We Need Black Teachers In More Ways Than You Think

With Tik Tok and other organic ways new age terms are created, teachers are trying their best to keep up with the latest colloquial phrases. (Photo by Nappy)

by Aziah Siid

For grade-school teachers, keeping up with student slang is a race as old as the teaching profession itself, and one they can never win. Changing as quickly as the weather, the hot slang word or phrase of the moment — the one that’s so lit everyone in the caf is using it — is usually hella dead by the time most adults they know catch up. 

When it shows up in the classroom in students’ oral answers and written exams, slang can leave teachers scratching their heads. That’s led some educators to take extreme measures: one teacher went viral for an outright ban on slang, while another pranks his own students with fake slang. 

But some Black K-12 educators have taken a different view. They have embraced slang as a valuable teaching tool for Black students, one that celebrates their identities, their culture, their lived experiences and their linguistic ingenuity.    

Chris Emdin, an associate professor at Teachers College, proposes a new approach to teaching he calls Ratchetdemic. It centers the language and culture of Black students’ lived experiences in a way that may not align with traditional academia. 

“We don’t need their permission to create language, especially as people who created hip hop. This can be a valuable teaching tool for our kids about linguistic ingenuity.” he says. 

The Need For Black Teachers Is Evident

Data underscores Emdin’s perspective. According to the language learning website Preply, about 3 in 10 parents said slang should be allowed in school, and 40% of teachers agreed that slang could help students express themselves. Thirty-six percent of teachers said accepting slang shows respect for students’ cultural identity.

At the same time, more than half of teachers surveyed worried that slang could lead to misunderstandings or miscommunications between teachers and students, and 50% believe it could disrupt the learning process. Earlier this year, a teacher went viral for posting a list of slang words she banned from her classroom. 

But Emdin believes that’s the wrong approach. Students learn best, he says, when they feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to the classrooms. Acceptance of slang language on things like term peppers and in oral reports illustrates that. 

“To be ratchetdemic is to have no part in starving the authentic self, while still maintaining high academic standards and high academic rigor, “ Emdin, who wrote a book on the subject, said In a Harvard EdCast episode

“I chose the word ‘ratchetdemic’ because it’s a merging of being ratchet and academic,” he said. “I was intentional about utilizing a colloquial slang word and merging that with being academic. I understand that for some folks to ratchet is to be loud or to be abrasive, but there are variations in ratchet.”

At the same time, many slang words are rooted in African American Vernacular English, which some studies recognize as a legitimate English dialect with its own rules and functions. 

One way to help schools achieve that level of comfort for Black students is to diversity the workforce — a longstanding problem in U.S. public schools. Study after study shows achievement among students of color rise if they are taught by a teacher who looks like them making it potentially easier to relate to or understand slang. Yet the percentage of Black teachers working in public schools is around 7%  nationwide. 

Until that elusive goal is reached — and until slang is universally accepted in school — teachers are finding different ways to catch up. 

Educators have taken to social media platforms, sharing ways they use to keep up with their students. Some recommend simply asking for clarification when a student says something new or unusual. Other teachers suggest keeping a weekly diary of every new word that shows up in the classroom or is overheard on campus. 

If research hasn’t shown enough, staying connected and in touch with your students goes beyond simply standing in front of the classroom. Learning their cultural dishes, staying up to date on their catch phrases, and countless other ways are open for teachers to show up for their students.