From a black male teacher: Don’t make me the default disciplinarian

From a black male teacher: Don’t make me the default disciplinarian

PHOTO: Karen Pulfer Focht/Chalkbeat


My first day in the classroom is one I’ll never forget. I was given a room of curious sophomore students — 43 of them.

I could feel the lump in my throat and every drop of sweat on my body. I was used to public speaking, and I felt good about what I would be teaching. But in that moment before the first bell rang, I actually thought about walking out.

When the bell rang, I called for the attention of the room. Most of the students didn’t even hear me. I called out again, a little louder. Now more students looked at me, but with some side-eye and a few dismissive smirks. Their conversations continued.

I had little to no control over the classroom and it was only the first two minutes. So, I did what any good teacher does who doesn’t know what they’re doing … I acted like I did.

I stepped out from behind the lectern and walked to the middle of the room. “My name is Mr. Miller, and this is research and study skills. I don’t repeat myself, so if you fail to listen, you will fail. If you don’t work in this class, you will fail. If you give me your butt to kiss, I’ll draw a butt and lips on your report card next to your F.”

Some kids laughed, and others rolled their eyes. They knew they were in for a long semester, and so did I.

But through all of the laughs, head-shaking moments, phone calls home, and “come to Jesus” conversations to come, I grew into my role. It was a combination of teacher, mentor, cheerleader, father figure, critic, guidance counselor, advocate, and even social worker. I found that Dr. Brooks, my grad school teacher who encouraged me to enter teaching, was telling the truth — there was a need that I could help fill.

I soon realized that my school’s administration saw another need I could fill: disciplinarian.

I developed a rapport with my students over time and I showed them respect. I earned their trust and collaboration, and that meant I rarely called down to the main office over a student. I did my best to handle things on my own. Being a Black man from Camden, like my kids, didn’t hurt.

But that, being a Black man from Camden, also qualified me for an invisible tax.

I was the only Black male teacher in my building, the high school. Black males made up only 3% of teachers in the schools where I taught at that time; as of last school year (2018-19), they made up only 1.7%. Currently, Black male teachers only account for 2% of all teachers nationally.

Meanwhile, nearly all of the students where I taught, from kindergarten through 12th grade, were students of color.

I now believe it’s why I, a first-year teacher, was given a class of 43 students, often without an aide to assist. The next semester, I was given freshman classes with some of the more “challenging” students. The principal told me she knew I could handle it.

I was a first-year teacher, but it didn’t matter. I was the Black teacher.

I was given lunch duty with more passive teachers. Some days, I was the only teacher. Whenever there was a commotion in the hallways and I was near, I was always asked to see about it and break it up. I did what I could, but I cannot say that I wasn’t frustrated.

Teachers often serve as hall monitors and are often called upon to help out. I understood that, but I was no fool. I knew who the strong teachers were and who the weak teachers were, and I was never paired with a strong teacher for any disciplinary purpose. I saw other adults breathe a sigh of relief when they saw me come around the corner. I am not sure what they all thought, but I was not their savior, nor was I trying to be.

Black teachers enter the profession because they want to help students succeed. Research shows that not only do Black students prefer Black teachers, but that Black students perform better academically with a teacher of the same race, that Black students are more likely to go to college when they’ve had at least one Black teacher, and Black teachers are less likely to suspend Black students.

However, Black teachers often leave the profession because they are seen and overused as disciplinarians while receiving very little support from administrators, among other reasons.

So if you start this school year with a Black teacher or Black male teacher in your building, and you wish to support that teacher and keep them as part of your school community, keep the following things in mind.

Black teachers are not the school’s de facto disciplinarians. They are not the enforcers of the schoolwide discipline policy. They are not the default representative for all Black people. If they go above and beyond for students, that does not absolve others from doing their jobs.

Black teachers do share a collective experience with other Black students, but don’t assume that we are all the same. Use our cultural knowledge to improve the climate and culture of the school community. But don’t abuse it, whether from the classroom or the main office.

I ended my first year feeling drained but accomplished. I grew as a professional and I grew in my craft. I understood that I brought value to my school community. The school community saw my value.

But I continued to be taxed, and I was my entire teaching career. Today, I miss the classroom, but I don’t miss that.

This article was originally published on

Rann Miller is the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program in New Jersey. He also served as a school administrator in Camden and taught high school social studies for six years. He last wrote for Chalkbeat about walking his Camden students’ neighborhoods with his colleagues. He publishes an education blog called the Urban Education Mixtape. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.


What lost photos of the Blue Notes say about South Africa’s jazz history

What lost photos of the Blue Notes say about South Africa’s jazz history

Mongezi Feza on trumpet at the concert in 1964 that is the source of the rare new photos of The Blue Notes.
Norman Owen-Smith

Lindelwa Dalamba, University of the Witwatersrand

In 1964 a young South African student and photography enthusiast, Norman Owen-Smith, took his Leica camera along to a jazz concert at the then University of Natal Pietermaritzburg’s Great Hall and captured a series of black and white images of the band, the Blue Notes.

Through the intervention of jazz scholars, these photos have been printed, restored and exhibited, years after the band became iconic.

The story of the Blue Notes is inextricable from apartheid’s exiling of the musical – specifically jazz – imagination. Owen-Smith’s photos are a rare and unexpected contribution to a hungry archive for jazz lovers all over the world.

