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In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Black Women Teachers and Professional Socialization

by Adrienne D. Dixson & Jeannine E. Dingus - 2008

Background/Context: The current era of educational reform targets teacher education and aims to improve the performance of children who have traditionally underperformed and are underserved in public schools. Although educational policy has tried to address the ways in which “good teaching” contributes to improved student educational outcomes, research that examines such teaching must develop ways to make the tacit explicit. In doing so, the research and scholarship on teachers mask, ignore, and overlook the unique experiences of African American women teachers who bring a unique angle of vision to their work among historically underserved populations. The researchers argue that the pedagogy of Black women teachers provides much-needed insights that can inform the practices of all teachers.

Focus of Study: This article integrates findings from two separate studies on Black women teachers. It examines reasons underlying the professional entry of Black women into teaching and uses a Black feminist/womanist framework to examine how the nexus of race, gender, and class impacts Black women’s decisions to enter teaching while also informing their teaching missions. The article is situated in novelist Alice Walker’s metaphorical gardens to examine the intergenerational connections of Black women teachers to teaching.

Setting: Participants hailed from different geographic regions, including Southern California and the Midwest. All were teachers in urban districts serving primarily African American, Latino/Latina, and Asian American students.

Participants: The participants were 5 Black women teachers from two separate studies. All participants were elementary teachers: a novice; experienced veteran teachers; and a semiretired teacher. Three of the teachers were members of the same family, representing three generations of Black women teachers. The remaining two teachers live, teach, and attend the same church in a medium-sized midwestern city.

Research Design: The data for this article come from two separate qualitative studies on Black women teachers.

Data Collection and Analysis: Both studies used ethnographic interviews. Dixson interviewed two participating teachers, the teachers’ colleagues, principals, and parents of students. Dixson also conducted weekly classroom observations over 10 months. Dingus conducted two to three individual interviews with the participating family. She also conducted a group conversation with the family. Participants provided written reflections on their entry into teaching using metaphors of teaching. Dingus also collected documents including e-mail correspondence, newsletters, and print articles featuring the participants.

Findings: Three convergent themes emerged that represent the teachers’ views of why Black women enter teaching. The first finding, that teaching is tending our mothers’ gardens, highlights the intergenerational encouragement of Black women, including mothers and community othermothers, as influential factors on their professional entry. Participants cited the teaching legacies of Black women in schools, families, and communities as inspirations to become teachers. The second finding, teaching as community work, highlights the ways in which the decision to enter teaching allowed them to remain connected to Black communities and students, function as cultural workers, and act as community othermothers. The third finding, that teaching is nurturing our mothers’ spiritual gardens, illuminates how participants connected their professional entry to a larger spiritual mission. Participants perceived their teaching as a moral, communal, and ethical endeavor incorporating humanistic pedagogical approaches.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The researchers argue that educational research, in keeping with a policy focus on quality instruction, must continue to examine the practices of Black women teachers, who have effective pedagogical practices with underserved populations. In doing so, we caution against operationalizing such pedagogical practices in ways that trivialize their teaching practices and render them invisible. Furthermore, we encourage researchers to examine how teacher education can make explicit the experiences, knowledge, wisdom and spiritual aspects of Black women’s pedagogical practices. Research must also consider the ways in which Black women teachers draw on intergenerational networks in their teaching practices and how these relate to their conceptualizations of their roles as teachers.

What is always needed in the appreciation of art, or life, is the larger perspective . . . rather it is not the difference between them that interests me, but, rather, the way black writers and white writers seem to me to be writing one immense story—the same story, for the most part—with different parts of this immense story coming from a multitude of different perspectives. Until this is generally recognized, literature will always be broken into bits, black and white, and there will always be questions, wanting neat answers, such as this. — Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden


The words of writer Alice Walker (1983), although situated within the context of the literary world and the ways in which literature should encompass difference and the particularities of experience, challenge the supposition of what she called “immense story” to include the perspectives of historically marginalized voices. We are endeavoring, like Walker, to enter and actively participate in the immense story and the discourse of why all women choose to enter teaching. Walker’s metaphoric garden aptly describes the harvesting of Black1 women’s creative spirits in light of racial, gender, economic, and sexual oppression, necessitating them to leave an indelible imprint. In Walker’s words, Black women expressed their creativity with “materials they could find, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use” (p. 239). She further posited that Black women, in the effort to exert creative energy for purposes of survival, forged metaphorical gardens, turning “whatever rocky soil she landed on, into a garden” (p. 241). Thus, according to Walker—and we agree—Black women are simultaneously involved in “moral or physical struggle[s], the result of which is expected to be some kind of larger freedom” (p. 5).

Walker’s work serves two additional purposes for us. First, her words allow us to ground our research on Black women aesthetically, to speak of Black teachers’ work in language reflective of struggle and, conversely, of beauty. Throughout this article, we extend Walker’s metaphoric garden to describe the work of Black women teachers, highlighting their contributions to the immense story of the profession. Second, Walker’s metaphor provides a means to connect the work of Black women teachers to a larger struggle across various walks of life, and to our current professional location as Black women in the academy (Thompson & Louque, 2005). Metaphorically speaking, the work of Ladson-Billings and Henry (1991), Foster (1997), Irvine and Hill (1990), Collins (1990/2000), Gay (2000), and other equally notable Black women scholars represents the gardens of our intellectual foremothers.

In situating our work within a tradition of intergenerational scholarship, we have broadly conceptualized the term to encompass threads of continuity across research agendas, methods, and traditions. As former classroom teachers, and now as educational researchers, we recognize that we are products of our educational experiences, environments, training, and collaborations with doctoral advisors, committee members, outside mentors, and colleagues (Gay & Kirkland, 2003). Morine-Dershimer (2001) characterized the nature of such relationships as familial in that

the doctoral advisor is like a parent to graduate students, passing on a particular research tradition, much like family customs or family heirlooms might be passed on to the next generation within a family. Students (children) carr[y] on the handed-down customs, and polish the heirlooms associated with the research traditions in which they were raised. New forms of family have sprung up in our society in recent years and these forms have parallels in new types of relationships between and among researchers. These new types of relationships have contributed to the reshaping of some research traditions and the initiation of some new approaches to research on teaching. (p. 47)

We are endeavoring to demonstrate and further Morine-Dershimer’s “family connections analogy” (p. 47) to the extent that this article serves a dual intent of locating the work of African American women teachers in the gardens of their teaching foremothers, both literal and figurative, and locating our scholarship, theoretically and methodologically, in the gardens of our academic mothers. Specifically, this article draws on intergenerational connections with the methods that Ladson-Billings and Henry (1991) employed a “generation” ago in integrating the findings of two studies on Black women teachers. Ladson-Billings and Henry examined the culturally relevant practices of Afro-Canadian and African American teachers; honored teachers as key informants on the educational success of Black children; emphasized the importance of relationships between teachers, Black parents, and students; and argued that further research on Black teachers can illuminate sound pedagogy beneficial for students across schooling contexts.

