Human Interest

To Be Young, Gifted & Black: 5 Black Educators On The Power Of Representation In The Classroom

Matthew Cherry scoring an Oscar for his animated short film Hair Love, Beyoncé delivering a historic ode to HBCUs at Coachella, and Black Panther obliterating the box office as the top-grossing superhero film of all time aren't just mere moments in pop culture. They are potent reminders that representation matters.

This truth stretches far beyond entertainment. Though America's schools are more diverse than ever, the average teacher remains white and female with Black educators only representing seven percent of the teaching force. Black men, in particular, make up a mere two percent.

To no surprise, however, research testifies that Black teachers improve outcomes for Black students (and more). Indeed, the presence of just one Black educator has the power to curb high school dropout rates and deepen the desire to enroll in college, all while granting scholars tangible evidence of educational attainment.

To celebrate diversity in representation, xoNecole salutes the everyday heroes making an impact, both vital and undeniable, in the field of education. Here, we connect with five Black educators tearing through underrepresentation to ignite change in the lives of their students--our future.

Jasmine Merlette, ​3rd Grade Teacher

Courtesy of Jasmine Merlette

Birmingham, AL

Jasmine Merlette's first year as a teacher defied the norm for educators taking their first steps in the classroom. The Georgia native, whose love for children oozes through the phone, was no stranger to sharing everyday moments with her students on social media. When she posted their remix to Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" on her then-private Instagram page, she never imagined it would go viral, much less land her national attention on Ellen.

"As soon as I posted it, my phone blew up. I had no idea it would have that effect, but it is probably the most humbling thing I've ever been a part of, especially the fact that it was with my kids," Jasmine tells xoNecole. "For me to have an experience like that in my first year--that doesn't happen. When I think about it, I literally get emotional and praise God because that was all Him. His hand was all over that."

If there is one thing Jasmine, an alumna of Xavier University of Louisiana, does want to promote now that she has drawn the attention of thousands, it's representation.

"I don't think people realize how impactful it is to have someone who you're able to look at every day that you share commonalities with, how much that changes the classroom experience and what that does for children," she says.

Seeing her take up space as a Black woman in education hasn't only left an impression on students and parents far and wide, but has also planted a seed in the next wave of educators to come. With humility, Jasmine notes that she has received messages from college students who have decided to major in education due to her example. "It's crazy!" she exclaims. "I can't wrap my head around it."

Capping off a year for the books, Birmingham City Schools honored Jasmine with the Creativity and Innovation Award at their Teacher of the Year Gala in May 2019. It's an accomplishment she didn't dream of so early in her career but is unsurprising when tracing her deep commitment to her students. "I'm a relationship person. If we're about to spend the next 180 days together, we need to know each other," she says of her approach in the classroom. "I'm not just invested in your education. I'm invested in you, the child."

In her second year, Jasmine continues to lead from a place of love, noting that her students' growth and belief in themselves is what she is after most. "When they see me, I want them to know I have their back," she expresses. "I want them to see me and be able to see themselves to the point that they see their visions, their goals, and what they aspire to be."

Sammy Rigaud, 2nd Grade Reading Teacher

Instagram / @sammyrigaud

Atlanta, GA

When Sammy Rigaud shared a live glimpse of Freestyle Fridays, a regular event in his classroom that offers students an opportunity to celebrate 80s or above through rhyme, the image of a Black educator carving space for cultural expression tugged thousands of hearts. During our conversation, however, the Miami native reveals he had no plans of becoming a teacher, especially when thinking back to his experiences as a student.

"Before you're a Black man, you're a Black kid, and you feel disengaged in the education process," Sammy tells xoNecole. "The whole experience isn't really for you so by the time you're an adult, you have negative memories of school. You were always 'too hyper,' 'seeking attention'--those were the kinds of things you were labeled as. By the time you get to picking careers, that's the last place you want to go."

Deemed a "troubled kid", Sammy spent years in and out of jail. After his final arrest at the age of 19, a judge ordered him to complete community service at a local YMCA where he would soon rethink his decision to evade the classroom. It started with one task: keep children occupied during a turkey drive.

