Does being me give me an advantage in my inner-city classroom? I often reflect on this question because every school year I learn from a handful of students that I am their very first Black male teacher. If we got 100 teachers in a room, statistically I would be one of just two Black males in that room and one of 50 who will leave the profession within our first five years. I am now in my fifth year of teaching and I want to stay where I am.
I know that it’s not my skin tone but my cultural experiences that give me the advantage. I develop close bonds with my students quicker because I grew up in the same Boston neighborhoods as most of them, and have had close bonds with diverse people of color since my childhood. Boston Public Schools (BPS) has a diverse student body that goes beyond race. Someone White might be Albanian or Polish, someone Black might be Haitian or Nigerian and someone Asian might be Vietnamese or Filipino. I have known and been close to this diversity since I was a student at BPS.
I Don't Have All the Answers
At the same time, I am aware of my limitations. I am not a monolith of the urban experience and a Boston childhood has changed greatly since I was growing up in the city. More kids come into my classroom having experienced trauma and are labeled with behavioral problems than when I was a student. Many more have parental-like responsibilities. So while I may be a role model, an exemplar for my Black male students, I still have the same challenges as many other teachers in my school building. Challenges like trying to teach Brianna how to interpret linear graphs when she is constantly responding to Facebook drama on her phone. Like trying to engage Jeffery in a Desmos activity when he is tired, hungry, and did not eat the school lunch. Or the larger challenge of making algebra meaningful when many of my students are struggling socially and emotionally. Yes, my ability to bond, to develop relationships with my students is the foundation I need to have to support them effectively, both academically and with their social-emotional needs. With every interaction, redirection and teachable moment in the hallways or on the sidewalks, I strengthen my influence.
We All Need a Coach Sometimes
However, there is a price I pay, an invisible tax, to doing that work, a weight that’s placed on me when I learn about a student’s self-harm, a friend’s murder, immigration status or eviction. Many of the things I have learned about my students over the years keep me up at night. This is why I and other teachers like me need coaching to continue learning, deepening and reflecting on our own social-emotional competencies so we can understand how to respond and support our students’ social emotional struggles. Just like my students, I want a coach for my own social-emotional learning (SEL), a professional who would focus on how I am building my own social-emotional competencies, facilitating those of my students and caring for myself. This SEL coach could be a district-level position and could work with my school’s teaching team so we could all reflect on our coaching and our social-emotional needs. Our district could also create a social-emotional learning mentor-teacher role. This could be an opportunity for a teacher to get trained in supporting other teachers’ SEL practices. If my own most basic needs are not being met, I will not be able to consistently achieve the goals I have set for my students. I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s words, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” I do not want my self-preservation to come from leaving the profession. I want to be there for my Black students, and for all of my students, for as long as I can so that I can continue to bond with them, influence them and carry them forward. For that to happen, I need a coach of my own.