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Why black teachers matter: Debate puts education where it should be — front and center


After watching the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night, I found myself thinking about Miss Sadler, my second grade teacher, and wishing I could remember her first name so I could give her a proper tribute.

She came to mind after U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris quoted a study that said black students were more likely to go to college if they had a black teacher growing up.

“Black students who’d had just one black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college,” Harris said. “And those who’d had two were 32% more likely.”

That’s not to say that Miss Sadler was any better than the white teachers I had at P.S. 20 in Brooklyn. In fact, it was Miss Greenspan, my third grade teacher, who encouraged me to become a writer by helping me get a poem published in Ebony Jr., a black children’s magazine.

And it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Karp, who took me and class to see my first Broadway show, “Hello Dolly, at the Minskoff Theater, where the star, Pearl Bailey, talked to us in the lobby after the matinee.

Then Mr. Karp took a train and a bus with me and some of the other kids to make sure we got home okay, because that’s what teachers do.

But Miss Sadler had a special impact on me without me even knowing it because her mere presence meant I could be anything I wanted to be.

And yes, I did go to college — NYU — and I became a writer, like Miss Greenspan said I could, and I’ve seen many shows and plays on Broadway since learning the words in class to every song from the “Hello Dolly” soundtrack.

But, to be honest, my first black teacher wasn’t Miss Sadler. It was my mother. She never taught my brother and me in the classroom, but she did teach kids in public schools for 30 years in Brooklyn. And she somehow managed to send both her boys to college on that meager teachers salary.

Had she lived long enough to see our first black president or the two black candidates on stage trying to follow in his footsteps, she would have agreed with the study Harris quoted.

She would have also been impressed with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s pledge to appoint an education secretary with public school teaching experience.

“A person who understands how low pay, tattered textbooks, and crumbling classrooms hurt students and educators,” Warren said. “A person who understands the crushing burden of student debt on students and young professionals and who is committed to actually doing something about it.”

Then my mother would have groused about rowdy kids, and uninvolved parents and the endless need for prep time.

Because that’s what teachers do.