In this article, we undertake a similar endeavor in that we explore why African American women become teachers. We highlight findings from two separate empirical studies of Black women teachers. Given that our individual research interests are similar in that we examine the pedagogy of African American women teachers, presenting our data and combining the findings of both studies was a natural progression. Each author fulfilled the role of “critical friend,” reviewing portions of interview transcripts, using initial coding schemes, and finding consistencies of codes with overarching ideas in each study (Merriam & Simpson, 1995). Integrating the findings of the two studies provides the opportunity to examine the beliefs and pedagogy of African American women teachers in their own words, across geographic regions,

school contexts, familial generations, political orientations, community involvement, and personal circumstances (e.g., marital status, parenthood). The participating teachers in each study possessed various levels of professional service, ranging from retired veterans to a recent graduate of a national teacher corps.


In this article, we address the ways that Black women teachers understand and use the intersection of race, class, and gender in their pedagogical philosophies and practices. Although these three aspects of identity do not represent the totality of their experience or identity, they do address the embedded element of family and culture. In addition, examining the nexus of race, class, and gender in the experiences of Black women also serves as a response to the limited ways in which a majority of the social science research, and in particular, the educational research, has attended to (or ignored) Black women. Additionally, we seek to explore the ways in which identities, and perhaps the nexus of multiple identities, work synergistically for Black women teachers. We seek to avoid analyses of Black women’s pedagogy only in relation to marginalization and to explore and understand how the women in our studies use their pedagogy to work toward change. In doing so, we draw on the distinct yet highly interrelated scholarship on African American cultural and familial socialization, Black feminism, and womanist theology.2


As there are multiple ways to interpret Black feminist ideology that consider the diversity of the women who live and create it, Black feminist theory reflects a variety of perspectives on the lives and experiences of Black women. Black feminist scholars have sought to uncover the

myriad ways that the intersecting nature of identity has worked for and against Black women.

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (1990/2000) identified seven core themes that are central to Black women’s scholarship. Although Black women are certainly a diverse group, “we all share the common experience of being African-American women in a society that denigrates women of African descent” (p. 22). Collins argued that this common experience suggests that there are core themes in our standpoint as women. These themes are (1) work, family, and Black women’s oppression, (2) controlling images of Black women (the Mammie, Matriarch, and the Jezebel), (3) the power of self-definition, (4) motherhood, (5) activism, (6) sexual politics, and (7) Black women’s relationships. Although she identified these core themes, she hastened to add that not all African American women respond to these similarly. Collins and other Black feminist scholars acknowledge that social class differences, ethnicity, urbanization, age, sexual orientation, and regional differences all account for the variance in Black women’s responses to the core themes (James, 1998).


Although the ever-evolving, nonstatic nature of culture is important, Gay and Barber (1987) recognized the ways in which African American culture is maintained, demonstrated, and transmitted by those characterized as cultural workers. In this sense, cultural workers, as articulated by Gay and Barber, are individuals who centrally place and draw upon culture and race/ethnicity prominently in their professional identities, communicative styles, ideologies, and behavioral expressions. Collins (1990/2000) expanded on understandings of cultural workers, citing the ways in which Black women also function as “othermothers,” or those engaged in cultural traditions of shared mothering responsibilities, with attention to the collective well-being. The establishment of mothering networks is, as Mitchem (2002) argued, vital to forming and sustaining cultural traditions and Black communities. Other Black feminist scholars suggested that Black women have developed strategies to resist and cope with the oppressive conditions under which many African American women labor. A prime example is the tradition of othermothering. James (1993) described othermothers this way:

Othermothers can be defined as those who assist blood mothers in the responsibilities of child care for short- to long-term periods, in informal or formal arrangements. They can be, but are not confined to, such blood relatives as grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, or supportive fictive kin. They not only serve to relieve some of the stress that can develop in the intimate daily relationships of mothers and daughters but they can also provide multiple role models for children [italics added]. . . . This concept of othermothering which has its roots in the traditional African world-view and can be traced through the institution of slavery, developed in response to an ever-growing need to share the responsibility for child nurturance. (p. 45)

Linking othermothering with political activism, Collins (1990/2000) further posited that community othermothers demonstrate a committed connection to Black communities, attending to a “socially responsible ethic.” Community othermothers engage in a tradition of political activism situated in the needs of the larger Black community (Naples, 1996). Moreover, Collins referred to a tradition of “mothering of the mind,” or relationships in which Black women teachers function as othermothers, taking holistic approaches to mentoring beyond academic and professional skills. The “decidedly political mission” (Dixson, 2003) of African American teachers is located within this tradition of professional service used to impart culturally and familial-based ideas, values, and behaviors. James (1993) posited that the notion of othermothering “may serve as an important Black feminist link to the development of new models for social transformation in the twenty-first century” (p. 45). Some educational researchers have situated this concept as central to the philosophies and practices of the Black women teachers they studied (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 1997; Collins; Foster, 1993). In other words, these teachers’ actions seem to support not only James’s notion of the importance of othermothering in a progressive Black feminist ideology, but they also show how a Black feminist ideology may be an aspect of Black female teachers’ perspectives on education. Collins also described how the role of othermothering, as performed by Black women teachers, has historically served Black children and our community well:

Black women [teachers] frequently describe Black children using family language. In recounting her increasingly successful efforts to teach a boy who had given other teachers problems, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher stated, “You know how it can be—the majority of children in the learning disabled classes are our children. I know he didn’t belong there, so I volunteered to take him.” (p. 130)

Black feminist epistemology

Collins (1999/2000) described Black feminist thought as a “nexus of relationships” that encompasses biological classification, the social construction of race and gender, and the ways in which Black women understand these issues. Thus, the ways in which Black women make sense of their lives is what Collins attributed to the “unique angle of vision” (p. 22) that undergirds a Black feminist standpoint. She also outlined four areas of what she described as a Black feminist epistemology:3 concrete experience as a criterion of meaning; the use of dialogue in assessing knowledge claims; the ethic of caring; and the ethic of personal accountability. These criteria represent helpful ways to examine the ways in which Black women think about and enact their pedagogy. These criteria also help to frame our project in this article. That is, although we situate Black women’s pedagogy within a Black feminist framework, we also recognize that this framework explains how we also “do” our research and scholarship. This project, for example, emerged through dialogues on the nature of Black women’s pedagogical practices. Given our unique angle of vision as both African American women and teachers, in this article, we endeavor to analyze the experiences of the teachers to add to the immense story of teachers, specifically Black women teachers, in the United States.

We are not suggesting that all Black women teachers subscribe to Black feminism, or that only Black women can research Black women teachers. Rather, Black women teachers, as in the words of Collins, have a unique angle of vision on our own lives (and our pedagogy) that may be necessary in understanding exactly what we bring to educational practice (and research). In addition, given that regardless of class, Black women (and indeed most women of color) remain marginalized in U.S. society, perhaps Black women—both scholars and nonscholars—will need to interpret and articulate our experiences for ourselves.

Collins (1990/2000) discussed the role of Black women intellectuals as having the responsibility of rearticulating/reinterpreting the scholarship and experiences of our ancestors and our sisters who are not “certified intellectuals” (p. 15). She identified the thematic content within Black feminist thought and argued that it has been shaped by our “outsider-within” stance and our centrality to the African American community. It is important to note that Collins’s notion of Black women intellectuals as interpreters is contested (James, 1998). However, although we do not necessarily subscribe to the “Black women intellectual-as-interpreter” ideology, we do find Collins’s articulation of Black feminist thought the most developed and useful for our purposes. We are also drawing upon Black feminist literary criticism, as well as other Black feminist scholars in the social sciences, to examine the pedagogy and philosophies of the teachers presented here (Crenshaw, 1995; Guy-Sheftall, 1995; hooks, 1994; King, 1988/1995).


