Before entering the education profession, my role models were black men like Michael Jordan, Jay-Z, and Will Smith. They looked like me, took an interest in the same types of things that interested me, and they did things that inspired me. Even though they became successful through sports and entertainment, they were my young definition of what successful black masculinity looked like. However, they led very different lives than me and as I got older I realized that our paths may have started similarly, but they eventually took very different routes. Relating to these men on a practical and authentic sense was becoming more and more unrealistic as I grew older. When I decided to become a teacher, I thirsted for new figures to inspire me. Professional models, so to speak. I reflected on teachers I once had as a student. I thought about the qualities that made them memorable to me and began to emulate some of those things in my practice. But I did not know of any educator that I could look to and say, “there is the blueprint”. There seemed to be no one in this profession that I could truly relate to.
If I found one or two qualities in a educational leader that reflected my upbringing or interests, it was certain that the person had not ascended into the higher levels of the education profession. Then I started reading about this guy, Dr. Chris Spence, who was the Director of Education for the TDSB (Toronto District School Board). To be honest, what filled my perception of him was that good ole’ traditional black self-doubt and stereotyping. I assumed that this guy got where he was probably because he was a “puppet” and just another token black male who rose up the ranks by being a “good little boy” and not true to his authentic identity.
I was wrong.
He was a former football player who believed in and preached about the power that sports could have on a young person’s character. He understood the difficulties that young, especially black, males faced meshing academics in with notions of identity, popularity and respect amongst one’s peers. He explicitly pushed for reform that spoke to the marginalized. And he was indeed doing his thing, holding the chief position at one of the largest school boards in North America. He was truly inspiring. Chris Spence motivated me to become more than just “the black gym teacher”. He inspired me to want to inspire the next generation.
In 2013, Chris Spence resigned from his position as the Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board amidst a plagiarism controversy regarding some of his work that appeared in newspapers and speeches. I can go on and on about the semantics of “plagiarism”, “research”, and “collaboration” but I will save that for another day. What is done is done. I feel bad for him as a man and an educator. I was embarrassed for him and for our Board. I wish that things did not turn out the way they did. But as the urban colloquialism goes, it is what it is.
Regardless of the plagiarism issue, the character of Dr. Chris Spence has not and will not change in my eyes. He was truly an inspiring, humble, and knowledgeable man. He was passionate about his students, his schools, and education. I ran a small club for some of our at-risk minority males in my school and after sending one email to the man who probably fields hundreds before he has his morning coffee, guess who came to visit us? – Chris Spence. Little me, a first year teacher, naïve enough to send an email to the Director of Education about this “amazing club that is meant to boost self-esteem and positive notions of identity for our black male students”. I just wanted to get that email out, not really thinking anything would come out of it. I mean he was the Director of Education, which is one of the busiest and most demanding jobs in the city of Toronto. But Dr. Chris Spence had time for me and my kids.
As we soak up a few final sun rays and prepare for our first day of school, it should be remembered that, plagiarism or not, Dr. Spence is a man of his word (please pardon the pun). In a system of so much bureaucracy and delegation, Dr. Spence was an anomaly. He was truly an inspiring person who cared. He is a man who directly impacted and changed my life’s direction and before I start this school year, I owe a thank you to him for being the person he is. Good luck Dr. Chris Spence.
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