Professional Development

How to Manage a Classroom of Students of Color When You're Not a Black Woman

Classroom management is every teacher's sword and shield as they embark upon the journey of preparing new students for a year in their class. We attend endless workshops and professional development sessions to learn the formula for classroom behavioral success. However, in doing so, we often adopt unforgiving school-wide practices that can sometimes leave several children behind. As a Black woman stepping into a profession dominated by White women—that services predominantly students of color, I often question our practices and become frustrated with the techniques. I wonder:
"Why do my coworkers need a strategy spelled out for everything?" "What’s so tough about controlling a room full of 14 year olds?" "Why do we have to adopt school-wide practices because some of us don't know how to manage children?"
I immediately negate my own privilege as a minority woman presiding over a class of minority students. I, and many other minority female teachers, have the privilege of what I call the “momma effect .” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 66 percent of African-American and 42 percent of Mexican children come from low-income families. Of that number, 70 percent of students grow up in single-mother households. That means that more than half of the kids who enter my classroom are living in homes without fathers and possibly lack male authority figures. Students more readily identify with me as an authority by virtue of their family structure. These children look to their mothers for their entire means of survival, their sense of right and wrong and their protection from the world. Because their sense of security comes in the form of a woman of color, they trust my leadership when they're placed in my class. Unlike the White teachers at my school, I do not have to prove to my students that I care. Students assume that I care by virtue of my gender and race. I don't have to convince them to follow the rules because of their conditioned reverence for women of color as leaders and as having their best interests at heart. The “momma effect” enables me to have casual exchanges, high expectations and limited exposure to behavioral mishaps. It also provides me the advantage of potentially resistance-free redirection. Even the most behaviorally challenging students respond positively to my redirection. All of these elements together give me the opportunity to build strong bonds that limit my use of consequence systems and sustain trust among my students. The interesting thing about the “momma effect” is that it is not confined to the student body. It extends to relationships with parents, especially the mommas. Mothers of color are relieved to find their children in the care of a minority woman/mother when they send them to school. They find comfort in seeing a face that identifies with their struggle. There are times when White teachers will convey a concern and mothers of color are sometimes reluctant to receive it until I help them to put it into perspective. Mothers of color seek qualities similar to their own when their children are in the care of others. The “momma effect” allows for peaceful, relatable interactions that help parents to develop a sense of security when their children are in our care.

 So, how can majority teachers use what they have to manage their students if they don't have “momma effect”?

They can start with empathy and transparency. Kids are not bothered that some of their teacher can't relate. They are bothered that some of their teachers don't understand. Understanding conveys care. Be honest about who you are and your purpose. Our students want to know where you come from, even if we don’t identify with their circumstances, our experiences give them hope. Don't hide behind your own privilege—show students that you are trying to understand them regardless of the experiences that your own life has afforded you. Maintain high expectations but throw a dash of love in there. High expectations without nurturing or love will cause a sense of defeat to develop in the child. You want to show them that you believe that they can reach that goal and that you’re here to help them get there. Lastly, be as consistent with positive reinforcements as you are with negative reinforcements—this will build trust. Learning is sustained through trusting the person who is doing the teaching.
Dominicca Washington is a mother and high school educator at a South Chicago school. Dominicca was born and raised on Chicago's South Side and is a graduate of the Chicago Public School (CPS) system. She attended Clark Atlanta University where she earned a bachelor's of arts in English and served as vice president of the English club. Dominicca then went on to teach fourth and first grade in the ...

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