! They represented possibilities for me in a world that had largely dismissed me as “not the right fit”. They saw me, heard me, empowered me, and encouraged me. Ultimately, their mere presence, at various points in my life, helped push me defy the statistics.
All students deserve a Coach Bacon and Coach Johnson, yet they make up less than 2% of the teaching population. Along my journey I’m consistently see the systemic barriers along the way that deny students access to such educators. We must address this disparity to ensure all students have access to diverse and talented educators to help them reach their full potential. This requires investments in teacher training and support, as well as intentional outreach and recruitment efforts to attract and retain Black male teachers.
To all the Richard Bacons and James Johnsons out there – I hope you know your value and worth. We love and appreciate you. I hope you know we see you for the great impact you make in the lives of our youth. We hear you. We see you. Thanks for giving me a chance to give as you have. I carry your strength, resilience, and love with me as I try to make a difference for kids.
Buddy Luce says
Love this. Making a difference for kids is what it is about.
James, I love this story! Thank you for sharing. I know it gives hope to future educators and students alike to never give up on your passions and dreams. And that there are people in our lives that care and desire to see out youth this pivotal young generation succeed and flourish in this chaotic and unsure time. Bless you sir!
Wonderful testimony Coach James! I’m a brother of Coach Johnson, and I know him just as the man you’ve described. He’s been that way since childhood, always caring and sharing with others! I thank God that he was able to see you, and to pour into you for “Iron sharpens Iron”. Stay up Coach, and keep the faith.🙏🏾
Thank you so much!
Franklin Middleton says
Truthfully stated Amazing
Ashlea Campbell says
This was a really good read that really highlighted the hardships of being a Black male and even just getting into education. My dissertation focused on the curricular decision-making and instructional practices of Black male elementary teachers and I see a lot of overlap between your experiences and that of my participants. People had stereotypical, often racist, expectations of them.
Thank you! It definitely was a journey – and a journey that I know so many out there face. I’d love to read your piece sometime. Wishing you and yours all the best!