This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: I’m talking to Principal Kafele about 3 commonly-held beliefs that can damage teacher relationships with black male students.
The majority of my podcast episodes are on topics that will help improve your teaching practices with ALL of your students, but in some cases, I like to talk about specific student populations. It’s okay to focus for ONE episode on meeting the needs of English Language Learners or students with special needs. And it’s okay to focus for an episode on students of color.
In this case, I chose to focus even more specifically on that: to talk about black males in particular for a couple of reasons. One is that my guest today is a black male himself, speaks from that perspective, and is a nationally-renowned authority on his work with black male students.
Principal Kafele has been a middle and high school principal and led transformation of four different urban New Jersey schools, including Newark Tech, which went from a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized three times by U.S. News and World Report magazine as one of America’s best high schools. He’s written a number of books including the best sellers Closing the Attitude Gap and Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School & in Life. Principal Kafele has a special heart and passion for helping black boys and young black men excel, and I didn’t want to water the subject matter down by trying to go broad, though I’m certainly planning to focus on other subsets of students in future episodes.
Another reason that I want to talk about black male students is because they’re facing unique challenges. There’s a tremendous amount of research showing that many black males in the United States are underserved. They’re four times more likely to be expelled than white boys, and the graduation gap is widening, with only around 59% of black males graduating from high school, compared to 65% of Latino males and 80% of white males. So we do a disservice to our students if we pretend that the outcomes that our students experience from our school system are all the same regardless of race. Our black male students can do better and we can do better by them.
The question of HOW to do better is what we’re going to tackle today with Principal Kafele. I know that every person listening to this podcast who has black male students in their classroom wants to see those students succeed and we know that the key to helping students succeed is connecting with them, understanding them, and building relationships with them so that we can meet their needs better.
And sometimes that can be challenging because the majority (more than 80%) of teachers are white, but the majority of kids in American classrooms (more than 50%) are students of color. Because we don’t share the same cultural background as our students, we are likely to have beliefs and misconceptions about working with them that can hold us back.
As you listen (or read the condensed transcript below), I want you to think about the heart of what Principal Kafele is trying to communicate, which is that we need to be willing to self-reflect as educators and have difficult conversations sometimes about sensitive topics. It takes courage to be willing to self-examine and quite honestly, I am proud of you for showing up to this conversation today and being willing to not only listen, but to think about what you’ll hear and the implications for your teaching practice.
Being a culturally-responsive teacher is a journey we are all working toward. As white educators, we all, myself included, have implicit bias–biases we aren’t aware of, that affect how we think and perceive and treat our black students. They are blind spots. We don’t know what we don’t know. And the way to learn is by listening, taking part in the conversations, educating ourselves. And more than anything, the way to learn is being willing to self-examine and not try to deflect or wriggle out of conversations that are uncomfortable. Growth comes from discomfort.
It’s okay to hear yourself in Principal Kafele’s words and realize you might not have done all you could do to support black male students. There is no shame in that unless you refuse to learn and grow. When you know better, you do better.
Use the podcast player above to listen to the full conversation,
or read the condensed transcript below.
Belief #1: You “don’t see color” and think your black male students have the same needs as the rest of your students.
If we don’t see color, we’re not preparing students for the real world. Although that classroom teacher may not see color, the world will. Society will. See color and ethnicity and put yourself in a position to help that youngster navigate a world that’s going to see color.
Theoretically speaking, we tell kids to go to school and work hard and there will be a job waiting for them. But reality doesn’t always work that way. As teachers learn about what the world experience is like for young black males, they can help kids develop and survive and thrive in a world that is going to look at them based on who they are. For example, I’ve faced a lot of challenges as a speaker that some of my counterparts haven’t and if I hadn’t been prepared for that, I might have given up.
What to do instead: Advocate for your school to invite in black males from the community to serve as role models and support.
I like to look at things on a macro scale relative to the school, in terms of the school’s responsibility rather than that of the individual teacher. My school was full of African-American males, so I began to bring in black males from all backgrounds and success levels on a weekly basis to talk to my young men and share their unique experiences. They could address the things these young men needed that the teacher might not be able to address simply because of lack of knowledge or just not being an African-American male.
