Principals as Autocrats: Racism Against Black Teachers and Minority Students
By William Garcia
Historically the word autocrat is usually referred to as an absolute ruler or monarch who holds and exercises the powers of government by inherent right not subject to restrictions. Nowadays, the term refers to someone who is domineering and behaves in an authoritarian manner. Principals also exercise power freely with limited restrictions and have an immense power over authority. Principals have their own police provided by the district that are loyal to the principal and will do as commanded. Human Resources is also loyal to school administrations, especially principals, while giving the false impression that teachers can actually file a grievance when in reality if a teacher even attempts to file a grievance he or she can easily end up without a job or even face criminal charges.
The division of Human Resources is traditionally known to serve the entire employee population: teachers, school-based staff, central administration, and support staff. However, what is rarely mentioned is the hierarchy of Human Resources, which begins by privileging school administration and ending with teachers and school-based staff. Teachers are under the false impression that if harassed by co-workers in the workplace they can file a grievance. Unfortunately, with my experience as a first year teacher it turned out to be highly questionable.
It was 2014, when I started working as a first year teacher at the Austin Independent School District. The alternative certification program I was a participant of did a lousy job of preparing us to be teachers according to the districts. Many included aligning the TEKS state standards to the classroom curriculum. In other words, training students to pass the STAAR exams. This obviously had nothing to do with learning and more to do with passing an exam. I was assigned to a mentor teacher who had been a teacher for a couple of years but never helped me one bit. One of those white liberals who thought she knew something about racism, educational inequality, and low-income communities. For a person who grew up in a group home in New York City, I knew that “white-savior teachers” really knew little of white privilege and systemic inequality in the education system.
During my first few weeks of teaching nobody came to observe me for almost a month. While trying to survive my first month as a teacher I realized that my mentor teacher and her colleague were the ones calling the shots at the school. If the principal was an autocrat they were, without a doubt, the principals advisers and ministers of war. It looked like something coming out of a Game of Thrones episode. One of the teachers had advised me that those two teachers had gotten a teacher fired because he went against the principal and the two teachers. I knew I had to be careful. Unfortunately, my approaching demise was due to an unfortunate geographical location. The two teachers’ classrooms were in front of my classroom. I knew I could be trouble very quickly. As a black Nuyorican in Texas, I knew I was going downhill and crash against a brick wall. The other teacher was a dark brown Mexican-American woman, or as they call themselves here, Texan. One of those utterly assimilated Mexicans who spoke like Cher from the movie Clueless. One day, the principal finally decided to come watch my class while I was unsuccessfully teaching the different types of poetry. In the middle of my lesson, the principal interrupted my class and began teaching the core and explained to my students that I was going to teach the subject in a different way. Hard to believe, she started giving me feedback in front of the students as if I was some clown to be picked at.
The principal started to tell me about better ways to teach and told me that she felt like sometimes I did not listen to her. As unprofessional as that was I knew that my first year teaching was going to be filled with humiliation. She gave me a type of gaze that makes you feel like you’re useless and from Skid Row. She started harassing me and micro-managing me by coming to my classroom everyday to point out all my faults, which only made me more nervous. She also started a paper trail by filling out observation evaluations for an entire two weeks that she came to my classroom. She would call me to her office to give me the bad news; my teaching was and never expressed any positive outcomes of the changes I had made in my teaching. As studies suggest, minority professionals feel a lot more anxiety when being micro-managed. My mentor-teacher had no interest in teaching me the ropes and constantly spoke to me abrasively. The same as any white teacher with the “white savior” complex mentality, not knowing that white privilege is what brought her to class with thirty mostly Mexican and black kids. The Alternative Certification Program administration only made things worse. They played devil’s advocate with the principal and started a paper trail as well and began visiting my classroom with the expectation of miraculously not being an apprentice teacher. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which provides aid to disadvantaged students while ironically continuing with standards-based education reform, has resulted in a rise in alternative certification programs which throws apprentice teachers with good intentions into classrooms with increased stressful appraisals by principals.
While the Alternative Certification System was failing me, to make matters worse, they had me “co-teaching” with the Texan teacher who practically ran the school and also insulted me in front of the students who tended to laugh at me when not in her presence. She would literally tell the principal every single time I made a mistake or did something wrong as well as tell me what we were going to do in the classroom each day without consulting me. I felt useless and clueless as to what to do at that point. I read the books: When Teachers Talk: Principal Abuse of Teachers (2009) and White Chalk Crime: The Real Reason Schools Fail (2008), which underscore the abuses of principals and teachers against other teachers. The teacher testimonials were very similar to my situation and that’s when I knew that this was a national problem.
During meetings, teachers had a big list of Special Education (SPED) students that needed “differentiation”. In their book Why Are So many Minority Students in Special Education: Race and Disability in School (2014) Beth Harry and Janette Klinger posit that race-linked labeling strongly reinforces the message children of African ancestry get from the larger society; they’re “At-Risk” of being failures in life. Interestingly, when I worked as a receptionist in a private school there were rarely any students in SPED, proving that minority students get labeled “less than” more often when compared to private schools and non-minority public schools. Private school students also learn more because they do not have state standardized testing and teachers can focus on teaching and learning. Students that get bad grades in minority public schools get promoted to consecutive grades in order to avoid the student from repeating the grade. But when they get to middle school, there is practically no way of helping them. I didn’t want to be a part of an educational system that mislabeled students, doing them a disservice.