With nothing more than random equipment and a gymnasium, Sammy didn't simply make it work. He created an unforgettable experience. "I had the kids in there having a blast for an hour and a half," he recalls. "At the end, some of them were crying, asking if we could do this again. That was my first time feeling the influence I could have, and it shocked me."

While Sammy fully embraced the call on his life to be a leader and dove into teaching seven years later, he admits he didn't take in the gravity of representation until one conversation with a student added clarity to his purpose. "I had a student who had been retained who was so used to giving up. He was very short-fused. One day we had a talk, and it reminded me of how I was as a kid," he reflects. "I almost had a déjà vu moment, and I thought about what I would have wanted to hear as a student. I don't remember what I said, but he gave me a look where he knew that I was on his side, and we started our connection there, and I've had him bought-in ever since."

Sammy is committed to teaching the whole child and as a musician and author, he is a firm believer in making room for creativity. It was his observation of a group of underperforming boys in his classroom who seized any ounce of free time they had to listen to beats and rap that ultimately led to the birth of Freestyle Fridays.

Going viral wasn't the plan, but the local and national attention has since granted his students a much larger stage to flex their talent as rappers and their immense promise as scholars. "My mission is to give every student a chance at winning," he pledges. "Not just to tell them they can win, but to show them they can win."

Tanesha Forman, 6th Grade ELA Teacher

Instagram / @love.tanesha

New Haven, CT

When Book Character Day rolls around, you can find Tanesha Forman paying tribute to titles like Jason Reynold's Miles Morales Spider Man and New York Times bestseller The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. As an ELA teacher, she believes it is "beyond important" for Black students to see themselves reflected on and between the covers of books and is adamant about ensuring the young minds in her care have access to such work.

"We truly have to change the literary canon," the Miami native stresses. "I think the classics are so white-centered. When kids don't see themselves, it prevents them from dreaming bigger."

Fourteen years into her teaching career, a path she knew she always wanted to travel, the weight Tanesha's presence carries in the classroom doesn't escape her either. It is the everyday occurings, over the grandiose, that she holds close.

"It's in those small, micro moments that are in the day-to-day hustle that remind me my students are watching and taking me in," she tells xoNecole. "This woman shows up as who she is. She looks like me. She gives me this vibe that I can't play with her, but I know she sees me."

As a veteran, Tanesha leads with a student-first mindset, refusing to play coy in the face of difficult conversations that are ultimately for their benefit. "I have heard and seen teachers operate in ways that fit their narratives for our kids that are not true," she states.

It's the reason why she has embraced the opportunity to facilitate monthly anti-bias and anti-racist sessions at her job. "It is not a destination. This work that we do is a way that we constantly ensure that we are doing the self-work that prevents our biases from coming to play in our classrooms," she explains. "When I'm leading these facilitations, it is the hope that we are doing the self-reflection that will allow us to see our kids for who they are and to ensure that anything we're putting in front of kids is rooted in power and love."

Though she has served as a teacher for over a decade, Tanesha never wants to become blinded by the fact that there's always room to outdo her previous best for the children set before her. "Leverage your experiences, but see kids in every year as individuals," she advises. "Sometimes people say, 'I'm just in my first year,' and I always say, 'I'm just in my first year with this group that I have right here.'"

Whether she's sharpening her own practice or supporting other educators in doing the same, Tanesha sums up the core of her drive in a few words: "I want my students to remember that 'my teacher was always rooting for me.'"

Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, 10th & 12th Grade Economics and Government Teacher

Instagram / @callmeshivy

Riverdale, GA

After securing a spot in 106 & Park's Freestyle Friday Hall of Fame, Alfred "Shivy" Brooks was on his way to fame beyond BET's hit series. That is, until his best friend Sunny was shot and killed in 2007. Despite already dropping out of Rutgers University and making the move to Atlanta to stamp his presence in rap, the rising MC immediately reevaluated his decision. "The culture of hip hop at the time--there was a lot of hypermasculinity and murder," Shivy tells xoNecole. "When that event happened, I was just really turned off from music."