So I want the teacher to teach and then bring in these members of the community who can give these young men information and experiences that their teacher may not be able to provide.
It’s not to say the white teacher can’t be successful and productive, but the African-American teacher is bringing in another dimension. I meet a lot of white teachers who have not been exposed to African-Americans on a regular basis until the classroom, and before that, even though the teacher may have desired to be in that setting, she or he was not. But now there’s a learning curve: Do I know these kids beyond generalizations, and what the media has portrayed them to be? Do I know them as human beings?
Belief #2: You think your black male students won’t really relate to you if you’re a white female, and the best you can do is try to connect by mimicking their slang or incorporating hip-hop into your instruction.
First and foremost, if you think you can listen just use slang and incorporate music, I would say just reframe. Because all you become then is a caricature. Those slangs don’t comprise what it means to be black. It’s a subcultural thing that is a small part of students they are. But in terms of a fuller essence of what it means to be black, I wouldn’t use it as a go-to, either slang or the music kids listen to.
I’ve had countless teachers tell me that: I don’t know if they’ll be able to relate to me in the same way they relate to you. And I always tell them the hangups with race are things that we bring as adults. Youngsters may or may not be bringing those. They want to see: Do you care about me? Do you like me? Do you appreciate me? Do you value me? Am I worthy of your attention?
So the young man is saying: Prove to me that you’re in my corner. Prove to me that you’re with me for the long haul despite whatever mistake or bad decisions I might make along the way. But that has nothing to do with if you’re a white woman. A black teacher can walk in the same classroom and the student reaches the same conclusion: Prove it to me and then I’ll give you my all.
So the teacher can’t go into the classroom with the mindset of: I don’t know if these youngsters will relate to me because I’m a white woman. I preach at teachers: do not go in there with that mindset or you’ll lose from the very start. You’re defeated from the start, and the youngster will lose as well because you’re operating from a deficit.
What to do instead: Commit to learning about who your students really are and their cultural history so you can build relationships that are truly meaningful and not just surface-level.
So instead see yourself as: Yes, I’m a white woman but so what? I’m HERE, to provide this young man with a world-class education. I will ensure I will get all the professional development and experiences and exposure that I need in order to make the most solid connections with these young men that I can possibly get.
So the mindset is: I am committed to being an extraordinary teacher of whatever students are in my classroom. If that means I have to go above and beyond what I learned in school about connecting with African-American students, I will do it, because I’m so committed to it.
Those relationships coupled with compassion are so crucial. I have so many teachers who were superstars because they were so committed to those kids by forming solid bonds and getting to know them beyond their names, getting to know their history and their culture, and putting themselves in position to even teach them those things.
Belief #3: You don’t know much about black history or how to incorporate it in the curriculum, and assume that it won’t impact the motivation of black male students.
The first school I took over, I went to the superintendent and said, “I am going to make this thing work, but I need one thing from you. I need to make sure my staff is culturally responsive. I need to undo what they know and reshape them and rebuild. I want to infuse African-American history and culture into curriculum, as separate courses, but also into the other subject areas. I want to make sure when students are in the classroom, they see themselves in the lesson.”
Representation matters. If I take a photo of ten people, and give everyone in that photo a copy, each person will look for themselves in the picture before looking for others. So the youngster is saying the same thing in the classroom: Where am I? What does this have to do with me after 3:00? But if I can take that story and history, infuse it and make learning relevant, it’s a higher probability the youngster will see himself in the learning and thereby embrace it.
So as a teacher, I have to know more than Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. I have to immerse myself into their story if I’m serious about these kids. If I’m not serious about these kids, then I don’t need to be teaching them. But if I made the decision to teach this population — or if I’m in a diverse school where there’s even one African-American child — it becomes incumbent upon me to know the story of those kids so that I can infuse that story into the lessons that I teach.
It’s saying to young people: Your story is you, and it’s imperative for YOU to know you. And you can’t know you in totality if you don’t know the shoulders upon which you stand: the story, which is called history.
