Editor’s note: This article was written by veteran Black educator Aaron Massey. See his full bio at the bottom of the article.
Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoffrey Canada. Urban Prep’s Tim King. Both extraordinary examples of Black men who have taken extraordinary lengths to serve Black boys in ways that honor their multifaceted backgrounds, dynamic voice, and lived experiences.
Though these two men have had a great impact during the time in which they have walked this earth, they are rare exceptions. They are a part of an illustrious community of Black men across generations and time in this nation. 2 percent of teachers in the United States are Black men.
Students, namely Black boys, are significantly more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college if they have a Black man as a teacher in elementary school. Black boys improve standardized test scores when they have Black men as teachers.
Simply put, Black boys – and students more broadly – benefit from having Black men in the classroom.
Yet we continue to see a stark gap in education between the most represented group of teachers, White women, and Black men.
Yet we continue to see a stark gap in academic achievement and growth between Black boys and White boys/White girls.
Yet we continue to see a stark gap in dropout rates among Black boys and White boys.
Where we are disproportionately represented – five times the rate of White people – is prison. Why?
Because Black boys and Black men don’t have space in education.
The body of education has been – and continues to be – unhealthy. At the heart of this issue is race-based, deficit minded rhetoric espoused by politicians, media giants, and the like.
Acknowledging, for example, that “U.S. social institutions…” like the education system “are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race”.
Reducing the esteemed talent of lyrical wordsmiths to hate-mongers. The beauty of big nostrils and nappy hair to caged gorillas.
We continue to digest discipline practices that strip Black boys of their mental, physical, and emotional safety akin to the systemic structures that strip Black men of freedom and life. The breaths we take are short and toxic from the prison air we start to breath in third grade, due to our reading scores.
I can’t breathe.
A minuscule number of those Black boys grow up and become Black teachers. I was one of them.
And where we often tend to be pushed at in education is being disciplinarians. The only person in the building that can “handle” Black boys’ behavior. This juxtaposition of wanting to help little Black boys but being pushed to discipline them leads to burnout and unsettled, complicated feelings of seeing the hope in the eyes of the children with little to no systemic power to truly help them.
We need to make space for Black boys and Black men. The evidence is too clear and the need is too evident to continue to rely on once-in-a-generation leaders like Mr. Canada and Mr. King. Though their models serve as inspiration, serving Black boys and Black men shouldn’t be aspirational.
Our goals can no longer be to replicate and hope. Why not? It hasn’t worked to change systemic outcomes of Black boys for decades. We need common sense, tangible ways of serving Black boys and Black male educators.
Simply put, we need to make space for Black boys and Black men to improve their outcomes in schools.
Here are 5 common sense ways to serve Black boys and Black male educators in your school district:
- Ask your Black boys how they like to be supported and listen. Notice I didn’t say how they like to be disciplined? Seriously consider if you have ever asked your Black boys how they prefer to be supported. Do they like it when you give them an automatic demerit for making a mistake or do they prefer you ask about why they are struggling in a particular environment? How do they feel when you tell them to get out of the classroom? Or when you sit them in the back of the class? Ask them how they would like the system to work for them. In order to not act on a Black boy, irrespective of positive intent, you have to know how they think and feel.
- Superintendents, this one’s for you: ask the Black male teachers in your district about their experience as a Black male teacher. Trust me, we will tell you. What has your experience been like? How does it feel to be the only Black teacher in the building? Or even better, how does it feel to see White people talk down to Black boys and girls? When Black male teachers enter a building with majority Black and Brown students, we see our sons and daughters. We see our cousins. We see Trayvon and Eric and Daunte and Aubrey and George. We feel the knee on our neck. When we see White teachers degrading Black boys, we see guards locking the cell. If you truly want to educate Black boys and recruit Black men, it will take effort.
- Take a tour of the community our Black boys are growing up in and meet the people. Meet the barbershop owner who has been in the community for over 20 years. (Looking at you, Cassius). Talk with the grandmas and grandpas that sit on the porch. Listen to the stories of how the community has grown and changed. Walk with the uncles that make light-hearted jokes about your choice of shoes. Black boys lead full lives outside of school that impact who they are, how they show up, how they interpret and make meaning, and what they believe is possible. Imagine only knowing if they mastered algebraic equations.
- Allow Black male teachers to lead. And no, not lead detention. Lead a district. Lead a school. Lead instructional priorities. Lead a play. Lead an I.E.P. meeting. Lead a professional development about the lived reality of the Black boys in your school. Allow black male teachers to lead in ways you don’t understand. You will never know what it’s like to feel the weight of systemic oppression. Or your heart pounding from a police officer asking you for your identification when you’ve done nothing wrong. You all have a lot to learn from us. You can learn by allowing us to lead. Make space.
- Interrogate your agendas. Show me how many minutes you spend on each item on your agendas and I’ll show you what you care about. How many minutes have you dedicated to simply calling Black parents to check in? Notice I didn’t say to report a negative interaction, a discipline infraction, or grades. But to just check in. How many minutes has your leadership team dedicated to reading what Black boys write in history class? How many minutes has your culture team spent categorizing Black boys as high-level bad, mid-level bad, or low-level bad? Or take it one step further: ask the Black boys in your school and Black male teachers to create the next agenda and have them run the meeting. Every second you spend complaining about how Black boys disrupt class is another second towards the oppression of Black boys and Black male educators.
Making space for Black boys and Black men means surrendering power. It means abandoning structures that don’t work. It means firing racist educators. It means interrogating antiquated ideologies about who you assume we are. It means risking being wrong in front of White colleagues. It means listening without intent and interruption.
It means allowing expression. That’s not anger…it’s passion.
Abramson, L. (2010, November 9). Report details Black male achievement gap. NPR. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2010/11/09/131194751/report-details-black-male-achievement-gap
Borowski, J., & Will, M. (2021, June 29). What black men need from schools to stay in the teaching profession. Education Week. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-black-men-need-from-schools-to-stay-in-the-teaching-profession/2021/05#:~:text=Only%202%20percent%20of%20educators,the%20challenges%20surrounding%20that%20statistic.
Bristol, T. J. (2017, September 12). Black male teachers: There aren’t enough of them. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/library/blog/1347
Carrega, C. (2021, October 13). Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of whites, New report on state prisons finds. CNN. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/13/politics/black-latinx-incarcerated-more/index.html
Samuels, C. A. (2021, July 6). Building a community for Black Male Teachers. EdWeek Leaders To Learn From. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/leaders/2021/building-a-community-for-black-male-teachers