Creating distance from his one-time dream, the East Orange, N.J. native returned to school (this time Georgia State University) and shifted his focus to public policy. "I had said that my goal would be to serve Black and brown communities so that other young people would never have to go through the experience that my best friend did."

What Shivy didn't anticipate was that this desire would manifest in the classroom.

"My father is also a high school educator and has been the majority of my life, and I always tried to run away from it," he reflects. "Sure enough, you can run from a calling, but if God has something predetermined for you, you're just here to walk that walk."

Within four years of teaching, Shivy has been voted Most Influential Teacher twice, a testament that his presence in the classroom is no accident. His secret to making a difference lies in marrying his past with his present. "When I first got into education, I was really trying to separate my music and entertainment life from my professional life, but it wasn't the way I could flourish," he muses. "Now, I allow my students to see my duality. I tell them there has to be many sides and angles and nuances to a diamond for it to shimmer. The same goes for people. We're not one-dimensional."

Whether it's discussing the latest Roddy Ricch album, retracing his journey on 106 & Park, or hosting Teacher Talk Tuesdays, bringing his full self to work allows Shivy to cut through curriculum to deepen relationships with his high schoolers. "If you come from their world and you're of their world, the amount of impact and positive influence you can have on students is unmatched," he beams.

As a Black man, Shivy is aware that he is a rarity in education but is motivated, rather than deterred, by underrepresentation. "There is an absolute need for me to show up and give it everything I have on an everyday basis," he stresses. "To not just teach kids the standard, but to go above and beyond it."

Veroniqua Bernard, 3rd Grade Math Teacher

Courtesy of Veroniqua Bernard

New York, NY

Veroniqua Bernard was at a crossroads. As a nursing student, she could either commit to a major she had no passion for or step into the unknown to discover her true purpose. "I knew nursing wasn't my calling," the Brooklyn native tells xoNecole. "It was my parents'."

When competing for a seat in a LPN course at Farmingdale State College, Veroniqua drew the line. "I don't like science. I don't like seeing people in pain, and I really don't like nursing," she recaps her thinking. "I got up and just left during the test. I didn't know what I wanted to do."

Out of the number of issues she spotted in medicine, one stood out most. "While working with the mentally challenged, I saw many things I wasn't happy about," Veroniqua recalls. "A lot of times, their disabilities were seen as a crutch."

Thinking about her nephew, who too has a disability, this observation didn't merely strike a chord. It lit a fire. "That's when I made my mind up," she says firmly. "I wanted to become a special educator in order to be an advocate for students and people with disabilities."

After earning dual certification in childhood and special education, Veroniqua served as a special educator for New York's Department of Education before embracing her current role as a 3rd grade math teacher in Harlem.

With an outspoken nature, dazzling style, and undisputed passion for serving Black and brown children, Veroniqua's presence is easily felt in the halls of her elementary school. "This year I said I was just going to focus on the classroom," she says with a laugh, revealing that the students ultimately keep her active in school affairs.

She currently oversees student council and runs the Young Kings Boys Group, a program she created last year to support the social and emotional development of 4th and 5th grade boys labeled "at risk". While she is highly respected by the "young kings" under her counsel, her goal this year is to connect them to Black men who can reach them in a way their teachers and administrators have struggled to.

"Because there is a lack of men in education, I focus the speakers to be African-American men because I feel they do not get to see African-American men in great positions who came from the same situations as them, such as single-parent homes or being raised in the projects," she explains.

In the short time since she has designed the group, she's taken note of small, yet notable, changes--signs of good to come. "Last year, I saw a lot of progress with my heavy hitters wanting to do well--not really meeting the goal because I feel that is a much longer process--but going from 'I don't care if I get in trouble' to wanting to cut their [dean] referrals down and be in a different space when it came to behavior."

No matter what space she occupies at work, Veroniqua's goal as an educator to her students is simple. "I want to be that person who made them want to come to school," she expresses. "I want to take it beyond academics."

Featured image courtesy of Sammy Rigaud