Tamara Pearson

New Research Shows Black Women Teaching CS Play a Key Role in the Classroom

A recent study led by Georgia Tech research faculty member Tamara Pearson, the senior director of Research and Programs in the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech, focuses on understanding how Black women teaching computer science define themselves and their roles in the computer science (CS) education space, an underexplored topic according to Pearson.

The researchers discovered that the unique, intersectional identities of the teachers – being both Black and women – were inextricably linked to their experiences as CS teachers. 

They found that making someone pick one identity – when they live with multiple – doesn’t fully account for how people navigate society or the power structures they deal with every day.

“Our participants’ perceptions of their roles as CS teachers illustrate how Black women not only model a deep understanding of, and compassion for, student needs but simultaneously contribute to an ongoing mission of racial uplift through their presence in front of the classroom,” Pearson states in the paper.

Using data collected from surveys, interviews, and focus groups with four Black women teaching high school CS in a majority Black school district in Atlanta, Pearson and co-author Pamela Leggett-Robinson of PLR Consulting explored the teachers’ unique experiences and approaches to CS education. 

“These teachers are cognizant that their intersectional identities, as Black women, contribute to dismantling stereotypes of who is smart and who ‘can do’ computer science,” writes Pearson.

The research findings show four themes that emerged as common perspectives from all participants. Based on this cohort from the Atlanta school district, the study shows Black women: 

  • Care for people
  • Are transformational leaders
  • Represent possibility
  • Expect more

The theme of caring for people was omnipresent among the participants. They discussed historical depictions of Black women as teachers, nurturers, and caretakers. They also conveyed how they challenge their students – regardless of race or gender – on what is and is not acceptable behavior and place expectations on the students to be better people.

“This long-standing, multi-generational practice that Black women developed by taking responsibility for the social and ethical development of all Black children continues in today’s classrooms, even when the children are not Black,” Pearson writes as part of the findings.

The other themes – Black women being transformational leaders, representing possibility, and expecting more from students – represent an ideal that the participants see for their work as CS educators. The themes also show how Black women view their intersectional identities and value their unique position to provide opportunities for their students, particularly for those who are marginalized.

These educators do this even when their acceptance within the CS field is challenged.

The research found that Black women are highly represented in professions essential to the daily operation of society. However, research also indicates that Black women are often congratulated in the moment, immediately forgotten, and placed back at the margins.

The researchers plan to continue their work to better understand what sustained success for Black women teaching CS looks like. Future studies will expand to include input from Black women CS teachers from across the United States.

Pearson is presenting Unpacking the Unique Role of Black Women Computer Science Educators at the Association for Computing Machinery’s annual technical symposium for Computer Science Education (SIGCSE), taking place March 20-23 in Portland, Oregon.

Read more about Georgia Tech's work at SIGCSE 2024.