Scholarship by Black womanist theologians provides yet another lens for understanding why Black women enter teaching. This scholarship also contributes to our understanding of teaching as a spiritually informed practice for the Black women teachers in this study. Womanist theology, as articulated by Williams (1993), describes how Black women’s faith provides a means of understanding, questioning, and responding to specific issues of oppression. According to Williams, womanist theologians articulate how Black women’s faith provides a basis for understanding, questioning, and responding to oppression specific to Black women and their communities. She further argued that Black women’s faith seeks to understand and affirm the “necessity of political and spiritual works for the salvation of one’s self and for the salvation of the black family, the homeless, the destitute, [and] young black people” (p. xii). That is, Black women’s spirituality across community institutions, including families, churches, and schools, informs their activism. Moreover, Towne, as cited in Mitchem (2002), described womanist theology as a healing force directed at “cross[ing] the yawning chasm of hatred and prejudice, and oppression into a deeper and richer love of God” (p. 76). Thus, womanist theologians note Black women’s ability to shape responses, raise consciousness, and demonstrate the ways in which spirituality and social activism are linked in a holistic way.    

In the following sections, we simultaneously describe data collection methods used by both researchers, and introduce participants from each study. The next section integrates findings from both studies to describe the reasons underlying the professional entry of African American women teachers. We then conclude with a consideration of the implications for future research and scholarship on African American women teachers.


As African American women and former classroom teachers, we saw ourselves in the stories that the teachers told and in their interactions with their students. As such, this article, from our perspectives, reveals as much about us as it will the participants. Moreover, we attempt to address the ways in which social science research has portrayed Black women as complicit, and in many ways responsible, for the perceived failings of the Black community (see, for example, Moynihan, 1965; Rist, 1973; Spencer, 1986). Until very recently, little research has brought to the fore the voices and perspectives of Black women on their own lives. Both of our studies used qualitative methods to examine the beliefs and experiences of 5 African American women teachers. These methods included participant observations, semistructured and life-history interviews, group conversations, artifact collection, and participant-generated written reflections. Although both studies produced similar findings, each did so with particular aspects of the professional and personal lives of African American women teachers in mind.

Specifically, Dixson situated the project theoretically within Black feminist and culturally relevant pedagogical theories. Three questions guided the research project: (1) To what extent do race, class, and gender identities inform African American women teachers’ pedagogy? (2) How do African American women teachers understand race, class, and gender operating in their pedagogy? (3) How can a Black feminist theoretical lens help to illuminate the ways in which race, class, and gender influence and inform African American women teachers’ pedagogy? Set in Metropolitan,4 a midsized midwestern city, the study was conducted over 10 months in the classrooms of Andrea Carter and Sandra Fisher, African American women elementary school teachers. Data were collected using phenomenological interviews, participant observation, and artifacts, including student assignments and correspondence with parents.

Dixson interviewed the teachers, the teachers’ colleagues, principals, and parents of students who were either currently in their classrooms or who had been in their classes within the last 2 years. The teachers participated in three interviews total. The initial interviews with the teachers were primarily life-history interviews focusing on family and school experiences. Subsequent interviews included discussions of classroom observations. Colleagues and parents participated in one interview each in which the participants were asked to discuss their interactions with and perceptions of the focus teachers. The colleague and parent interview questions were designed to triangulate the teacher interview and observational data. Classroom observations occurred weekly over 10 months. Dixson scheduled the observations at various times during the school day. She observed the teachers’ morning routines—attendance, announcements, homework collection, and so on. She observed afternoon routines—recess, assignment of homework, announcements, dismissal, and so on. Dixson also observed morning and afternoon instructional times. Because both teachers were lower elementary teachers, most of the instructional time focused on literacy and mathematics. Mrs. Fisher was a first-grade teacher, and Ms. Carter was a third-grade teacher. Finally, Dixson observed the teachers during their nonteaching times—that is, she observed the teachers during their preparation time before and after school and during meetings with grade-level colleagues. The observations during the various facets of the teachers’ workday allowed Dixson to see the complexity of their roles.

Dingus (2003) used life-history methods to examine the phenomenon of intergenerational teaching among African American women teachers, with specific attention to the influence of family and culture on their professional socialization. Intergenerational was defined as three sequential generations of teachers, all living (Gadsden, 1999; Inowlocki, 1993). The study focused on the following research questions: (1) How do family and culture influence the professional socialization of intergenerational African American teachers? (2) What forms of professional socialization occur within teaching families, and how are they transmitted across generations? (3) How do these relationships contribute to understanding what it means to be an African American teacher, and how do these conceptualizations reflect cultural values? Dingus collected the data from 9 K–12 educators representing three families of African American teachers. Data included three individual interviews, ranging from 1 to 2 hours that focused on family and schooling experiences, professional entry, career highlights, and family- and culturally based conceptualizations of teaching.

Group conversations provided another data source, with two of three families participating. As articulated by King and Mitchell (1995) in their study of African American mothers and sons, culturally responsive conversations are intended to acknowledge “African American beingness as reciprocal interdependence with others” and “the complementary duality of personal uniqueness within and through the collectivity” (p. 70). Group conversations drew upon comments from individual interviews, which prompted conversations around points related to professional entry, teaching philosophies, family socialization practices, and other intersections of family, teaching, and African American culture. From these conversations, incidents and insights emerged apart from the individual interviews, including perspectives on how the families understood their professional involvement and collective ideas of teaching. Each group conversation ranged from 1.5 to 3 hours. Dingus transcribed each of the audiotaped individual interviews and group conversations.

Dingus’s participants wrote written reflections that incorporated a song, phrase, or proverb to metaphorically represent their individual and familial values, beliefs, and practices regarding teaching. These written reflections elicited culturally situated familial stories about teaching, with participants using gospel and rhythm and blues songs, poems, and phrases as writing prompts. To complement the data sources, Dingus used descriptive field notes, e-mail and postal correspondence, and publications such as newsletters and print articles featuring the families.

Dingus presents findings from one family in this article to provide more breadth and depth. Although similar patterns and themes emerged across all three families and generations, the active classroom status of the White/Brown family of California positioned them to speak extensively on the overarching themes presented here. In doing so, their selection is not intended to represent an exclusive thematic domain, but as a means of facilitating convergence of findings across two data sets in the interest of space. Moreover, we approached the inclusion of just one family in this paper not as a limitation, but an opportunity to present narratives of teachers from both studies in greater detail.


In total, this article examines the reasons for professional entry and the pedagogical beliefs of 5 Black women teachers. Three of the teachers are members of the same family and represent three generations of teachers who live and teach in Southern California. The other two teachers live, teach, and attend the same church in a medium-sized midwestern city.

Mrs. Sandra Fisher and Ms. Andrea Carter were the only full-time credentialed African American teachers in their respective schools in the Metropolitan School District. Although Sandra was the only teacher of color on the faculty at her school, Andrea was one of two teachers of color in her school; the other teacher was a Japanese American woman. Both schools were located in the working-class area of the city with a relatively high number of students who qualified for Title I support and free/reduced lunch.5 Ms. Carter’s school housed the Transitional Education Program, which serviced homeless children and their families.

