“You cannot mentor someone you don’t know”: A Conversation With Wallace Grace About Black Teacher Collaborative, Mentoring, and Along

Wallace Grace, Director of Innovation at Black Teacher Collaborative (BTC), brings over a decade of experience in education as an educator, practitioner, and researcher having worked in education non-profits, schools, and districts across the nation. In his current role as Director of Innovation, Wallace contributes five years of experience using academic, applied, and practitioner-based research in the design, implementation, and innovation of school-based programs, as well as experience overseeing partnerships with schools to ensure high-quality program implementation that results in desired programmatic and student outcomes. In addition to serving as the Director of Innovation at BTC, Wallace is completing his doctoral studies in the Education Policy Studies – Social Sciences and Education program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Wallace currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia.

What does ‘mentoring’ mean to you and Black Teacher Collaborative? How does Black Teacher Collaborative contribute to what it means to be a mentor? 

As an African-American, same-gender-loving man, I have really struggled to find personal and professional mentors — mentors who see me, and who want and have the ability to invest in and help me on the journey of personal and professional development. I think that people’s inability to see me and my humanity at the intersection of my Blackness and queerness and gender has precluded me from having the deep and profound mentoring experiences and relationships that I have seen so many of my peers and colleagues have in their lives and careers. This was particularly true during my 20s and early- to mid-30s.

Reflecting on mentorship from this perspective, I have come to think of mentoring as a function of many things, but most critically, being seen and valued for who you are at a particular moment, and mentored with your full humanity in mind. For a variety of reasons the past three years have ushered in three wonderful mentors for me — Hiewet Sengor, the founder of BTC, Ben Houltberg, CEO at the Search Institute, and Dr. Bianca Baldridge at Harvard University — whose personal and professional mentorship of me has felt so liberating because their investment in my development is grounded in my full humanity. I can see and feel it.

All this is to say, and as recent social science research suggests, social identity matters profoundly in mentoring contexts. And I think at the core of BTC’s developmental work with Black teachers is our investment in, and the desire for us to play a role in, Black teachers’ mental, emotional, and racial journeys of re-imagining themselves as Black teachers for Black students. We desire to be co-stewards of this process with our teachers. This is BTC’s concept of mentorship, and it shows up in almost everything we do with teachers.

Black Teacher Collaborative, a social entrepreneurship venture, provides an opportunity to engage in the development of strategies and tools that build the mindsets, skills, and knowledge needed to actualize a new model for Black teacher impact and efficacy. What does this mean? What are the core, strategic priorities of Black Teacher Collaborative?

BTC’s mission is to engage, develop, and support a collective of Black educators who will ensure that Black children achieve at high levels academically while simultaneously preparing them with the intellectual, social, emotional, and cultural capital to actively participate in the ongoing advancement of their communities. All of the development and learning experiences we design for Black teachers are guided by our Black Liberatory Pedagogy. This is our research-backed pedagogical framework that outlines ‘best-in-class’ teaching skills, knowledge and mindsets, aligned to eight core elements of a Black liberatory teaching and learning experience. For example, Collective Responsibility is an element of our pedagogical framework as historical and contemporary research suggests that Black teachers and Black students thrive in learning environments where collective learning and shared ownership of the learning process are important conditions for Black students’ learning. As such, through a set of individual and collective learning experiences, we help our teachers develop core beliefs about the role that collective responsibility plays in Black teaching and learning, knowledge about instructional strategies anchored in collective responsibility, and how to employ these instructional strategies in their daily instruction. One of our most innovative learning and development spaces is our whole-group professional development, called Maroon Sessions. In this learning space, we provide Black teachers with the opportunity to continue to build their instructional efficacy while also engaging in peer-learning and deep relationship building, and receive social and emotional support, anchored in their Black identity, that too often Black teachers do not receive.

Over the next three years one of our main priorities is to expand our programmatic offerings to reach more Black teachers and Black students. This month we are launching our BTCi3 (Interactive, Innovative, and Immediately Applicable) virtual monthly workshop series, which is a space for Black teachers to come and learn practical instructional strategies that can be immediately utilized in their classroom instruction. During our inaugural workshop, which is designed for Black Literacy and English and Language Arts Teachers, participants will learn how to utilize Black Liberatory Socratic Teaching in their literacy and ELA instruction with Black students. Another core priority for BTC is to provide more content-specific program offerings that help Black math, literacy, and ELA, and science teachers anchor their content and instruction in Black liberatory teaching and learning principles. In the fall we are piloting our Black Liberatory Algebra I Teacher Learning Experience with 8th and 9th grade Black Algebra I teachers – an innovation we are really excited to launch and learn from. We are also launching our Academic Fellowship where we will partner with university Professors to establish our research agenda to help us better understand the elements of successful education of Black children.

In addition to being the Director of Innovation at Black Teacher Collaborative, we understand that you have played a critical role in the development of Along, a partnership between the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Gradient Learning. With so many edtech tools in the space, what do you believe makes it different? How has your contribution to Along added to its unique value?

I fell in “critical love” with the Along tool the moment it was introduced to me. I say “critical” because while I immediately recognized the potential impact Along could have on teachers and students, at the same time, I saw opportunities for Along to resonate more with Black students in particular, and other students of color. What I was able to see immediately as different about Along is its attention to theories, concepts, and empirical research on child and adolescent development. This is a really, really important point. So many edtech products for teachers, and I would say education solutions in general (tech, curricular, teacher PD, etc.) are void of any research on how children and adolescents develop within educational contexts. I could see that Along was grounded in deep, thoughtful research. And from a user-design perspective, I also felt that Along had been designed for practical utility for busy and overworked classroom teachers. I could see that designers had asked the question: “how can this tool be used very easily for very busy, overburdened classroom teachers?” So I think its developmental nature and its attention to the day-to-day context of the classroom teacher makes Along stand apart from other edtech solutions.

Back to the critical love of Along. While I fell in love with the tool as an educator, I did have thoughts about how teacher-facing and student-facing aspects of the tool could be revised to help teachers create developmental relationships with Black students in particular. On the teacher practices side of Along, I reviewed this content through the lens of Black Teacher Collaborative’s pedagogical framework, and my own growing expertise of Black child and adolescent development. For example, where I saw places where the teacher practices or student activities were anchored in normative ideas of child development or missing reflection on Black students’ experiences within the K-12 educational system – particularly with teachers, I made specific recommendations to change content. So I think, or at least I hope, that BTC’s contribution to Along has provided content that is essential to help teachers build deep and loving relationships with Black students and students of color. Additionally, from my own experience as an educator, I know that content that is more resonant with Black students’ developmental needs also benefits all students.

What do you believe is the relationship between Along and mentoring more broadly? 

You cannot mentor someone you don’t know, and I think this is particularly true for children and youth. The best, most effective, and liberatory mentoring relationships, as I have said above, are anchored in visibility, humanity, and connectedness. These might sound like lofty, abstract ideas, but they really aren’t. When you look at the research on Black adolescent students’ perceptions of their relationships with teachers, these are the elements of those relationships that they say are important for their success in school. So for me, I think that Along facilitates developmental relationships by helping teachers and students develop the necessary conditions – visibility, connection, humanity – for mentoring relationships. And to this last point, I do think that some of the best teaching, particularly with adolescents, has elements of mentoring if not a mentoring endeavor in part. And I think Along helps teachers and students develop more authentic relationships with each other which sets the conditions for mentoring.

* This issue is sponsored by Along, a free digital tool that makes building teacher-student relationships easy and fun. Visit Along.org to learn more. *