Nicholas Cains is an Instructional Leadership Coach for the Empower program, Leading Educators’ partnership with Tulsa Public Schools, where he helps K-5 teacher leaders develop their strengths in instructional leadership and equity. Previously, Nick was an elementary teacher and a manager of teacher leadership development. In light of recent reports about teacher diversity from the Education Trust and the Center for American Progress, Nick joined us for a conversation about the role of identity in his career as an educator.
LE: Hi, Nick. Thanks for chatting with us. What’s your story?
NC: Well, it all started with a phone call! I grew up in Houston, Texas, and I went to college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas where I majored in theater, but I knew I didn’t want to be an actor. So, then I minored in journalism, but I knew I didn't want to be a journalist either. One day, I got a phone call from Teach for America, and they asked me, “Why do you like school so much?”
I liked school because it gave me a lot. In the fifth grade, my teacher saw something in me, and she told my mom I couldn't go to the school that was across the street for middle school. She wanted me to go to a better school even though it was 30 minutes away. My teacher did all the paperwork for my mom, and I transferred to that magnet school, and I've loved school ever since. This teacher, whose name I don’t even remember, picked me out of everybody, but it wasn’t fair. She changed my entire trajectory because she thought that I deserved a really good education, but I had 25 other classmates who also deserved one.
I started teaching second grade, and I also worked in the summer coaching other teachers. I became a manager of teacher leadership development for a couple years, and then I had the opportunity to become an instructional leadership coach at Leading Educators when we launched the Empower program in Tulsa.
My job now is to be a human catalyst for educational development. I love helping people discover and build off their strengths. Getting to work in proximity with people who are touching the lives of children and having tough conversations about equity with people who may not have had those conversations before gets me out of bed every day. I get to bask in the glory of the people that I coach. I get to see how they shine. I'm very happy about what I get to do.
LE: Equity is important to you, and you often talk about your experiences through the lens of being a Black man. Only 2% of teachers nationally are Black men, which is far from representative of student populations. What barriers have you experienced in your career as an educator?
NC: I think I have been luckier than most in some ways; I didn’t run into many barriers until I was already a teacher. When I first moved to Oklahoma, there was such a big need for certified teachers that I got alternatively certified and I had the opportunity to teach in a field where I didn't have a specialized degree.
I think a lot of people wanted me to be a teacher, especially in elementary school where there aren’t a lot of Black men. However, once I was in a school, I didn’t really have access to a mentor because of that.
A lot of people assume that just because you are a Black male teacher and you're teaching Black children that you totally understand your kids. I wish there were way more Black male teachers at my school so I could have had a more nuanced conversation about something that I already knew was true - everybody has to put in effort to learn who their kids are.
In the school where I taught where most of my kids were Black, I could not have been more different to them. I felt like I was one of very few people to them who identified as Black but who also dressed the way I dress and talked the way I talk. Especially knowing more of the history of the Black community in Tulsa now--both the accomplishments like Black Wall Street and the ways in which race was weaponized against Black excellence--I have always felt like celebrating the diversity within Blackness is just so essential.
I wanted to be color-blind for a little bit and tell myself, “I'm just teaching my kids, it's not about race.” But it was always about race. It would have been really nice to be able to talk to someone very early on about how they knew that, how they carry the weight of being someone's only Black male teacher in their life, and how they hold that. How do they break down stereotypes of what Black men are? I would have loved to have that kind of experience so I could give that back to my students.
LE: Why is it important for students to have teachers in whom they can see themselves?
NC: Representation matters. Representation matters for people as we try to put together who we can be. I was in a session we facilitated this weekend in Tulsa where we talked about movies and representation, and I realized that the first time I experienced a movie where I thought that the superhero looked like me was Black Panther, and that was only a couple years ago.
When I was a kid, movies and TV shows with all Black people were usually about poverty. They were stuck on showing gangs or miseducation in schools. When I got down to that realization, which I'm still sifting through, I realized that more representations of Black people doing different jobs would have been awesome. I didn't have a Black male teacher until I was in junior high school: Mr. Boyce, who taught us government. He was awesome, but he was it.
More representation means kids don't have to do mental gymnastics just to say, ‘I could see myself as a teacher,’ or ‘I could see myself as a superhero.’
