“I can’t stand these disrespectful kids! I didn’t sign up for this!” Those were the words I emphatically said out loud while I walked out of my mentor teacher’s classroom. I stood outside his door frustrated and pondered why, as a Black teacher, couldn’t I control the behavior of students in class. I thought because I was Black, I would have an automatic relationship with and respect from my Black students. Many Black teachers have had the same experience—thinking that our Blackness was enough. My first four months of student teaching were difficult. I struggled because I thought “I’m Black”—I could just teach the content and not worry about the relationship. I would get frequent attitudes with myself and my students and they would get attitudes with me. It definitely created a difficult teaching and learning environment. I recall a certain student who always came into class with an attitude. I requested that she do work and all I received back was a defiant, “No, I ain’t doing this!” Her response prompted me to get upset, raise my voice, and declare that she was going to repeat the grade if she didn’t get her act together. Of course those comments made things worse. I never took the time to get to know her or give her the listening ear that I eventually learned she so desperately needed. I neglected the relationship part of the teaching experience and my students, and myself included, suffered from that.
Just being Black wasn’t enough to teach her or the other Black students. “Devin, these kids need more than for you to teach them. They need a relationship with you, they need you to empathize with their hurt and trauma, and they need you to
love them,” words spoken by my mentor teacher after I stormed out of his office. And those words changed how I taught and related to my students. I don’t think I would have succeeded if my mentor teacher hadn’t shown me how to love my students through both their emotional upheavals and my flawed pedagogical mindset, which was to teach first. These experiences helped me come up with a guidebook that I live by. I call it “Mr. Evans’ Rules to Becoming Better Teachers for Black Students.”
Don’t just teach the curriculum, teach the child. Urban students face a number of socioeconomic issues and the classroom teacher is—for many—their only mentor, teacher and source to learn critical life values and skills.
Seek out support to learn the best strategies for relationship building with students. Don’t suffer in silence. It will only make your job as a teacher and your students’ ability to connect that more difficult. Don’t be afraid to seek out help from people who have mastered teaching and know how to establish relationships with students.
Build the relationship with students first. While content is important, it’s not as important as the relationship you build with your students. The teaching of the content will become that much easier if you do that first. Teachers sometimes forget to ask students how we can better serve them and it can ultimately lead to failure on both ends. Ask students as early as possible in the school year, “How can I serve you as I get to know you better as your teacher?” So, asking students what they seek in a student-teacher relationship can help better prepare you to not only teach but also mentor.
If you struggle with building relationships with students, teaching may not be for you—and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed students, it just means that while this road may be a dead end, there may be other avenues to explore that assist in the growth, development and ultimate success of students.
If you ask kids what they look for in a teacher, the last thing they’ll say is one who knows content and teaches well. The first thing they’ll probably say is they want a teacher who wants to have a relationship with and understands them—and that’s not a condition to be taken lightly. It took me a while to understand that a demanding demeanor wasn’t going to command respect but allowing my students to have a voice and sincerely investing in their lives did. It took me even longer to learn that being Black didn’t qualify me to teach Black children, but through mentorship and support, I was able to transform my mindset and establish strong relationships with all of my scholars. And now, we are all thriving.
Devin Evans is a 10th grade English Language Arts teacher at Butler College Prep Charter High School on Chicago's far South Side. He serves as co-10th grade team lead and master teacher for Butler's humanities department. He graduated from Michigan State University with a BA in Social Science Education and History and is pursuing a Masters in English Language Arts from Relay Graduate school of ...