Annette John-Hall: Education debate in black and white
You could almost hear the incredulousness in the letter-writer's voice. Somebody named Terry Saskin had taken issue with a Philadelphia Daily News article that detailed the shortage of black teachers in city public schools and lauded Cheyney University's Call Me MISTER program, which trains African American teachers for elementary school classrooms.
You could almost hear the incredulousness in the letter-writer's voice.
Somebody named Terry Saskin had taken issue with a Philadelphia Daily News article that detailed the shortage of black teachers in city public schools and lauded Cheyney University's Call Me MISTER program, which trains African American teachers for elementary school classrooms.
Saskin's letter to the editor a few weeks ago brimmed with defiance. Under the headline "As a white teacher, I'm not good enough?" it read:
"I'm white and have been teaching in the district for 12 years. Most of my students are minorities. . . . They have achieved academic excellence. If my ethnicity were different, not a thing would change."
It went on: "The Call Me MISTER program seems solid, but playing the race card is just another example of how weak-minded some people are."
Uh-oh. There's the dreaded accusation of the race card again. Now my back was up.
But Saskin's letter did get me thinking about whether a teacher's race had any correlation to the success of an African American student. Especially as we see so few black teachers.
My own experience says yes. Sure, I had a string of white teachers I absolutely adored. But in sixth grade, Mrs. Corley, my first African American teacher, had the most profound impact.
She was the first black person I had seen who was a professional and looked like me - tall and brown-skinned. And she talked to me like my mother, affectionately and sometimes with no compromise. Plus, she was a great teacher.
Still, I couldn't dismiss this letter. The first of my many questions: Just who is this Saskin character, who previously had taken on everybody from the Ku Klux Klan to indifferent parents in his letter-writing campaigns, who, in all of his letters, mentioned the well-being of children?
Who also once challenged his students to write letters chronicling life in the inner city, and who gave $25 out of his own pocket to the 10 whose letters were published in the newspaper.
For somebody who seemed so in tune, could he really not understand the need for more black teachers in a district that's 62 percent African American?
Turns out, the 39-year-old Saskin is one of those rare teachers you don't see every day, whose passion goes way beyond the classroom.
Jewish by birth only, he says - "I married a shiksa and have tattoos all over my shoulders" - the Bensalem native has spent his entire career in public elementary education.
He taught for 10 years at Muñoz Marin School in Kensington, where the majority of his students were Latino. Spent two years at Frederick Douglass School in North Philly, where the student population was overwhelmingly African American.
He's spent the last school year at Laura H. Carnell School in the Lower Northeast, where, again, the majority of the students are minorities.
Everywhere Saskin's taught, his kids' test scores have improved.
"Terry Saskin is special," says Kwame Morton, his former principal at Douglass, now a principal in Cherry Hill. "His sixth-grade class made tremendous progress, and that goes back to the connection Terry had with them."
You know those people who'd give you the shirt off their backs? That's not a cliche to Saskin. He's actually done that for his students.
They love him so much that many have stayed in touch years later.
"Mr. Saskin inspired me to become a teacher," says Maurice Allen, 21, who grew up fatherless but who found a surrogate in Saskin as a sixth-grader at Marin. "Even though I was African American, it didn't make me feel for one second like he wasn't a father figure to me."
But here's the irony: Allen, a junior at Cheyney, applied to Call Me MISTER.
And though Saskin doesn't knock the program, what he really sees is a need for more male teachers because a lot of Philadelphia students don't live with their fathers.
It's the idea of black teachers' being better able to breed success that he doesn't buy.
"We're in need of loving, caring teachers who put the kids first," he says. "I don't care if he's yellow with pink polka dots, if he's a good teacher, that's the one I want."
That would be the one I'd want for my kids, too. But it's not that simple.
The value of black teachers for black students is "you can see yourself in the role of the teacher," says Howard Stevenson, professor of education at Penn. "Children get to have choices just by having someone who looks like them.
"Even if it turns out they don't want to be like the person," Stevenson says, "they get the opportunity to choose."
The professor cited research that shows that black students tend to feel closer to black teachers. Of course, that doesn't necessarily translate to better test scores. Or lifelong connections.
And it sure doesn't mean that white teachers, especially teachers as dedicated as Terry Saskin, can't get black students to learn.
So, at least in that way, Saskin is right. Not everything can be viewed as black. Or white.