Challenging educators to think outside of the box and educate young minority men

By Jonathan Livingston

Over the past 30 years, a good deal of debate has occurred concerning whether our current public school system can educate our children and provide them with the skills needed to be productive citizens. Upon closer look at the state of education as it relates to Black children, we find that over 45% of minority males in this country drop out of high school.  Over 80% of the students in remedial reading classes are minority males.  1 in 4 African American males are expelled from school each year.  Minority children make up 30% of the children in the public school system, but they represent over 50% in special education classes.  To address our schools’ perceived inability to educate our children, for years, we have organized and called for new curriculum after new curriculum, special programs, and threatened to fire teachers and administrators for poor performance by students.  In our attempt to remedy the current state of education, we have consistently questioned what our schools are teaching our kids and why they are not yielding desired results on standardized measures.  In our attempts to answer these questions and improve the performance of our kids, we have overlooked the most critical question: How are they educating our kids and what expectations do they have for our children.  These questions are critical because the methods used to educate and the set of expectations held by the teachers will dictate the interaction between teacher and student and give the child some insight on what he/she has the potential of becoming or achieving. 
From my experiences in educating young children and adults and consulting and researching various curriculums and reform movements, there seems to be 7 simple steps to addressing the issue of how teachers can educate our children. 

First and foremost, our teachers, whether White or Black, middle or upper class, must make a conscious and sincere effort to understand the context in which each one of their students exists.  This simply means that they must understand the culture from which each child comes.  Prior to taking this journey of cultural understanding to build cultural competence, the teacher must identify what preconceived assumptions he/she harbors about this young child, for these assumptions, again, will dictate their interactions, and children are very keen at picking up on teachers’ perceptions of them. The questions teachers must ask themselves is, What are the unique characteristics of the family (What is the family’s place of origin, nationality, ethnicity. Are they affluent, middle class, impoverished?). Additionally, teachers and educators must be keenly aware that we can not assume that ethnicity or race will dictate or predict socioeconomic status or family structure.  Nor can we assume that socioeconomics will dictate how the child will behave and what he/she can learn.  A quick review of class in the Greater Lansing area can attest to this dynamic.  Furthermore, teachers must know the structure of the family and the community (Does the child live with his mother, father, grandparents, etc., What are the characteristics of the neighborhood, Are there ecological barriers, such as crime, gangs, run-down housing, that may prohibit the child from learning or believing that he/she can learn, and last but not least, What are the child’s strengths and interests?).  All to often, educators, likened to that of parents, focus much of their attention on what the child does wrong.  Many of our young kids have talents and skills that are sometimes never seen because most of our interactions are focused on the child’s deficits and not on his/her strengths and talents.  Getting the answers to these questions not only will improve student-teacher interaction but will assist the teacher in seeing the world as the child does. 

The second key component is to develop a relationship built upon reciprocity and respect.  This can be achieved simply by being consistent and modeling appropriate behavior.  Many of our children, through their experiences with their families and other adults, have learned not to trust adults, and by the time they are pre-adolescent, they are easily aware of any inconsistencies and contradictions that adults may display.  This inability to model appropriate behavior can lead the child to disrespect the teacher and greatly compromise his/her ability to effectively manage the classroom.  In an effort to build relationships based upon reciprocity and respect, a set of expectations must be established at the beginning of class, which also entails developing, articulating, and reinforcing a code of conduct.  No longer can we assume that children know how to behave in a classroom.  A set of expectations on how to behave and what is expected academically must be articulated at the onset and reviewed throughout the school year. 

Thirdly, in an effort to better educate our children, we must begin to talk about personal responsibility and hold young people, especially our young males, accountable for their actions.  This simply means that we must challenge this double standard where teachers and administrators will overlook irresponsible behavior by young boys and hold a higher standard of behavior for young girls.  Other prominent educators, such as Mychal Wynn and Jawanza Kunjufu, have argued the forementioned for years and suggest that we must provide experiences, which will foster responsibility for young males.  Furthermore, we must have discussions among them regarding what it means to be a man and a responsible person who is of good character and behaves in such a way that will elicit respect and pride.  A discussion of such earlier in a young male’s development will prove critical later in life as he begins to navigate adolescence and young adulthood. 

The fourth key component needed to educate our children is that of teacher and parent expectations.  Over the years, from working with young people, I have witnessed the profound effects of labeling upon our young Black males.  The effects of this became so evident to me and was articulated plainly from a young man with whom I was working.  When I inquired about his poor performance and misbehaving in school, he told me, “If they (teachers and administrators) are going to treat me like a criminal, then, hell, I’m going to act like one.”  Hearing this from a 15-year-old Black boy and understanding that over 60% of the young Black men currently in prison are high school drop outs, I began to question whether our school systems and the perceptions our educators have about our young boys provide a self-fulfilling prophecy for our young Black men in our country.  In short, what I’m alluding to is that we have to be very clear about the assumptions and expectations we have for our young Black males.  We have to ask our young Black men how they see themselves and what they want to accomplish in life.  After we’ve identified their life goals, we have to provide life experiences that will help them reach those goals.