A week from finishing my resignation I was summoned by a cop asking me if I was trying to “stab” a teacher. Dumbfounded, I told the officer that I had no idea what he was talking about. I knew it was the teacher and the principal plotting against me. In a meeting with the principal she begins talking about how my resignation is approaching and that it was recommended for me to take the whole next week off. She continues to talk about a last meeting we had about professionalism and how I had to stop disturbing the faculty. Baffled, I asked her to elaborate. She stared at me and denied to do so. I began to ask who mentioned the “stabbing” comment but she denied telling me who it was. I continued by mentioning to her about the officer’s visit the day before and how he interrogated me about whether or not I had said a comment about wanting to “stab somebody”. The principal replied to me by telling me that the words “slicing and dicing” were inappropriate words to tell somebody. When she said that to me I explained to her that that was African American jargon or a colloquialism that is used in New York a lot to express that an action has been accomplished or “I’m getting things done”. In other words, in greeting someone, when asked, “how are you doing?” my response of “slicin’ and dicin’” means I am getting things done.
I gave the principal more examples of the jargon that typically synthesizes rhyme and metaphor. I shared with her phrases such as “static in the attic”, “ain’t no thing but a chicken wing on a string”, “out and about” “cruising for a bruising” were common Black colloquial sayings that I grew up using in my urban neighborhood in New York City. The cohort supervisor that was also was present in the principal’s office said that those comments might have caused misunderstanding. I mentioned to them that I thought it was the Texan co-teacher who had overheard my use of the phrase and that I would have liked for her to not assume things and instead talk to me about the phrase before creating misunderstandings. The principal said that the reason why she invited the cohort specialist was because she felt unsafe in my presence. As she said this, I believed I was being criminalized through cultural and racial misunderstanding. I, a black Puerto Rican teacher, was deemed “unsafe” and a threat due to my use of a black colloquialism, which had been misunderstood for wanting to hurt or stab someone in the school. The principal criminalized me by saying she felt threatened by my presence. For me, this was an example in my own living flesh of the mistreatment of black teachers in schools by principals. I asked her how would she feel if someone told her that they felt threatened in her presence. Her response was that she would self-reflect on her actions.
I reminded her how one of our colleagues, the Texan co-teacher had disrespected me in front of the other teachers during our MOY Data Meeting and how unprofessional that was, yet nothing seemed to have been done about that. She responded in defense “How do you know I haven’t?” I also revealed to her that I did not like the fact that she sent me to counseling for my supposed lack of professionalism in calling the district and speaking with Human Resources in order to get information about how to file a grievance. Upon her finding out that I had called to ask for information, the principal called her superintendent and sent me to counseling because she believed that my supposed lack of professionalism was due to some “emotional trauma”.
Understanding the tension that was already present and the emphasis on me leaving sooner than later, I responded: “I do not want to be a part of the New Jim Crow. I will make this Friday my last day”. She stated that she was only doing her job. At about 2:20 PM the next day, which was Thursday, a receptionist asked the substitute teacher to take the kids out of the classroom. Then I saw two police officers come in the classroom as the students where still leaving the classroom. When the students exited the room, one of the officers told me that they had to escort me out of the school building. Since it was the same officer that asked me about the “stabbing” comment, I quickly explained to the officer the real comment behind me allegedly stabbing somebody had to do with me saying an African American colloquialism and its meaning. He told me that because of my continuous disruptions I had to leave the building. I did not understand what disruptions he was referring to, as there had been none. I asked him if there was any paperwork or any specific details regarding the escort and he told me that Human Resources had all the information.
As I was talking to the officer, one of my students opened the door and saw me talking to the officers. I could only imagine what a 10-year-old boy was thinking at seeing his teacher in the presence of two police officers and an empty classroom. I was very upset at the moment and reacted by saying: “I swear on my parents grave I’m suing this place”. I was very upset and lost my cool feeling that I was being removed because my presence and my use of slang that I grew up saying were deemed unsafe for others in the school environment as well as a threat. The officers were very kind and respectful and let me express my circumstance. I asked if I could leave through the side of the school because I did not want to continue to be humiliated and the officers agreed. I thanked the officers and left the school grounds. I left feeling hopeless and destroyed.
I feel that I have been discriminated against because of my racial and national origin, which has been misunderstood. I question why the principal could not have waited until the students left the building, until the end of the school day. It is difficult to explain this circumstance, but I believe that some reparations must be done. Discrimination and harassment in the workplace is illegal as well as instilling fear for one’s employment termination, which is the prime reason why I had decided to simply resign and protect my professional integrity.
Principals behave like autocrats doing whatever they please without any repercussions. It is simple: principals are politicians and government officials. Most are not educators. Believing principals are simply school administrators is a faulty logic that has to be questioned by first year black teachers. As black teachers, it is incredibly hard to survive without compromising our culture and our professional integrity. In-school bullying is not a new topic but is definitely hidden from public view.
Something has to be done for the sake of our students. Rarely known is the constant criminalizing and pathologizing of black teachers simply because of socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Black teachers are expected to assimilate kids into mainstream Americans when instead many black teachers attempt to teach minority students critical thinking. On top of that, our students are being labeled SPED in worrisome proportions in comparison to other non-minority public schools and private schools. Many teachers don’t have a choice because it is the only way to help students in the public education system. Also, parents and teachers in our communities need to work together in order to ensure that our students are learning; thereby demonstrating that we do not need any type of “saviors” like Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie Dangerous Minds (1995). The challenges of the NCLB act, “savior teachers”, conservative pedagogy catered for dominant society, and in-school bullying of black urban teachers by teachers and principals need to be readdressed for our kids’ future generations’ sake.
More pieces by William Garcia:
William Garcia is an Afro-Nuyorican by way of Staten Island. He has a BA and a MA in History from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. His research interests are Afro-Latino history, hip-hop and reggaeton in the Caribbean and Puerto Rican transnational migration. He is currently an MA student in Curriculum and Teaching at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @