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An Interview with Black Male Math Teacher Jason Lee Morgan
Nationally, only two percent of America’s teachers are Black men. Veteran Philadelphia Educator and Director Shariff El-Mekkii established the Center for Black Educator Development to “dramatically change the face of the country’s teaching profession.” Black males seeing themselves in the faces of those who teach them has an incredible impact on learning, Representation matters. Black Male Educators Create Space for Joy states the following: “Studies about Black male educators support the same conclusion: Schools need more of them in classrooms because all students, particularly students of color, benefit from having Black male educators in school.” Hearing one of the stories of the two percent could give us insight into what inspires Black men to enter education, and could, in turn, inspire others to enter the profession themselves.
While I had a handful of Black male teachers growing up, I never had a Black male math teacher. I have been so blessed to work with some incredible math teachers in my career, ones I wish I had as my own math teachers growing up. I am not sure this generation understands how blessed they are. Jason Lee Morgan is no exception. I first met Jason in our 2020 Teach Plus California education policy cohort. Even though we were online, our immediate connection was undeniable. Here was an African American male teaching math in Compton, California, giving back to the community he grew up in. I was automatically interested in his story, especially since he taught the subject I dreaded growing up.
“People often ask me what I teach: Calculus, Trigonometry, Algebra? My answer: I teach math.” Jason Lee Morgan
Jason was born in South Central, Los Angeles (LA), California (CA) and lived in LA until the 8th grade. He then moved to the Inland Empire to a city called Moreno Valley. There, he attended Rancho Verde High School and upon graduating valedictorian attended Stanford University obtaining a bachelor's degree in economics.
Were you always good at math growing up?
I was “good” at math in 1st grade. I attended our local [community’s] low-socioeconomic school of color on 52nd street elementary in South Central, LA. I was “bad” at math in 2nd grade at the middle-upper class school I was bussed to in the community of Northridge, CA. I got “good” at math as I adapted to my new environment. I continued all throughout high school being “good” at math and enjoying it as my favorite subject. I earned a 5 on the AP Calculus exam and was considered a “math person.” I became “bad” at math again my freshman year at Stanford. It was there that I learned that I wasn’t necessarily good at math, but I was good at traditional school math: following an example and set of procedures and repeating that in similar contexts. I did not truly grasp mathematical concepts and big ideas [needed] to transfer that knowledge in new contexts. Stanford’s approach to mathematical understanding made that gap very apparent. I lost my love for math though my major still required mathematics.
Did you have good math teachers?
I was traumatized by my 2nd grade math experience. The idea of doing a wrap-around and being asked individually in front of the whole class for an answer to a math question caused such anxiety of being wrong or “not knowing” that I felt like an idiot. I’m supposed to change the narrative that Black men are inferior and here I am bombing a math question in a room full of White and Asian students. Apparently, I repressed those memories because it wasn’t until I was an adult that my mom showed me report cards of getting F’s in math in the 2nd grade that I realized I wasn’t always “good” at math.
Did you have any math teachers that looked like you?
My math teachers were White women and one Japanese woman. I loved my high school math teachers though and they were very supportive and saw something special in me. I had great high school educational experiences and all of my teachers were so interesting!
What made you choose to be a math teacher instead of another subject?
When I decided to go into education it was during a time where the district needed science and math teachers. I felt most equipped to teach math than other subjects. And my college units matched more of the math requirements to teach math."The time I have with my students is brief so I need to take advantage of every opportunity. I can either spend it teaching math that’s good for now or that which is good for life." A Voice of the 2% Click To Tweet
What made you choose to teach in your own community? Was it just a matter of giving back?
I recalled my younger years in south central Los Angeles and there has always been something that has drawn me to teach in communities that were like mine growing up. A friend from high school approached me to consider teaching math or science at her school. She taught in Compton at Dominguez where I’ve been ever since. Now, I’ve only taught at Dominguez, but I definitely can tell I have a strong affinity for Title I public schools in Communities of Color.
I was bussed out of my community in order to get a good education but I wondered what about the students who didn’t [have the same opportunity], the ones who stayed. They deserve teachers to provide a quality education where they live. They shouldn’t have to leave their homes to have access to that good education.
Can you name one experience where the fact that you are an African American male played into the perception of how people viewed you in your field?
I cannot recall one specific experience. I [often] feel seen as a unicorn because there are few Black male teachers in general. It’s hard to tell if people think I am a gifted educator or if I am perceived that way because they don’t see [many] Black male educators. I [often wonder] if they are blowing my achievements out of proportion. Do I have Black male teacher privilege? Or am I actually dope? Or is it both?
A recent presentation you held on Data Science had the essential question of “How can we gather data to analyze skin tone representation in the media and present our findings?” Your reflection continued the conversation. “How might Data Science contribute to the conversation of race, media, and representation? What ideas has this learning experience sparked for your own classroom, content, and/or life in context of Community, Culture and Relevance?” Do you often insert topics like colorism in your math assignments?
It depends on the course. Data Science lends more to looking at human stories where we can connect the experiences of certain communities and groups to the data science work we are doing. The field of data science benefits from diverse communities looking at data and providing a range of perspectives to tell the story of the data through in order to pose better solutions that help to curb the further marginalization of certain groups. When I look at how police use data driven AI and technology to determine where to concentrate policing; my experience as a Black man growing up under stop and frisk practices immediately sends a flag that we have to be careful with that data solution because it can result in over policing and further exacerbating issues and create a self fulfilling cycle.
We have to think through how an officer might perceive a neighborhood based on that technology solution driven by data disconnected from the human stories. As a Black man who has been pulled over at gunpoint and falsely imprisoned I might think of the potential moral hazards more readily than the majority culture in data science. Same goes for data solutions that might affect other groups, gender, elderly, or differently able citizens. So our community tends to lean more on the Social Justice frame when dealing with data but that’s because of the interest that my students of color have.
The time I have with my students is brief so I need to take advantage of every opportunity. I can either spend it teaching math that’s good for now or that which is good for life.
We Need More Jasons
Jason and I recently co-presented at a Teacher Leadership Conference on the broad topic Community, Culture, and Relevance. Jason is someone who has helped me overcome my own “allergy to math”. The way he weaves issues of social justice in and out of his lesson plans is something all educators can learn from. His story exemplifies trauma and resilience, passion and purpose, while touching on a beautiful humility and common “imposter syndrome” many brilliant educators like Jason often battle with. I continue to learn so much from you Jason, and now understand even more why your students value you as a teacher, a mentor and a consummate educator in every sense of the word.
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