As we wrap up Women’s History Month, CPE wanted to highlight a local female educator who is a trailblazer in the field of education. One year ago, Tamara Allen-Thomas became the first ever Black female superintendent of Clairton City School District. We interviewed Allen-Thomas as part of our I Reach, I Teach interview series with Black educators and learned about her journey to the highest administrative position in a school district despite what she described as the “double whammy” of circumstances working against her: being both Black and a woman as she applied for a position of power most commonly held by white males.
The “double whammy” Allen-Thomas describes is also known as intersectionality. The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as, “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Essentially, when someone identifies with more than one disadvantaged identity, their disadvantages compound and it becomes even harder for them to access resources and opportunities, let alone for them to enter spaces of power and leadership. To make more sense of this complex concept, let’s break down some data on gender and race in the field of education.
- Nationwide, less than 1% of superintendents are both Black and female.
These statistics show us that prospective superintendents with the intersecting identities of being both Black and female face additional, compounding barriers to hiring than those who are just Black or just female.
Allen-Thomas wrote her dissertation on the extra barriers that Black women must overcome on their journey to superintendency while she was completing the journey herself. She learned that “it’s important to know that you’re not in the struggle alone. And it’s important to know that you can be what you want to be because there’s someone who’s already done it.”
Allen-Thomas recalls how having a Black teacher in her youth inspired her to enter the field of education in the first place. When she had a teacher that looked like her she knew she too could be a teacher, and later to become a superintendent. Allen-Thomas recalled, “she modeled the type of teacher and leader I would ultimately become.” In her current position, Dr. Tamara Allen-Thomas is now an inspiration and source of representation to other Black women who are aspiring leaders in the field of education and beyond.
Intersectionality: Kimberlé Crenshaw, the academic who coined the term intersectionality, defines this concept as: “Ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and they create obstacles that are often not understood within conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism or whatever social justice advocacy structures we have…Identity is not simply a self-contained unit. It is a relationship with people in history, people in communities, people in institutions.” Go here to watch a short video and learn more!
Characteristics of Public School Teachers (2021) Coe – characteristics of Public School Teachers. Available at: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/clr/public-school-teachers (Accessed: February 23, 2023).
Collier. (2009). Black women superintendents: Leading with love. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Eddins, M. et al. (2022) “FAQ: Superintendents in Pennsylvania School Districts ,” Research for Action [Preprint]. Available at: https://doi.org/Pennsylvania Clearinghouse for Educational Research.
Mahon, E. (2020) Women are more likely to work in Pa. public schools – but a lot less likely to lead school districts, WITF. Available at: https://www.witf.org/2018/11/20/women-are-more-likely-to-work-in-public-schools-in-pennsylvania-but-a-lot-less-likely-to-lead-school-districts/ (Accessed: February 23, 2023).
Mahon, E. (2020) Pennsylvania superintendents: By the numbers, WITF. Available at: https://www.witf.org/2018/11/20/pennsylvania-superintendents-by-the-numbers/#:~:text=But%20they%20are%20less%20likely,school%20district%20superintendents%20were%20women (Accessed: February 23, 2023).
Trust, E. (2022) Educator diversity state profile: Pennsylvania, The Education Trust. Available at: https://edtrust.org/resource/educator-diversity-state-profile-pennsylvania/ (Accessed: February 23, 2023).
Opportunities for Reflection
- Take a minute to think about the different intersecting identities in your classrooms and building. Are all students given the same opportunities? In terms of equity, do you believe sometimes students with more social forces working against them sometimes need additional support/opportunities?
- Which students in your classrooms and buildings can you begin encouraging to become educators? Think specifically about the students who may not inherently view themselves as educators because they don’t match the most common “image” of teachers: white women. Do you have any male students who you believe would be excellent teachers? Students of Color? Students with varying abilities? We must affirm these students that they too have an important place in the field of education. And, as these populations enter the field of education, our educational leaders will more accurately reflect our student populations.
- Think about your career journey. Were there any additional obstacles you faced or judgments you believe you received because of an identity or demographic you’re a part of? How can you help those around you to effectively move through these obstacles? Research what percentage of educators in the U.S. share your racial/gender/socioeconomic identity.