Are We Too Focused on How Black Boys Act to Know Who They Really Are?

Feb 18, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Lee-Ann Stephens

“Mrs. Stephens, I am having a good day today!” That was how I was enthusiastically greeted by a kindergartner, an African-American boy. He was going to tell me how many words he read, how many sentences he wrote or how many numbers he could count, right? Wrong. “I didn’t get any timeouts!” he said. As soon as he defined his day as “good” based on not getting timeouts, my heart sank. It was another example of how our black boys’ success in school is marked by their behavior and not their academic prowess. Let’s face it: There is a presumption that black boys are a problem. Before they arrive at school it has been determined they must be controlled, subdued and made acceptable for the classroom. The fact that they are children, buoyant and filled with limitless potential, isn’t part of the story. As a long time educator and true believer in the power of education, I wonder what kind of educational system have we created that instills the definition of a good day into a six-year old black boy by his behavior? Don’t we see a problem with teachers  who don’t look like him or have his experiences being the ones to make negative determinations about his behavior (and ultimately, his future)? In Pedro Noguera’s The Trouble With Black Boys….And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and The Future of Public Education he says “[a]s is true in society, an implicit social contract serves as the basis for maintaining order in schools. In exchange for an education, students are expected to obey the rules and norms that are operative within school and to comply with the authority of the adults in charge.” Children who believe in the promise of schooling are more likely to be compliant with the house rules because they understand the personal benefit. But black boys get an entirely different message. Dr. Noguera says they (and other under-privileged students) realize compliance isn’t relevant to their lives. Not surprisingly, this arrangement tends to be least effective for students who are not receiving the benefits of an education. Once they know that the rewards of education—namely, acquisition of knowledge and skills and, ultimately, admission to college and access to good-paying jobs—are not available to them, students have little incentive to comply with school rules. By now, as educators, we should have all the research we need to do better. We have the studies that tell us where we go wrong with boys. They are graded less on their ability and more on how closely their behavior  resembles that of girls (read: white girls). Teachers ask them to sit still for inordinate amounts of time and to speak only when hands are raised first. Black students are more likely to be removed from school for  disrespect, defiance and disruption, which are highly subjective infractions. Yet, when we fail with black boys it is because we see them as the problem that must be solved, because they don’t fit our conception of what a student should be. We try to calibrate them to be the model, without question the model or our complicity in selling education’s false idols to another marginalized generation. Professor Christopher Emdin  tells us that black students are  different, but that doesn’t mean they are  deficient. To address the low achievement of black males, schools must be willing to accept that there are ways of looking at the world, modes of communication, and approaches to teaching and learning that are unique to black males. At the same time, educators must also acknowledge that these unique ways of being are just as complex as those of other students. The tie that binds all students is the desire to be academically successful. In a  large study of black students in New Orleans eight out of ten black parents expressed expectations that their children would go to college. Fifty-eight percent of black boys who participated in the study said their teachers should push them harder, and 34 percent believed their teachers goals for students were too low. If you are a critical thinking educator like me, then you have to confront the reality that we are swimming up stream in schools that just aren’t made for black boys (and girls). We can choose to replicate the same rules over and over that fail us each time, or we can ask fundamental questions, like why are we asking these children to check themselves at the door and comply with a set of standards imposed upon them by mainstream society? Is that working? Does it really make sense to have a shunning system that tells them if they can’t comply, then they will get timeouts or find their way to the “behavior” specialist? In my time coaching teachers and working with students who have high promise in schools with low expectations, I’ve learned that nothing beats experience, self-reflection and a constant challenging of the system to support black children. I can’t offer any substitutes for that in a blog post, but I can suggest a few radically simple things to consider for any educator working with black boys.
  1. Examine our belief systems and how we were racialized growing up. We need to remember that we teach who we are.
  2. Don’t be afraid to love black boys.
  3. Focus on the strengths that black boys possess. If they talk incessantly, plant seeds in their heads that they will be great debaters or attorneys.
  4. Depict images of positive black males in your classroom, such as Moziah Bridges, Farrah Gray, etc.
  5. Provide a kinesthetic environment for them.
  6. See them. Hear them. Know them.
  7. Get to know their families through home visits. Do not visit the home to judge. Visit the home to build a relationship/partnership with the families.
  8. Ask them how you can help them to succeed. What do they need from you?
  9. Teach with your heart. Your head will follow.
My dream is to have kindergartners, black boys, approach me saying “Mrs. Stephens, I had a good day,” and by good they mean their brains were on fire for learning.
An original version of this post appeared on Citizen Ed.

Lee-Ann Stephens

Lee-Ann Stephens has been an educator for 25 years and was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2006. She currently serves as a teacher on special assignment with the St. Louis Park School District in Minnesota. She serves Latino and African American high school students who are enrolled in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and honors classes. She previously served as an adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University and she served on Minnesota’s Board of Teaching. She holds a B.A. in International Studies, B.S. in Elementary Education, M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction and she is currently pursuing an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. She is a MinnCAN board member.

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