Part 2 of MCJ Interview with Transition High School Principal Derrick “Baba” Rogers
Derrick “Baba” Rogers has been an educator for over 25 years serving in the roles as mentor, recreation leader, coach, teacher assistant, teacher, curriculum implementer, and school administrator. He is currently the principal at Transition High School, an MPS alternative school serving youth returning to the district from expulsion or incarceration, as well as students having challenges in traditional settings. He is the founder of, and lead consultant for Xodus Education Services, providing professional development in the area of culturally responsive pedagogy, and is also the pastor of Compassion Ministries of Milwaukee.
Baba Rogers is considered to be one of Milwaukee’s leading thinkers and practitioners in the areas of alternative education and culturally relevant pedagogy.
MCJ: In the past 20 years there seems to have been an increase in the number of black teachers and administrators in MPS. It was once thought that this increase would bring significant changes in educational attainment for black students but this has not been the case. How do you explain this?
Dr. Latish Reed from UW-Milwaukee shared data with me recently that revealed both nationally and in the district there had been no marked increase in black teachers in terms of percentages relative to white teachers.
I was under that impression as well. But no doubt there are enough of us out here to have an impact one way or another.
Nevertheless, this is a very sensitive question for me because it speaks to some unfortunate professional and class issues we’re experiencing as a community and race in this city.
I was hired by MPS in 1988 during what may have been a transitional time for black educators. I can recall conversations with black teachers, many who were educated in the south, who had been proudly teaching for 20-30 years.
These were high skilled pedagogues with hundreds of child success stories under their belt. It was readily apparent that they cared about being respected for their craft and their ability to affect change in their students’ lives.
Many of them had no desire to be principals and those who did usually only did so after they had taught successfully in the classroom 8-10 years or more. It seems this is no longer the case.
Since the early to mid 90’s, I believe market sensibilities and class interest within the black community have affected our service delivery to African (black) children. In the past 20 years we’ve had blacks enter education via a variety of venues (many from other professions), including through accelerated teacher education programs.
For some, including myself, it was a blessing to be given an opportunity to enter a field they were clearly meant to be in based on their gifts. For others, and we gotta “keep it 100” as the kids say, it was a chance to get into the “system” and garner a “great job with great benefits.”
I have personally spoken to a few folks who told me to my face that “kids aint really my thang,” but who seized the moment to get ahead. They saw the Milwaukee school district, in a post-industrial employment era, as one of the few secure and viable entities in this city that can accord you a risk averse, comfortable living.
Subject content mastery, pedagogical acuity, passion for children, professional demeanor, cultural competence, representing your community-all of these critical attributes of successful educators are abandoned in this scenario as you wind up with adults in front of our babies who possess neither the skill set, nor the socio-cultural disposition to raise them to another level.
Don’t get me wrong. We have a great many outstanding black teachers in this city.
But some of the aforementioned, and others fresh out of the university tend to pursue “microwaveable” career tracks-in the classroom 3 years, hurry to receive the masters in educational leadership in somewhat abbreviated graduate programs, and immediately apply for an assistant principal position.
The problem here, in my estimation is that the purity of teaching as an “art”, as a noble necessary community and civic enterprise, and as a compassionate service to your people, becomes prostituted and demeaned.
Spending time in the teaching “trenches” to master your art is no longer a priority. That wonderful MPS insurance package, the “prestige” of having a “position” and elevated class status becomes our primary motivators. It’s not all intentional.
But as Black educators, we can unwittingly become elitist and our youth, many of them poor and oppressed, become our stepping stones for personal strivings and aspirations. Eric Grimes and Butch Slaughter wrote a wonderfully comprehensive piece called “Why Our Children Hate Us. How Black Adults Betray Black Children.”
Wow, there it is. You cannot effectively and authentically teach children when you have this mentality because subsequently you wind up instilling in them the same individualistic, narcissistic, and materialistic values that you bring to school with you. Our children leave these educators and enter our world with that same spirit. And even more frightening?
Some of these teachers could ultimately become school leaders and principals, which furthers the dysfunction.
Again, is this the majority of black educators I’m referencing? No, but the number is too high and I sense that the impact of this market and class induced phenomena is truly hurting our children. We gotta do better.
MCJ: In 2012, how do you describe what “real” education should be for black children?
Providing a real education starts with educators who understand the distinction between an “achievement gap” and an “educational debt” as Ladson Billings frames it.
A real education begins with educators who possess what is known a “audacious” hope, which Dr. Marcus Arrington describes as teachers and administrators who…”are armed with the intellectual precision and emotional fertility to sow real seeds of possibility and promise in the hearts of children.”
These are transformational pedagogues who are willing to be “creatively insubordinate,” as Dr. Reed brilliantly put it, in all their teaching approaches.
These are teachers as moral, “prophetic” voices and administrators as radical change agents. Yes, of course our children must be equipped with a mastery of skills and subject content at a level competitive with youth in the global context.
I think most of our current methodology does well in addressing this important need. However, for me educating African (black) youth also means educators making a critical distinction between “schooling” and education by teaching them to take responsibility for the futures of their families, community, and race.
It means helping them discover and develop an unrelenting fidelity to social transformation and liberation and the ability to discriminate between rigorous arguments and heavily charged opinions.
A true education grows out of the ancient African conceptions of “knowledge of self” and evolving in the image of God.
To me this means our children having a conscious understanding of the community and world in which they live in, all of it’s historical, psychological, economic, and spiritual dimensions.
It means teaching African (black) children a conscious awareness of the forces that rule their lives and shape their consciousness.
Educators have to teach youth to interrogate white supremacy; postmodern and hip hop sensibilities have to be accounted for in their learning; neoliberalism has to be addressed; hyper-consumerism must become a topic of discussion in classroom settings, the complex variegated nature of being an African (black) community in America must be explored; and so on.
It is educator’s responsibility to help establish the conditions for producing a new set of arrangements that offer liberating and self-determined opportunities for young people.
In a nutshell, I think this describes an evolved, expansive view of African-centered education which had been marginalized over the past decade. If our public schools offer these opportunities, then for me that’s a beautiful thing.
Otherwise independent and charter institutions that are equipped to provide these types of learning communities could be encouraged, supported, and replicated.
Education for our children must make every effort to be revolutionary because status quo is killing our children. The “matrix” is here and we gotta offer some serious “red pill” to get our babies unplugged.