By Isaiah Moore
“Mr. Moore, I ain’t getting this, man!”
The challenge of the inferential cause-and-effect problem along with the accompanying writing prompt dealt a violent blow, knocking the wind of enthusiasm out of his body. The young man’s armpit interlocked with the desk as if his body and the fashioned wood were connected puzzle pieces, and he smeared his hand to the right side of his cheek, contorting his face almost to the point of unrecognizability.
Noticing this young man’s frustration, I checked on a few more students and then headed his way. He began to recite the middle school mantra, “I can’t do this.” I stopped him, pulled another chair over to his desk, and instructed another student to hand me two of the cereal boxes behind my desk. Before I knew it, I was manipulating the boxes and talking about cereal while referencing some of this student’s and my favorite rap artists, most notably Nipsey Hussle. All this was done to give my student an alternate perspective on the concept in hopes of achieving two goals: first, to brighten his mood and inject enthusiasm back into his experience, and second, to get him to understand the concept by any means necessary. Standing up and taking the chair in both hands, I put it back under the neighboring desk. My student was now working independently. Shaking his head as if he didn’t believe what had just happened, he looked back up one more time and said, “Mr. Moore, that was crazy.”
I smiled back. “Oh, and next time you get frustrated, take a minute to chill. Then raise your hand. Quitting won’t get you where you want.”
Immediately afterward, I thought about how true this young man’s words were. That was crazy! I used the most random topics to break down an academic concept. I can’t imagine another teacher doing it the same way. It goes to show that everyone is meant to play the role that only they can.
Though this illustration is a distant memory now, it is still relevant. Right now, we are in the midst of social upheaval, and Black Lives Matter is at the forefront. Because of the nature of the cause, we all should take inventory on what we can do to rectify the issue. For some, it is marching on state capitols. For others, it’s providing economic opportunity to the underserved. But what’s the role of the 2 percent of us who are Black male educators? What role does the Black male teacher play in the Black Lives Matter operation?
Expand Perceptions of the Black Man
Because only approximately 2 percent of teachers nationwide are Black men, it is easy to see why the Black male teacher and his impact in schools is unfamiliar. This negatively affects all involved: students and staff. Studies show that all kids benefit from having a Black male teacher because they are exposed to a unique lived experience they normally do not have access to outside of school. Seeing Black men in intellectual leadership roles expands the ways in which students perceive Black men.
This is not only true for students. Staff benefit as well. An encounter I had with a custodian in my school illustrates this point.
The older man tentatively approached me after school one day and asked if he could ask me a question. When I told him it was okay, he asked why he could understand me. “Most of the Black Americans I know of talk differently than you; I can’t understand them.” When I investigated further to learn where he was getting his representation of Black men, he mentioned music and sports figures. While nothing is wrong with seeing Black men as famous musicians and athletes, it is totally misguided for individuals to have access to Black men only in those specific settings.
Much research has been done on the benefits of Black male teachers in the academic setting: higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and generally better behavior. But, the presence of a Black male can also aid in the process of rectifying societal ills like prejudiced ideologies and actions.
Provide Space for Young Black Boys to Be Emotionally Free
It goes without saying that the aforementioned ideologies must be eradicated, not only for staff, but for our young Black male students as well. Prejudiced thinking has the ability to affect students’ views of themselves. Dr. Amber Hewitt, a psychologist who specializes in adolescent mental health and race, ethnicity, and culture, asserts this notion in a Psychology Today article:
The portrayal of Black boys and young men in the current landscape is often one that invalidates their experiences. For example, the presence of stereotypical roles and images found in commercials, television shows, news programs, and other forms of media often portray Black boys as the tough guy, thug, or gangster. On the other end of the continuum, you may see Black boys portrayed as the stellar athlete or entertainer.
This simply means that the dominant portrayals of young Black malehood are extremely narrow. Not to mention, says the former president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Ronald Levant, “In US culture, socialization of boys emphasizes toughness, independence, competitiveness, status, and restrictive emotionality.” In the stead of validating the experiences of all Black boys, society teaches them to be angry and to suppress any feeling that isn’t a derivative of that. How can we expect children to learn in classrooms when they are emotionally conflicted and feel as if they are not valued? We cannot! As Black male educators, we must model expressing our feelings, listening to and respecting the feelings of others, and self-regulating to help our students become emotionally healthy adolescents and adults.
Can’t Just Be a Teacher—Know Policy and Statistics, and then Change Them
After dealing with the emotional needs of our students, it is imperative that we not only teach, but also educate ourselves on the disparities that prevent equal education for all. A cursory Google search on educational disparities in K–12 public schools will provide you with a macro perspective. However, to create local change that when enacted uniformly resonates nationally, Black male teachers must delve into micro statistics. In our own schools, we should know the numbers around discipline records, underrepresentation in gifted classes, graduation records, and so on. I’ll take it a step further and submit that we ought to know pertinent statistics about the communities in which we serve.
Moreover, we should seek to sit on committees that resolve these issues, such as Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports site teams; to expose underrepresented students to extracurriculars such as debate that promote academic advancement; and to develop plans that allow our students to use the knowledge they gain in class to explore authentic situations, especially those that affect their neighborhoods.
This does call for a change in the way we do our jobs, but it’s simply a natural reaction to our changing environmental dynamic.
Advocate for Black Girls
And with catering to all students and assessing the data at a micro level, we are more than likely to encounter another discrepancy worth mentioning. Most educators would agree that much is said in schools about subgroups—most notably Black boys, English as a second language students, and special education students. However, these discussions often leave out a group very much deserving of attention: Black girls.
The journalist Brittney Cooper pointed out that “Black girls are suspended at a higher rate than all other girls and White and Latino boys. Sixty-seven percent of Black girls reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness for more than two weeks straight compared to 31 percent of White girls and 40 percent of Latinas.” When Black girls are pushed out of schools and then forced to face sometimes harmful environments, the trauma those situations create is left untreated. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that a child will not learn under such conditions.
We must make a concerted effort to thwart these circumstances by questioning misconceptions about Black girls in our classes and challenging policies that disproportionately affect them. Ultimately, we must listen to them and lead in love. We can’t solve all their problems, but we must work as if we can.
Teach Students to Advocate for Themselves
Once we advocate for all our students, we must then take the lead in teaching them to advocate for themselves. As Black men, our experiences uniquely lend themselves to advocacy. In fact, some of the individuals we historically laude were exemplars in this: Muhammed Ali, James Baldwin, Ralph Bunch, W.E.B Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few, were all individuals who used their voices to make change. Black male teachers must channel the spirits of our predecessors and teach students to do the same. This can be done by constructing lessons that force students to be socially aware, advance their researching skills, and increase their ability to use their voices, oratorical or penned. Furthermore, we must give students liberty to speak up respectfully and support their decisions. This helps build the confidence of young people who sometimes believe that because of their age, their impact is static. Teaching students to use their voices gives them an outlet to strengthen their critical-thinking skills, bring about change, and become productive citizens.
Vincent Van Gogh said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” It is my hope that these words ignite the fever of change in the 2 percent of us who are Black male teachers so we can come together to achieve great feats in education. Let’s increase the quality of education for all people we come in contact with in the school building and show the profound impact we can have. Who knows, maybe that impact will inspire the next generation to take up the mantle of education. As my formerly mentioned student might say, “Now, that would be crazy!”
Isaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.
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Just awesome and so proud of you. Keep motivating our students.