Reminiscent of the historical literature on African American teachers, Sandra Fisher was highly regarded and accorded respect beyond her 38 years by students, parents, and community members (Walker, 1996). She was born and raised in a large city in the Southern United States where she attended a private Historically Black College. Mrs. Fisher’s alma mater had at one time been a Normal school that has retained a tradition of training teachers, but one that Mrs. Fisher described as a “small liberal arts college.” A 15-year veteran in the Metropolitan School District, Mrs. Fisher was recruited immediately following the completion of her undergraduate degree. Mrs. Fisher is the only surviving member of her immediate family. By most standards, Mrs. Fisher would be considered middle class, having been encouraged by her family to attend college. An attentive teacher, Sandra keeps abreast of the latest trends in toys, cartoons, and music to facilitate conversation, interactions with students, and her overall ability to relate to children. She was well respected by her colleagues, who described her as highly skilled and gifted in her ability to teach the “unteachable” and to manage a classroom. Additionally, parents described Sandra as a committed teacher who “goes the extra mile” for them. Many of her students who enter first grade as nonreaders leave not only being able to read but also having developed a love of books. She often stays for several hours after school to prepare for the next day and greet former students who invariably come by her classroom to say hello and get a treat from her. Seeking to “become a better teacher,” Sandra frequently participated in professional development workshops and seminars while working toward completing a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction at a regional university.

Andrea Carter was in her early 30s and teaching third grade at the time of Dixson’s study. She was born and raised in Metropolitan in a home that included her extended family—mother, maternal aunts and uncles, cousins, and siblings. Her mother worked as a paraprofessional in the local school district and raised her children on a meager salary. Although Andrea’s mother only earned a high school diploma, all four of her children graduated from college. Andrea attended 2 years of her undergraduate training at a large midwestern university, where she was originally a business accounting major. Andrea entered the army, and upon her honorable discharge, she returned to Metropolitan and worked as a secretary and a custodian in the Metropolitan School District. During this time, she completed a degree in elementary education at the local university. A passionate advocate for African American children, Andrea’s colleagues respect her as one who is willing to share her thoughts on contentious issues but open to other people’s perspectives. She held high expectations for student academic performance and took full responsibility for their success, which she measured not only by grades but also by the quality of their work.

At 74, Violet White is the mother of three children who are all educators. She attended an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in her home state of Texas before relocating to California in the early 1950s, where she eagerly accepted a teaching position in a large metropolitan district. Throughout her career, she worked in several schools within a large urban school district. She retired in 1992, only to return to school for special education certification. After 39 years of classroom teaching, Violet returned to work as a part-time special education literacy specialist at a private urban academy for special needs children.

Violet’s daughter, Kathy Brown, graduated from her mother’s alma mater with a degree in elementary education. She returned to Southern California, where she began her career as an art teacher in a district neighboring her mother’s. At 52 years old, Kathy transferred to a suburban district closer to her home after 29 years in the same urban district.

Keisha Brown, Kathy’s daughter, was the first member of her immediate family to attend a predominantly White university. At the start of her undergraduate studies, Keisha was determined to become a medical doctor, a choice she believed would better capitalize on her Ivy League education. She majored in education, however, as an alternative to a pure science track. As a result, she decided to become a doctor of a different sort by pursuing her PhD in educational psychology. After the completion of her bachelor’s degree, she earned a master’s degree and completed doctoral coursework in the same field before earning her teaching credentials through a national teacher corps program. At the time of the study, she taught in the same district and school building where her mother formerly taught.


We present three convergent themes that best represent these teachers’ views of why Black women enter teaching: that teaching is tending our mothers’ gardens, teaching as community work, and teaching as nurturing our mothers’ spiritual gardens. We acknowledge that the themes have considerable overlap. From our perspective, this overlap represents the highly contextualized nature of Walker’s (1983) garden metaphor. Given that the Black women in this article firmly situate their work within the Black community, the overlap makes sense. That is, as evidenced by the historical and recent research on Black women teachers, Black women have typically described their mission as working toward the upliftment of Black people. This community work was done in large part as a manifestation of their spiritual beliefs and was a continuation of the legacy of Black womanhood. Both studies revealed similar reasons underlying the professional entry of African American women into teaching, including a continuation of family teaching legacies, the influence of other Black teachers, and the connectedness of teaching to spiritual beliefs.


All the teachers credited the encouragement, support, and mentorship of African American women teachers, including their mothers and other mothers, as key to their professional entry. The influence of mothers was perhaps most profoundly obvious in the White/Brown family. Kathy believed the “courage [to teach] came from the fact that my mom had basically shared how she dealt with [teaching]. That was a big help. Her model, looking at her in the profession, was a model of how to be in the profession.” Keisha believed that teaching was “in her blood” and described how intergenerational connections to teaching were “powerful. The socialization of being a daughter and granddaughter [of teachers] on both sides. It was a powerful shaper of my ideas and that alone fueled the passion [for teaching].” Similarly, both Andrea and Sandra credit their mothers with suggesting teaching as a career choice and providing significant emotional support when they decided to pursue the profession.

According to the participants, the community-based orientations of teaching, acts of othermothering (Collins, 1990/2000), faith, and courage of their female blood and fictive kin, coupled with the inspirational modeling of other African American female teachers, provide the fertile grounds upon which their work as teachers grows and prospers. For Violet, the legacy of her African American teachers continues to shape her ideas of good teaching and why she continues to teach. From them, she learned how to function in a racist society and maintain a sense of personal dignity and self-worth. Her teachers demonstrated how to gain respect from Whites and that being African American was not a mark of shame. She remembered how one teacher “taught you the facts of life and how to get along in the community.” These lessons shaped her efforts to set the bar of achievement high for her students. “Mrs. Bell told me, if you can make an A under me, you can make an A anywhere you go. That’s the way I am with a child.”

For others, the symbolic garden is also inclusive of professional awareness and strategies for longevity, as African American teachers in generations past demonstrated. After 31 years of classroom teaching, Kathy considers herself a mentor in the same vain as her teaching foremothers. Drawing on her mother’s mantra of “be the best you can be,” she considers her mentorship of novice teachers an essential component of her professional growth. She tells them, “You do the best you can with the kids. Come in prepared as though you can save every child. Come in with your lesson plans ready, with that mental attitude you really want to do your very best, and that you are going to strive for the best.”

Keisha explained how Black women teachers, including her mother Kathy, grandmother Violet, and others, including a small, close-knit group of Kathy’s former coworkers, helped her overcome her initial resistance to teaching. Additionally, she observed how these individuals were warmly received within the African American community, thus helping her to recognize the rewards of teaching. Her grandmother’s influence was particularly significant in shaping her professional pride, classroom practices, and teaching philosophies. Keisha’s talks with Kathy and Violet about teaching demonstrate the dialogical element of Black feminist knowledge (Collins, 1990/2000), highlighting the ways that relationships contribute to the construction, assessment, and validation of knowledge. Dialogue enabled Keisha to make sense of the teaching profession.