What to do instead: Have the courage to self-reflect and hold conversations about unconscious and implicit bias.
The best situation is where the leadership — even at the district level, but particularly at the school level — understands the power of cultural responsiveness and sensitivity and thereby ensures the staff receives the training they need. But also, it’s just having the conversations with one another and exposure to different kinds of authors and scholars who have already written about this and providing them with the information.
There’s a book I’ve been sharing with audiences for 31 years called The Mis-Education of the Negro and I quote from it often. It was written in 1933 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of what was called Negro History Week which evolved into Black History Month. Probably 95% of the audiences I speak to, I tell them you have to read this book. You have to understand how and why it is that African-Americans have been miseducated in classrooms where the intention was to educate them, but miseducation occurred because they were not exposed to who they are. If I’m not attached to my history because I don’t know it, it’s like I’m just suspended in mid-air. I’m not planted in anything.
There are so many African-American children in schools now–in this case we’re talking about black boys–who don’t feel that sense of attachment to a foundation, a history. And thereby the consequence becomes: I’ll gravitate to anything that looks like me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be gravitating to because I don’t know who I am and I don’t see beyond my face and my name when I look in the mirror.
That’s versus someone who’s planted and grounded in the history, who sees generations in the mirror, sees historical accomplishment, sees struggle in that mirror, and responsibility and obligation.
When I look in my mirror, I see all of that and it keeps me rooted and grounded in the work that I do because I understand I have a role to play. Life is not just play, play, play, and finding all the recreation in life I can find. Life is about struggle, and that comes through an understanding of self. But the teacher has to be the one to do that, because if it’s not coming from home — and in many cases it won’t be — then the school, the classroom has to be in position. I don’t care who the teacher is–she or he can make that youngster proud of who she or he is.
We need to have the courage to have sensitive conversations about unconscious and implicit bias that we bring. Leadership has to have the courage — and I put a lot of emphasis on that word — to engage staff in addressing the elephant in the room. In order to have that conversation and sustain it, one has to be conscious of developing a culture for it. You can’t just walk in there and have this highly charged conversation because there are people who are not going to embrace it and that can diminish the morale of the building.
But on the other hand, think of a leader who is cognizant of the need to build a culture in the school of having those honest conversations. We are sensitive to the political differences of staff and have a spectrum in the school but be that as it may, there’s a need to engage staff in those conversations.
We’re going to move past thinking we have no biases or prejudices. Then you have this tough conversation and you realize you had systemic biases, but there was no mechanism to pull them out. When we have leaders that say, “I need my staff to engage in this conversation,” now the mechanism is there. Now there’s a structure in place.
I wrote this book called The Teacher 50: Critical Questions for Inspiring Classroom Excellence. That book is designed for this conversation to force teachers to “look within self.” Teachers in hundreds of schools across the country are looking within self and saying: I need to work on some things because the questions are forcing me to go to a place I have not been, in identifying who I am as it relates to that student. I might not even be in a position to help them build their self-identity because of the biases I am bringing to the classroom every day.
One thing Principal Kafele wishes every educator understood about motivating black males to achieve in school and in life…
What stands out for me is in the word motivate. That’s part of it. But motivation is a vehicle. I chose to use that word in the book’s title, but within the book I go a bit further. Motivating is getting a black male hyped and he wants to do XYZ, but that’s just a vehicle.
Ultimately, I want him empowered. If he’s empowered he knows how to turn the corner or open a door or influence someone else to open it for him.
If he graduates from school motivated, he’s ready. But if he’s not empowered, he doesn’t necessarily know what to do with that readiness.
So, make sure you don’t stop at motivating and educating black males, but make sure they feel empowered to take their game to another a level. Empowerment is key. That power is already there — you’re bringing it out. It’s in him. But he has to know how to tap into his willingness to soar.
Use the podcast player above to hear the full conversation this condensed transcript was based on (or hit the downward arrow button above to download the MP3 and listen on the go.)
This post is based on an episode from my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.