When I first started teaching, I was told all the time that I would have a profound ‘additional’ impact on students because I am Black. I was also 23, and I was very afraid of that. I was like, ‘Okay, there's a lot of pressure on me being Black and perfect, and I actually don’t know if I can be a role model.’
After I left my first job where I had been teaching mostly Black students, one of the girls wrote me a letter that said, “Mr. Cains, you didn't know this, but I don't have a dad, and you're the closest thing I ever had to a father.”
This is one of my 6th grade girls that I only talked to every now and again at lunch time, and I never knew any of that. I realized that if you are a teacher, you automatically get power. You automatically get status in a student's life. I wish I would have accepted earlier on that it's not about saying, “I'm not ready to be a mentor.” It's more about saying, “I can't hide who I am from my students, so now that I have a responsibility, what will I do with it?”
LE: When you are working with teachers around equity, what generally gives them their biggest a-ha moment?
NC: I think that it's actually pretty consistent. I'm a big believer that to change the system, and before you even look at interpersonal relationships, there is self-awareness work that everyone has to do. I think that's the most powerful thing.
Speaking for myself, it was powerful for me to explore who I am and to be more aware of my identity. What is my race? What is my gender, what is my socioeconomic status, what is my language or country of origin, what is my immigration status, and what power do all of those give me? What unearned benefits do I get from each of my identity markers and where am I targeted?
These experiences have helped me recognize that being Black makes me feel like a target all the time, but in a room of women, being a man can give me a lot of power. That kind of nuanced conversation really pushes the envelope for a lot of teachers, because then we can act on it. I mainly coach teacher leaders who are white women and most of them teach across lines of difference as well.
When I've seen those teachers and school leaders say, “I'm really thinking about how I am racialized white, and that gives me privileges that I have to think about. I have power that I didn’t earn, but that I have to work with because it affects how I teach kids.” I think that understanding is essential, and if everyone was doing that kind of work, especially at the school level, I think it will only lead to better results for communities and for kids.
LE: What should district and school leaders be thinking about when working to bring in more teachers of color while supporting the teachers of color they already have to the best of their ability?
NC: I think first, figure out why we’re at a point where there aren’t enough teachers of color, and continue to create conditions where people of color can feel safe and seen.
I was in a recent session where we talked about the Brown v. Board of Education decision and that while the desegregation decision was essential, hundreds of thousands of Black teachers were fired to make room for other teachers in predominantly Black schools. Historically speaking, this was set in motion a very long time ago, and not for just Black teachers.
Leaders of districts can take an honest, data-driven, historical approach to consider how we got to the point where we are. Look at exit interviews for why people have left. Was it for economic reasons? Was it conditions at schools? Was it because the way people were treated was out of line with their own values? Let's get honest about why we're here. I believe these are tough conversations that many districts are already having and are inviting their communities to have as well.
Second, leaders could address the reality that white dominant culture is pervasive throughout the entire country. It’s the unquestioned norm. I can't speak for all people of color, but for myself, I feel safer in an environment where I'm not the only one who has to think about race, and I'm not the only one who has to attend professional development on how to bring equity into the classroom. I shouldn’t be the only one who has to reflect all the time.
I think about race every single day of my life because I'm Black. I have had colleagues that couldn’t talk about race. They essentially said, “If you want to be okay around me, you cannot bring up race, you cannot attribute any problems to race, and if you ever try to call me in about something I've done that could have been hurtful racially, I will reject you.” That tells me there's a line in the sand between me and that person. That I would have to be open to being hurt and silenced if I chose to engage with them. That, to me, is terribly sad.
There should be systems in place to ensure everyone in the school continues to grow and really works on equity. We should all have to reflect on how we exist racially and what we should be doing in order to reduce inequity. Even in schools of primarily people of color, we can still have internalized oppression that we have not been able to talk about, aspects of white dominant culture that need to be put on the table. If we just hire a bunch of people of color into inequitable systems, we will struggle to retain them because the culture doesn’t make people feel safe enough to exist.
I am dedicated to being involved in education for the rest of my life because I want those conditions to exist for everyone. I want every teacher to feel like they can bring their authentic self to their schools and classrooms. I want every teacher to have the resources they need to make each school a safe and exceptional place for every student to have an awesome education. I’m here now to see progress happen no matter how long that takes.