I am still trying to get where Grandma and mom are. But if I can be blessed enough to have those kinds of experiences, those children will come back a little bit down the road and say that something that I did and said, or something that we experienced together made such an impact. My grandmother and mother can reflect on that. So I am trying to get there. If I am blessed enough like my grandmother said, even if just one. And it is already been returned to you. It’s returned to you daily. I am still learning how to be a teacher. But I think some of the ways I move and all that is kind of just natural to me because I am mimicking still. I am kind of modeling and mimicking still and drawing on stories and all that. I will hear myself and say, “Wow, that kinda sounds like my mother or my grandmother.”

Sandra credits her mother with encouraging her to become a teacher after she enrolled in a vocational education program in her high school that would have prepared her to become a secretary.

I was going to go to a vocational school [to become a secretary]. . . . My mother looked at me, I was in 12th grade . . . [and] getting ready to graduate. My mother said, “No. You will not do that.” She said, “Sandra, you would be really good as a teacher . . . I think you would work really good with kids.” And I thought, oh, no! And so, my mother told me to enroll at college in education.

In addition to her mother, Sandra credits her former teachers and the cooperating teachers from her student teaching internships, all of whom are Black women, with instilling in her the idea that teachers are dedicated to their students and they show that by being available and working hard.

Growing up [and] one thing I did see in my student teaching was that teachers did not take off when the bell rang. I didn’t see them zooming out of the parking lot [laughs]. Teaching was an honor! Oh, God, you’re a teacher? Where I come from, if you were a teacher, that’s an honor to be a teacher. And, one thing I found out about teachers, they will work hard.

Moreover, for Sandra, putting in dedicated and significant time after school was another way that teachers demonstrated their commitment to their students. After school was not only a time when she cleaned up the classroom but also a time when she prepared for the next day. Furthermore, Sandra stayed after school to be available for her students, both present and past, who might have needed tutoring or personal attention.

We can leave here at 3:15 p.m. As you can see, the building’s practically empty. There’s nobody hanging around. Everybody takes off. What I was told, when you taught, you know, you’re dedicated to teach . . . how can you run out the door by 3:30 p.m.? That’s not possible. And so, a lot of the teachers [from her student teaching] would be there working. I mean, you had to be there working . . . and, the teachers that stayed the longest and worked the hardest had the better-behaved classes. And they did. They were dedicated. They put their hearts into it. And I saw it. And I said, “that’s the way I want to be. I want to be the same way!”

Thus, Sandra learned firsthand from her teachers and mentor teachers the notion of dedication. She continued the practice of giving of her time in an effort to carry on the legacy of what she witnessed and experienced. For Sandra, working hard meant spending significant time preparing teaching materials and lessons and being accessible to her students during her nonteaching hours. Furthermore, she believed that time spent preparing lessons resulted in few classroom management issues. In this way, Sandra continues to harvest the gardens of her Black women teacher foremothers.

Andrea Carter’s decision to enter teaching illuminates the concern of “othermothers” for community well-being and cultural continuity (James, 1993). Her decision also highlights the ways in which, as James argued, othermothers contribute to the development of effective models for social transformation. Andrea described her childhood as full of rich cultural experiences. She was raised by her mother, grandmother, aunts, and uncles and grew up with a host of cousins, who played significant roles in nurturing her development. She was further inspired to be a teacher because of experiences in the military, where she encountered a number of people she described as having “issues” with race; she described them as “dysfunctional” and not open to other perspectives. As a result, she believed that a career in teaching was the best way to address and combat the close-mindedness and bigotry she experienced in the military.

Andrea spent the majority of her life in the same community in which she taught. The strong sense of cultural continuity and community Andrea acquired through familial interactions is now, according to her, quite different. From her perspective, she believed that the sense of cultural community was slowing deteriorating: “Having grown up in a close community that’s not close anymore. I have an ‘old-school’ mentality. I think our culture has gotten away. I think our culture benefited me. I want to help kids. I saw a need to help kids to grow in a positive way.” Moreover, Andrea believed that her purpose in life was to be a teacher and to help her students succeed in life.

Believing in myself that people are put on this earth for a purpose. I think that [pause] I was here for children. And, not just in the fact that children, you know, [to] be with ‘em and play with ‘em, but to help them grow. I mean, I honestly feel that way. I mean, I do this. . . with my own children . . . I’m here for you and I will sacrifice anything for you. These kids in this classroom, I’m here for them. I will sacrifice and do whatever I NEED to do, in order to help them get the things that they need, so that they can be successful in this arena [school] and as well as in life in general. ‘Cause that’s my job. That’s my responsibility.

When asked where she learned this sense of commitment and dedication to her students, Andrea attributes it to her background.

I mean you can’t really, read it in a book. I mean, you have to live it, ‘cause that’s how you really get your training . . . the educational research all that stuff is fine, well and good and it has its place. But, I think that, for me, it was, because of where I came from and my background. That stuff to me is like common sense ’cause you are who you are and whoever you are, you bring that to your setting [emphasis added].

Thus, for Andrea, teaching is an expression of one’s cultural background, experiences, and beliefs. She believes that teaching allows her to transmit and continue cultural traditions that she feels are vital to African American students’ success. Andrea, along with the other participants, entered the profession to impact the lives of African American students beyond school-related activities, with the intent of preparing them for life. As demonstrated in the next finding, teaching as community work, they understood the roles of African American teachers to encompass community.


Across both studies, participants highlighted the ways in which their decisions to enter teaching allowed them to remain connected to Black communities and students, function as cultural workers, and act as community othermothers (Collins, 1990/2000; Gay & Barber, 1987; James, 1993). For Sandra Fisher, Andrea Carter, and members of the White/Brown family, teaching was more than a just a job. In their estimation, good teachers create lessons and materials that engage and challenge students; they teach beyond the physical boundaries of the classroom; and they avail themselves to students. Keisha expressed how good teachers also impart life lessons to students, providing hope.

I tell them, look at me! I was you; this is me, all the gradations of brown in here. And we can go out there. We are out there. You can achieve but it has to start here. Family issues yes, but the stories and the messages from my family is, be that student, be that educated person. That is the way you can help out your family. It’s about understanding me and what I have here that I present and stand before my kids with. That’s why I wanted to come to Dreyton. I wanted to go back to where I can be back in a community, where I can continue on my own journey, and that will no doubt play a role in the classroom.

The participants in both studies attributed their community connections as helping with their effort to impart life lessons to students, believing that such connections contributed to a strong sense of themselves as Black women. Kathy elaborated on this point, saying,

I think teachers of color, we start from building structure, let’s deal with values, let’s build with that inner something that is going to give you reason for knowing why you are learning, as opposed to just coming in saying, open up to page 57. You start with the fact that you are going inside yourself to what you know it takes to make it and to get over in this society.

As such, all the teachers believed that teaching was an honorable profession that required advocacy, specifically for African American children and their families. Positioning themselves as school- and community-based advocates, the teachers believed that they played a crucial role in the social, political, and economic advancement of the larger African American community. In this sense, the theme of teaching as community work was conceptualized. When asked why she spoke out at school board meetings on policies that she believed would disproportionately affect families in her school community, Andrea had this to say:

I didn’t think they had a voice out there and because of the population they were talking about, that population wasn’t being represented. And, because I’m from that community, I felt that I needed to get up and say something and give them a voice because I work in close contact with that program and those families that came through the program. I kinda always made myself present. “Yep, here’s another Black person that you can identify with in this building if you need something.”

