Lone Black Teacher Gives A Minority Report
Edmund Fountain photographs and interviews teacher Chrissell Rhone, the only African-American teacher at a school in Picayune, Miss.
By Edmund Fountain
Assigned to photograph teacher Chrissell Rhone for an Education Week story, I headed up to the town of Picayune, Miss., located some 40 miles north of New Orleans. Mr. Rhone, who is black, previously taught in New Orleans, but was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and lost his job as the school system there was reorganized after the storm. In the Crescent City, Rhone was surrounded by black colleagues and students; now he is the lone black educator in his school, which caters to children with special needs.
I had covered New Orleans’ switch to charter schools previously, but this was my first glimpse into the life of a displaced New Orleans teacher who was now teaching elsewhere. I was able to sit down with Mr. Rhone and talk about his experiences working in Picayune as well as how it differs from working in New Orleans.
Education Week: How does your experience in Picayune compare to your time in New Orleans?
Chrissell Rhone: It’s been very different.
Working in Picayune has been the first time I’ve had white administrators. In terms of students, there were some cultural differences. Things that I did not see or expect in New Orleans I’ve seen and expected here in Picayune.
EW: How did you adjust to that?
CR: I just kind of learned what behaviors to ignore or expect from certain students. For instance, the Confederate flag. While some do see it as inflammatory, for a lot of my students it’s just something with their heritage, and not that they’re trying to be disrespectful or racist. It’s just a part of their life, so it’s not an issue.
EW: Do you feel as though you are racially isolated here?
CR: (I feel) isolated, yes, because I’m the only black teacher at my school and, no, because I’m not treated differently because of race. So physically looking at it, yes, but in terms of interactions, no.
EW: Do you ever get frustrated?
CR: There are times that I wish there were more black teachers in the district. I think our kids need to see more of us in the classrooms.
EW: What’s kept you in the profession for so long?
CR: I really feel this is my calling. I’ve honestly tried to leave and didn’t get any of the other jobs that I’ve applied for. And I see now where God has just used me to work with certain kids– and actually some of my coworkers as well–so i just know this is what I’m supposed to be doing.
EW: How does school climate and work environment play into retention of teachers and recruitment of teachers of color in your district?
CR: None of the teachers who I knew that left the district left because they felt there was a race problem in the district. They either moved away or moved on to different jobs or different opportunities, but it was never because they felt like they were being harassed racially or mistreated racially.
EW: Why haven’t you gone back to New Orleans?
CR: Again, I just feel this is my calling, this is where I’m supposed to be. I am considering [that] maybe in the future because I’m looking into administration, and I know there would be more opportunities there just because it’s a larger district. So maybe in the future I may go back, but for now this is where I’m supposed to be.