The fifth key component is that of getting our kids to focus on their goals and develop plans of action.  In my discussions with other educators around the country, many of them have told me that they find it almost impossible to motivate our kids.  Educators suggest that pop culture, with its music, fashion, and video games, is the only thing that captures the attention of young people.  When I hear this, I reflect upon the passion and drive exhibited by the coaches and players on the Eastern High School varsity basketball team. Faced with a year of adversity, injuries, and a loss of four seniors, the coach has been able to motivate these young men to come out each night and play with passion.  Reflecting upon this and successes of coaches all around the country, the question that I, and others, have to pose to educators is, If these coaches can get our young men to compete and play at a level far beyond their ability, then why can’t teachers in America’s school systems get them to learn algebra or learn to read.  Essentially, we can motivate our kids to achieve.  First, we have to get them to identify their long-term goals, have them talk about the objectives needed to accomplish that goal, have them develop a timeline for reaching that goal, and, again, we have to provide them with experiences that are directly related to their career goals.  Thus, if a child indicates to his teacher, counselor, and parents that he would like to become a NASA astronaut, then his electives chosen should be science related and not vocational education.  Nor should his first job be that of working at McDonald’s.  The teacher, counselor, and parents have to work in conjunction to identify people who are doing exactly what the child would like to do.   This will give the child the opportunity to learn from and work with someone who is doing what he, himself, aspires.  This can be done by bringing the community back into the classroom.  In many of our communities, we have a number of positive Black men who are doctors, businessmen, lawyers, professors, car specialists, plumbers, construction workers, politicians, and activists.  These individuals have to be identified and given an opportunity to interact with the young people in our school system.

The sixth key component is getting our children to believe that they can accomplish their goals. We cannot assume that our children exist in a vacuum and are not effected by the negative stereotypes and assumptions that the dominant culture has about them.  Over the years, many writers and scholars have noted the demonization of young Black males by the media.  This negative perception not only influences the attitude and behavior of individuals working in these institutions, but it also dictates policy and legislation in the every social institution in our culture, whether overt or subtle.  For example, by the time many of our young boys complete their adolescence, they have been pulled over or stopped by the police, followed by security in the grocery store or mall, and heard the locking of a car door as they passed, for no reason other than the fact that they are Black men in this culture.  Such negative perceptions of any individual can compromise one’s self-esteem and belief in himself, but for our young men at a such tender age to experience such negative stereotypes may be too much of a burden for them as they are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to become.  So, in essence, we have to continue to encourage them to visualize their success, provide opportunities to actualize their dreams, inquire about their goals, and affirm and recognize their successes, in order to have them believe that they can succeed and accomplish their goals in spite of the barriers that this culture may put before them.     

The seventh, and final, key component is that of cultivating a passion for excellence.  In Mychal Wynn’s book, Empowering African Americans Males to Succeed, he suggests that we have to set high expectations for our children and, by employing exercises used by successful coaches, encourage them to compete in the classroom.  Again, if our coaches can motivate our young men, then our teachers and educators can also.  Additionally, we have to challenge the pervasive assumption that Black men are lazy and unmotivated.  This assumption is one that truly disturbs me as I review history and reflect upon the millions of Black men whose bodies were torn asunder as they assisted in building this country with their bare hands, for less pay than that of Whites.  Furthermore, when I reflect upon this assumption and pull from my frames of reference all of the Black men that I knew growing up in the South, I recalled that each one of them had 2 to 3 jobs and a hustle on the side.  Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that the majority of Black men work and want to work.  Thus, we have to challenge this assumption that our young men are lazy and unmotivated.  No longer can teachers in our community harbor this assumption and accept mediocrity from our young Black men.  We must continue to set an expectation of excellence in the classroom if we are to be successful in educating our young men and giving them the skills needed to be a productive part of the community.
Upon a review of history, consistently, a group of people’s ability to maintain and advance itself so that it serves its community and creates a balance between the needs of the community and the culture into which it is embedded is greatly dependent upon the education and skills its educators and knowledge brokers impart upon the young.   As Black educators in this culture, we have to be very much concerned not only about what we teach the young children of our community, but we also have to be concerned about how we teach them and the set of expectations we set upon them.  For our interactions with, and perceptions of, them will dictate what they believe they can become and, more importantly, provide us a vision of what we as a community can achieve.

Suggested readings: Empowering African American Males to Succeed (Mychal Wynn), Nurturing Young Black Males (Ronald B. Mincy), The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys (Jawanza Kunjufu), State of Emergency: We must save African American Males (Jawanza Kunjufu), A Reform for Troubled Times: Takeovers of urban schools (Robert L. Green)

February 23, 2003 – March 8, 2003 Edition