Andrea Carter recognizes that as an educated African American woman, it is her responsibility, as a member of her community, to advocate for Black students. She was invited to participate on a race relations panel and saw it as an opportunity to advocate for Black children and their families. Andrea felt very passionately about discriminatory housing practices that granted housing to people whose income was equal to three times the monthly rent. For example, if an apartment cost $750 per month, an applicant would need to earn $2250 per month to qualify for the apartment. To Andrea, this practice was inequitable and essentially ensured that children whose parents worked low-wage jobs or who were unemployed and on public assistance would live in substandard and/or unsafe housing. She believed that it was her responsibility to lend her voice in protest of housing discrimination and participated in a city housing meeting to protest the city’s income requirement. As both a member of the community and a teacher, she saw herself as an advocate for the families (many of whose children attended her school) who experienced the discriminatory housing practices.

Keisha, who entered the profession after completing doctoral coursework in educational psychology, believed that classroom teaching provided the skills and knowledge necessary for her future research endeavors. Keisha elected to return to Dreyton and pursue a teaching career. This decision was in large part due to her commitment to “giving back” to her community and teaching African American children. That is, although Keisha was pursuing doctoral study at a major university in the Pacific Northwest and most certainly could have decided to seek employment in the local school district, she decided to return to Southern California to teach. Moreover, Keisha’s decision to pursue teaching as a means to enhance her understanding of African American children, the focus of her doctoral study, exemplifies Collins’s (1990/2000) notion that Black women use experience as a criterion for judging truth. Collins explained, “ For most African-American women, those individuals who have lived through the experiences about which they claim to be experts are more believable and credible than those who have merely read or thought about such experiences” (p. 209). Thus, for African American women, we can believe that someone is an expert about a particular issue because she has lived through it. For Keisha, it was essential that she teach in Dreyton to be credible as a researcher who examines the educational experiences of African American children.

Along with working diligently to engage students in the curriculum, the work of these teachers is inherently political. On a micro level, these teachers wage daily protests and subversive activities in an effort to dismantle the racist beliefs that harm African American children. For example, Kathy described conferencing with the handful of African American children in her suburban school. As the only African American teacher in the building, she was sensitive to the negative perceptions of African American teachers by school authorities. She recalled an instance when an African American boy was, “acting up. When I pulled him aside, I didn’t talk to him about his books. I talked to him his color. [I told him his behavior] is what is expected of you, and that is why you get lost.” No matter the venue—school board or faculty meetings—these teachers are committed to making school more equitable for African American children.

The participants strove to provide quality education for African American students and were intent on expanding their ideas of good teaching to include Latino, Samoan, and Asian American students. As such, they were keenly aware of the educational challenges of limited English proficiency, poverty, racism, and differences between home and school cultures. They viewed these challenges as opportunities to learn about the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of their students. Kathy Brown considered teaching as a way of giving back to her community. During her 28 years in Dreyton, Kathy worked primarily with African American and Latino children and families from low socioeconomic backgrounds. From these experiences, she became “very confident that no matter where I go, I can basically teach. Not only so much for the academics, but for the nurturing, the caring, the being concerned.” A holistic approach to teaching—inclusive of, but not limited to, academics—formed the backbone of her teaching approaches in that she emphasized the imparting of life skills to her students. This, she believed, was “the starting point in teaching” and allowed her to touch her students’ “hearts and souls” to provide a solid foundation of character building, decision-making skills, and an emphasis on humanity. She described how this philosophy guided her interactions with students, family, and community in Dreyton, where “many of the kids I started to get, their parents used to be my students. Just to see the growth from one generation to the next” was rewarding to her. This affinity for the people of Dreyton and the ability to contribute to the community formed the basis of Kathy’s rationale for teaching. She believed that her work there was a mission related to the community’s needs.

Keisha had Dreyton in mind when she left graduate school for classroom teaching. Although she did not live there as a child, Keisha felt a strong affinity for the community, primarily because her mother taught there for 29 years. Community connections not only informed her teaching but also provided a basis for self-knowledge. She said,

[Teaching in Dreyton] is about me and understanding me, and appreciating me and what I have here that I bring, and I try to present that and stand before my kids with. That’s why I wanted to come to Dreyton, not this savior mentality, but it started with me, like I wanted to go back to where I can start to learn more about me. I can be back in a community where I can continue on my own journey and then that will no doubt, play a role in the classroom.

Believing that teaching is “an understanding, it’s a connection” to community, Keisha was troubled by the preponderance of teachers who are not willing to commit to and familiarize themselves with communities of color. She questioned, “Where is the understanding about the community of kids that you are going to be faced with? If you are just teaching for teaching’s sake, then you have already made up your mind that you are going to be comfortable with the status quo.”

As a special education literacy instructor, Violet believed that reading instruction empowered students with the life skills necessary for personal development and participation in larger society. Throughout her career, Violet expressed her concern for reaching a variety of children through her requests to work in largely Asian American and Latino populations because she believed that these communities needed to see African American teachers working with their children. No matter where she teaches, her concern for students is that they “will be able to handle life situations. What I am getting you ready for is a job.”

For all these teachers, teaching is intricately connected to the communities in which they work. Their work as teachers entails protesting inequitable housing practices as well as teaching literacy skills. They saw their professional responsibilities extending well beyond the confines of the classroom and meeting the needs of their students beyond just academics.

The final theme, “teaching as nurturing our mothers’ spiritual gardens,” expands on community connectedness, highlighting the ways in which a spiritual mission informs the participants’ teaching.


Participants across both studies connected teaching to a larger spiritual mission. They demonstrated this notion of teaching as being spiritually guided as articulated in their teaching philosophies and their ability to withstand professional challenges and difficulties throughout their careers. They described a complex understanding of spirituality, inclusive of Christian beliefs, through which participants filtered teaching practices and mission. In this sense, however, spirituality is not necessarily analogous to religious practices or ideologies in that, on many levels, participants described spirituality as a means of acknowledging the moral, communal, and ethical dimensions of human interaction. Thus, they perceived the relationship between their teaching and their spiritual beliefs as an obligation to treat children, families, and communities with the highest amount of respect and humanity. Teaching provided the opportunity to heal souls, imparting encouraging words for spirits wounded by racial discrimination, poverty, and miseducation across generations. The ability to heal wounds is, as Boyce Davies (as cited in Mitchem, 2002) argued, related to Black women’s communal mothering practices. Specifically, she described how “Black women have to become the healers/mothers for each other when there is such a need” (p. 51). The participants incorporated aspects of healing into their teaching by seeking ways to combat the ravages of injustice, imparting lessons of racial/ethnic empowerment through humanistic pedagogical approaches.

Spirituality was a driving force in the participants’ selection of teaching careers and professional practices. When asked if there were ideas that guide her teaching, Sandra credited her strong belief in God as a major influence:

Well, I have to say I think a strong belief in God has really helped in many ways. Some of the things that I do in Sunday school, they apply here. The respect. The caring about one another. That has guided me. It’s just the things that I’ve learned even in the Bible have guided me here at school and how to deal with my kids. I treat them with respect. They treat me with respect . . . I’m not teaching the kids religion . . . church is a big inspiration to me to help me make it through the day and with my teaching . . . how to deal with the students and how to deal with parents and how to become a better person or a teacher for my kids.