The Blue Notes embody the beauty of South African jazz in the 1960s, and the dynamics of its struggles during and against apartheid. The ensemble began in 1959 after a meeting between two of South Africa’s most revered jazz artists, both of whom died in exile. One was pianist and alto saxophonist Mtutuzeli ‘Dudu’ Pukwana, the other pianist Chris McGregor. By 1964 the other four members were cemented: Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums – the only surviving member – and Nikele ‘Nick’ Moyake on tenor saxophone, Mongezi Feza on trumpet and Johnny Mbizo Dyani on double bass.

The Blue Notes in full swing in Pietermaritzburg on the eve of them leaving the country.
Norman Owen-Smith

Owen-Smith’s joyful, simple photographs allow the ordinary to be extraordinary, showing musical fraternity, passionate performance and a racially mixed band at the height of apartheid, after the clampdown that followed the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. They capture a moment in the band’s history when they were still young – in their teens and twenties – and just before they went into exile.

They are a notable addition to a very thin archive. It includes an excerpt from a documentary on jazz in Britain that shows a snippet of the Blue Notes’ performance at the 1964 Antibes Jazz Festival, posted on YouTube by McGregor’s younger brother. The archival footage is owned by French TV, but even scholars of South African jazz based in France have not been able to find it.

The rare video excerpt of the band on YouTube.

This is the only video excerpt of the Blue Notes I have come across – even though, as I noted in my doctoral dissertation, they are one of the more thoroughly covered jazz ensembles of the apartheid era.

Other elements of the archive consist of an online data base about the band built by British journalist Mike Fowler. Its source text remains Maxine McGregor’s biography Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath: My Life with a South African Jazz Pioneer.

Another component is an album called Township Bop that was released in 2002. The compilation was made up of previously unheard material which the band had recorded at the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Transcription Centre in 1964.

And in 2013, radio station SAfm presented a two-part documentary. In addition, a number of artists have performed and even recorded tributes to the band.

All these contributions – now including Owen-Smith’s photos – mark a change of fortune for a group of musicians who played mostly on the live scene. Their recordings tended to go missing for long stretches, as with their 1964 live recording in Durban, Legacy: Live in South Afrika 1964, which was released in 1995.

Co-founder of the Blue Notes, pianist Chris McGregor.
Norman Owen-Smith

Memory and healing

From the late 1950s, many jazz musicians left the country; others were subjected to the alienating practices of the apartheid music industry, which often would book or record them only if they complied with their demands – what to play, who to play with and how to play it; many stopped playing altogether. These are the provocations of hurt that recur, as if on a loop, each time we engage with South African jazz history. Indeed, some of these commercial imperatives remain – not just in South Africa and not just related to jazz. Musicians’ lives remain precarious.

Healing, then, surely entails bringing these musicians back.

But how, and to where? Louis Moholo-Moholo is back home in Langa, in Cape Town, and is still playing. But what of Moyake, who died in South Africa? And Dyani, who is buried in South Africa? And Feza, who left the country at the age of 19? McGregor visited the country shortly before his death, but not Pukwana. Healing the open wound caused by exile’s rupture requires physical and creative return.

Legendary drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo is the sole surviving member of the band.
Norman Owen-Smith

Tribute performances, recordings and documentaries are one way, if they do not pander to nostalgia. Teaching and research suggest another way, but only if neither succumb to a process of canonisation that sanitises the complex story of the Blue Notes. After all, exile did not rupture a smooth narrative that, whiggishly, was tending toward some apotheosis of South African jazz. Its effects were far more drastic.

Exile sundered a finely knit network of journalists like Todd Matshikiza, poets like Keorapetse Kgositsile, writers like Es’kia Mphahlele, and artists like Dumile Feni, from the dramatists, broadcasters, audiences and photographers who together made up mid-twentieth century South African jazz cultures. Returning the exiled musical imagination means renewing these connections: not perfectly, but imaginatively.

Pictures from history

In the absence of a rich sonic archive, jazz’s visual history is important.

Owen-Smith’s photographs join a body of documentary photography dating back decades.

In Lars Rasmussen’s Cape Town Jazz 1959-1963, Hardy Stockmann’s photographs predominantly depict a non-racial and convivial atmosphere of backstage fraternising, laughter, eating, drinking and smoking, of jam sessions and performances in Cape Town’s legendary jazz clubs, halls and other locations.

The jazz historian Christopher Ballantine describes Basil Breakey’s photographs:

Here, in these stark images of loneliness, anguish, resilience, and despair, are many of the most famous members of that fabulously talented young generation that lived through the deepening gloom of the 1960s. Typically, their eyes are closed, or hidden by shades; when they play, the intensity is palpable, but no one appears to be listening; so in the end (the images seem to suggest) they sit alone, their instruments fallen silent.

Jazz scholar Jonathan Eato counters Breakey’s dark representation and Ballantine’s bleak reading. In Keeping Time, he writes:

the musicians in Ian Bruce Huntley’s photographs offer people a brighter world that is touched by colour … the shades hiding the eyes of musicians do so as a consequence of music sounding under gloriously clear skies.

The ordinary is extraordinary in the photos, which show music transcending apartheid.
Norman Owen-Smith

Owen-Smith’s photographs enter these debates in interesting ways. As an historical musicologist, what strikes me is that whereas the photographers I have mentioned aim to capture the jazz ethos of an era, he captures an event in one place: a once-off concert. In so doing, Owen-Smith invites us to consider how photography can help answer Christopher Small’s ever relevant question about “musicking”: What does it mean when this performance … takes place at this time, in this place, with these participants?The Conversation

Lindelwa Dalamba, Music lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.