Representation Matters: A Conversation with Dr. Perry Daniel
In February of 1970, Black educators and students at Kent State University celebrated the first annual Black History Month. Given that the history of this celebration began in an educational setting, it makes sense that many of the conversations about Black History Month continue in classrooms across the country. We sat down with Dr. Perry Daniel, the Senior Director of Academics and Partnerships at Stride Learning, to discuss representation and how Black History Month could extend beyond the classroom to impact students’ everyday lives.
Representation in Education
As a young person, Dr. Perry Daniel had no shortage of role models. In the classroom, he saw teachers who looked like him, and now he wants to do the same for young Black students. Dr. Daniel’s experiences contrast against the current educational landscape, where the student body is not represented in the teaching and administrative staff—a fact that his children are experiencing first-hand. “According to The White House’s fact sheet for The American Families Plan, while teachers of color can have a particularly strong impact on students of color, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only one in five teachers are people of color, compared to more than half of K-12 public school students,” Jacqueline Rodriguez explained in an article.
The disparity between students of color and teachers of color is especially worth examining when one considers that a lack of diversity in teachers can actually contribute to achievement gaps among students. According to the Brookings Institute, “Seth Gershenson, associate professor at American University, motivated the discussion [of racial representation] by highlighting the disconnect between the nonwhite representation of students (50%) versus teachers (80%), arguing one of the ways to close the longstanding race-based achievement gaps is to expose more students to teachers who look like them.”
The effects of this kind of representation cannot be underestimated. Dr. Daniel’s exposure to Black teachers and leaders didn’t only provide a diverse learning environment when he was in school; it also helped him carve his career path. He said, “I knew I wanted to be an educator, but also knew that I wanted to do more. The fact that I could always look back and say I knew principals, directors, and things of that nature who looked like me made me know that I could do that.” To this day, Dr. Daniel remembers the teachers who influenced him to pursue a career in education. He remains in communication with his teacher, Dr. Nesbitt, who was one of the people who indirectly motivated him to return to school for more advanced degrees.
Dr. Daniel explained that sometimes, he is either one of a few or the only Black man in professional meetings now, which carries with it a lot of pressure. He explained, “It may not be fair, but you represent a race of people; you’re not just showing up for yourself. So, you’re in a position where you want to make sure that you’re at your best.” Regardless of these challenges, Dr. Daniel emphasized the importance he placed on showing up for his students and anyone else who is counting on him.
Representation in Media
The average young person consumes about seven hours of media a day, and much of that media is not overseen or curated by their parents. What kind of messages are they getting from the media? According to this fact sheet, some media can be harmful in perpetuating stereotypes. Media helps young people shape their worldviews, so if they are exposed to stereotypical or prejudicial images, that can affect the way they see the world.
Thankfully, some writers and creators have sought to address the lack of racial representation by writing their own work. One author named Crystel Patterson, for example, has written a series of children’s books to promote “Black self-esteem and cultural understanding” in her Inspired to Be books.
Great strides have been made to facilitate more equitable racial representation in media, but there’s still a long way to go. Though this journey may not be easy, writer Pilar Kaltzada explained why it’s so important in her op-ed: “I strongly believe that diversity is a driving force that will improve innovation, social cohesion, and welfare in modern societies.”
Representation at Home
Given the issues of representation in education and in media, what can you do at home to ensure that your child is exposed to as many diverse ideas as possible? A good place to start is by thinking not only about the kind of media and curriculum that your child is exposed to, but also the people they’re exposed to, as both fictional and real-life forms of representation have value. For example, Dr. Daniel explained that he didn’t find any fictional characters that looked like him in the books he read as a child. It wasn’t until college that he started to see books written by and about Black people.
Conversations about race and representation can be difficult to begin, but that doesn’t diminish their importance. Parents have access to more material than they ever had before, and their children are just a few clicks of the mouse away from learning about people thousands of miles away. Watching an interesting and engaging piece of media together like novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” can be a great place to begin the discussion.
This discussion will not end once children grow up, as they will be the next generation to combat the most pressing social issues of their time. As an educator, Dr. Daniel emphasized how we need to consider how what we do now will impact the next generation. “We should be building bridges and laying out the pathway for others to come behind us,” he said. For the many students who still keep in touch with him, this lesson has certainly resonated.
AnnElise Hatjakes is a contributing writer for Learning Liftoff. Her career in education began in 2010 when she worked as a teaching assistant while earning her master’s degree in writing. She has taught in a wide range of educational settings, including a public school, a school for gifted students, a university, and a county jail. She’s interested in issues of equity in education, which she strives to address through her own teaching practices and writing. AnnElise is the recipient of the University of Chicago’s Outstanding Educator Award, and her fiction has appeared in literary journals. As a third generation Nevadan, she loves all things Western, from wide open spaces to wild horses.