Andrea Carter described her teaching philosophy as one that is based on a kind of common sense that is rooted in her religious upbringing. Collins (1990/2000) described such knowledge as the “common place taken-for-granted knowledge” of Black women derived from “everyday thought and action” (p. 34). Andrea noted the importance of a spiritually situated commonsensical approach to teaching saying,

I think that no matter what religion you are, you all have the basic same foundation to be honest, to respect people, to treat people like you want to be treated. And, whether you have a religious affiliation or not, you know, people who don’t believe in anything, their beliefs, whether they believe or not, stem out of some religious foundation and all that ties into that. And, when I say common sense, it’s just like, well, doesn’t everybody do that? Or, you know, doesn’t everybody want the best for their kid? Doesn’t everybody expect, you know, their kids to excel? I mean, just basic common sense.

Thus, for both Sandra and Andrea, their religious beliefs provide a sort of “common sense” way of teaching. For both of them, respect and care are basic core values that everyone holds regardless of his or her religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Interestingly, both women attend the same church in Metropolitan, where Sandra is also one of the Sunday school teachers.

Kathy likened her work with African American and Latino children as a mission in that she believed by touching one life, a teacher has the ability to touch and transform other lives (James, 1993). She selected the hymn “This Little Light of Mine” as a metaphor for her teaching mission. The song is about a sense of being that shines so brightly from within that others can “see” it. She compared teaching to this spiritual aura, saying,

I trust that some part of my educational endeavors and guidance will remain everlasting as a reflection for students to gain strength and shine in their journey to success. When they look back onto those who made a difference in their life, I hope that somehow the remembrance of my light will continue to guide them.

Thus, Kathy connected her work to an overarching mission that extended beyond academics. She viewed the development of life skills as an essential component of her teaching and believed it to be her “strong point in teaching.” She focused on reaching students’ “hearts and souls” to provide a solid foundation that they can return to throughout their lives. Teaching involved “touching the souls” of students who could then perhaps “touch one more.” These ideas, along with emphasizing humanity as a factor in good decision making, were the bedrocks of her teaching philosophy.

As emphasized by Mitchem (2002), Violet too connected teaching to a larger spiritual mission situated in a love of humanity. According to Violet, teaching and spirituality were inseparable and integral to creating a better world.

The basic foundation for me is love. I have to love to teach and then I have to love those children to teach them. Like I told this little girl, I wouldn’t be in there unless I loved the children, especially being a retired teacher . . . but I do base [my teaching] on something spiritual. They have taken the Bible out of school! No, they haven’t because as long as there is a person like you or I who have the Bible and religious feelings in our heart, you could pass that on to children without having a Bible. Like this little boy yesterday. I stopped and wrote Philippians 4:13 on his paper and told him to read it. I can’t take the Bible in there but I can take my heart in there. And if nothing else, this child will know I gave him a kind word.

Kathy elaborated on the delicate negotiation of maintaining Christian beliefs in a public school setting, saying,

When I was doing fables yesterday and we got off into talking about sharing and helping. One little boy said that sometimes you can take food to transient people. But it led me off into saying how we could go to bed tonight thinking we are all healthy and get up in the morning and be whatever it is were are going to be but then not even get up in some cases or not put your feet on the floor and walk. You could have heard a pin fall because we went from fables about the hare and the tortoise to almost a Sunday school lesson in a sense. In the back of my mind, like what my mother was saying, this is a reading lesson, but yet, I know that I am giving a part of God because I can just feel God saying, “Keep talking, keep talking no matter who walks in that door.” Yes, you can always throw it back on the hare and the tortoise. One little boy who was so fidgety said, “Ya’ll be quiet because she is saying some good stuff. We are all supposed to share.” It was like I was getting off into his soul.

Keisha believed that a humanistic pedagogy and spirituality were integrally connected, noting the ways in which love figures prominently in her teaching practice. She said,

[Teaching is] connection. Love is spiritual. It’s historical. It’s so many different pieces of that love so that [a teacher] cannot just say, “I love kids.” We are the only profession that is a human exchange between adult and child. No other profession is like teaching. It has to involve so much more of you and the world and society. Each year, it’s on [teachers] to try to solve the problems of the world. That’s what you are really trying to do. And you are busting your behind to do that.

Spiritual foundations provided endurance, strength, and peace when faced with professional difficulties and obstacles. For example, Kathy perceived her work in Dreyton as a mission related to the community’s needs but also a fulfillment of what God called her to do. When she grew tired of administrative changes and district-level politics, she accepted a position in a district closer to her suburban home. She believes that God guided her in making such a difficult decision:

You have paid your dues in Dreyton. I think it was what I always felt. I had always told God that when it was time for me to leave Dreyton, He would let me know . . . I just realized that God was saying, “You have done what you needed to do.”

Kathy credited the “goodness of God almighty” and “praying hard” for giving her the strength and stamina to remain in the teaching profession for over 30 years. Violet too believed that faith sustained and strengthened her throughout her career. She credited her faith as a factor that motivated her to teach beyond retirement, saying, “As long as God gave me breath in my body, I will always try to teach somebody’s child.” Violet further articulated this idea by selecting the hymn “The Last Mile of the Way” to represent her perseverance and tireless faith across a lifespan, saying, “If I can help someone, then my living shall not have been in vain.”


This current era of educational reform targets teacher education and aims to improve the performance of children who have traditionally underperformed or who have been underserved in public schools. In particular, current educational reform efforts, specifically the “No Child Left Behind” legislation, purport to ensure specifically that children who live in poverty and students of color achieve at the same rate as White students in America’s public schools. The research on which this article is based, although skeptical and critical of some of the reform efforts, presents yet another layer to the struggle to ensure educational parity and equity for children who have historically been underserved in America’s public schools.

Arguably, educational policy has tried to address the ways in which “good teaching” contributes to improved performances of students, in particular, poor children and students of color. Although the focus on improved instruction for these children is crucial, the challenge for our research, and indeed research that examines good teaching, is also to develop ways to make the tacit explicit. Furthermore, our belief is that educational research should also consider how best to illuminate the pedagogy of Black women teachers in a manner that informs the practices of all teachers. Similar efforts can be seen in the work of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), in that the classroom practices of expert teacher Harriet Ball were examined, documented, operationalized, and incorporated into the program’s conceptualization (Matthews, 2004). The question remains, however, How do teacher educators impart the experiences, knowledge, wisdom, and even spiritual aspects of Black women’s pedagogy in ways that reach classrooms across multiple settings? Moreover, how are these pedagogical beliefs transmitted in a way that respects and honors the work of Black women teachers and does not trivialize their teaching or render them invisible? This is especially important when their pedagogy and pedagogical philosophies are indeed operationalized and offered as a franchise of sorts, as in the case of KIPP. As demonstrated in this article, understanding why teachers enter the classroom is essential to understanding their underlying mission and what will enable them to make significant impact on the lives of children. In the spirit of our teaching foremothers, we challenge teacher education programs to examine, develop, engage mission and incorporate it into our responsibilities of bringing teachers into the profession. In what ways do teacher education programs attend to mission in their programs from start (e.g., publication materials, entrance interviews) to finish (exit interviews, teaching placements/assignments), where an emphasis is placed on producing quality teachers committed to the aesthetics of teaching? Moreover, in what ways do teacher education programs impart strategies to develop a critical cultural consciousness (Gay & Kirkland, 2003)?

African American women teachers come to teaching as part of a legacy of Black feminist activism that has sought to maintain cultural practices, address racial and economic inequity, and facilitate the development of youth. We examined what motivated several African American women teachers to enter the profession within not only Black feminist theory but also within the garden of Black women scholars who laid the foundational groundwork for examining the pedagogy and beliefs of Black women teachers writ large (Collins, 1990/2000; Foster, 1993, 1995; James, 1993; Ladson-Billings & Henry, 1991;Walker, 1983). In this article, Black women teachers from very distinct geographic regions—Southern California and the Midwest—expressed similar ideas related to their professional entry and commitment. Such geographic considerations, as argued by Foster (1995), impact Black teachers’ conceptualizations of their pedagogy in that teachers from (and living in) the South learned from close relationships with their own African American classroom teachers, as opposed to their northeastern colleagues, who instead, she argued, learned by precept. Despite the differences in age and region, professional settings, and grade levels, these teachers shared expressions of teaching that imply an organically based understanding of the profession in that these beliefs align the work of African American teachers with community-based perceptions of teaching as honorable work. In locating their work within a tradition of caring, dedication, commitment, and professionalism, they highlight aspects of teaching that extend beyond academic preparation, subject matter knowledge, or technically defined dynamics of teaching. Instead, teaching is a holistic endeavor that simultaneously addresses content, classroom management, pedagogical skill, and life lessons.

Three of the teachers we presented in this article are members of the same family (grandmother, mother, and daughter) and represent the influence of family socialization on Black women’s decisions to become teachers (Dingus, 2006). The two other teachers discussed the influence not only of family members but also of other teachers—specifically, other Black women teachers—as teacher encouragers (Dingus, 2003). Hence, these women carry on the tradition of Black feminist activism, found in Black teachers’ work, that has been intricately connected to the communities in which they teach and identify (Collins, 1990/2000; Dixson, 2003; hooks, 1994; Taylor, 1998).

The teachers presented in this article exhibit the notion of teaching as being spiritually guided. Their spiritually guided work demonstrates their commitment to their students and the communities in which they teach. In this way, teaching for them is more than just a job. Furthermore, for these teachers, notions of care and respect were a vital “common sense” aspect of their teaching that they also attributed to their spiritual beliefs. They incorporated moral lessons and values into their teaching that they extrapolated not only from biblical passages and hymns but also from their personal experiences. The spiritual nature of their teaching was expanded to incorporate services to benefit the greater good of society, with particular attention to marginalized and oppressed communities. They believed that by touching the lives of a few, they could inspire many to do the same.

A common idea among the participants was their perception of teaching as a means of empowering African Americans and other underserved communities. These ideas are similar to those articulated by Edwards and Polite (1992) in their study of factors contributing to the success of African American adult high achievers. For the teachers in this article, the notion of giving back or helping others in their cultural communities ranked high among their successes. Shaw (1996) also noted how African American college students gravitated toward professions that would allow them to provide service to their communities of origin. These powerful ideas of teaching as tending their mothers’ gardens, community work, and nurturing their mothers’ spiritual gardens permeated the high levels of professional commitment for the teachers presented here. Despite an awareness of negative societal perceptions and critiques of the profession, the teachers thought that teaching was important, empowering, and life-altering work. They did not see themselves as victims, powerless to impact the communities around them. Instead, they saw themselves as empowered professionals with the ability to perform meaningful work in their classrooms, communities in which they taught, and humankind at large.

Finally, the need for more scholarship on what brings and keeps Black women to teaching is of great importance and significance. Recent figures show that Black teachers constitute approximately 7% of the nation’s public school teaching force. The figures are even more germane when years of classroom experience are considered: 21.9% of Black teachers have 10–19 years experience, and 36.1% have 20 or more years (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1999–2000). As the number of Black teachers—regardless of gender—dwindles, understanding what motivates Black women to enter the field becomes important for recruitment and retention. That many Black women teachers provide and create an educational environment that successfully engages African American students has already been well documented (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2002; Casey, 1993; Collins, 1990/2000; Foster, 1991a, 1991b, 1993, 1995, 1997; hooks, 1994; Irvine, 1989, 2002; Irvine & Hill, 1990; Irvine & James, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 1997; Ladson-Billings & Henry, 1991; Walker, 1996). The teachers highlighted in this study not only demonstrate the complexity of Black women’s pedagogy, but they also speak to the manifestation of intergenerational legacies on their teaching. As such, it is important to ensure that African American students roam the “gardens” of Black women teachers.


1 It is important to note we will be using the terms African American and Black interchangeably when discussing people of African descent. Although we understand the political connotations of both terms, for this article, we are not making an argument for exact nomenclature. That is, in some sociopolitical circles, using African American is important because it identifies a geocultural identity that locates people of African descent who were born and reside in the United States within a particular geographical location: Africa. In other sociocultural circles, the term Black refers to a more diasporic identity that locates all people of African descent, regardless of nationality, within a common sociopolitical cultural group. We find both arguments compelling and thus have decided to use both terms interchangeably.

2 We recognize that some Black women scholars make a distinction between Black feminism and womanism as gendered lenses to examine Black women’s experiences. We see the terms as synonymous and the differences as a matter of semantics because at their core, both center the analyses on the beliefs and experiences of Black women regardless of class, sexual orientation, marital status, and religious affiliation, among other characteristics. For a discussion of the similarities between Black feminism and womanism, see Katie Cannon (1995) and Stephanie Mitchem (2002).

3 In her second edition of Black Feminist Thought (2000), Collins abandoned the term Afrocentric when describing a Black feminist epistemology. Collins abandoned the term primarily because of disagreements with its creators regarding issues of gender and sexuality. In addition, she argued that the term is too value laden to be useful. Collins believes, however, that Afrocentricity, broadly defined, still has merit. I tend to disagree with Collins’s decision to abandon the term; abandoning the term is inconsistent with Black feminist thought in the sense that Black women are encouraged to redefine words, ideas, locations, and so on, into that which is useful and empowering for us. Collins’s dismissal of the term appears to be a contradiction.

4 All names of people and locations are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of the participants.

5 Twenty-five percent of the students in each school qualified for Title I support and free/reduced-price lunch.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 4, 2008, p. 805-837
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14630, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:36:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Adrienne Dixson
    The Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    ADRIENNE D. DIXSON is an assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University. Her research interests include the teaching and learning experiences of African American teachers and students, and equity and diversity issues as they pertain to people of color and multicultural education. Dr. Dixson’s most recent project is Critical Race Theory in Education: All God’s Children Got a Song, a book she coedited with Dr. Celia K. Rousseau, Routledge Press (2006).
  • Jeannine Dingus
    St. John Fisher College
    JEANNINE E. DINGUS is an assistant professor in the Executive Leadership Program at St. John Fisher College. Her research interests include African American educational issues, specifically teachers and learners, teacher socialization, and multicultural teacher education. Dingus’s most recent publication is “Community Reciprocity in the Work of African American Teachers” in Teaching Education.
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