Can White Educators Successfully Teach Black Boys?

Just in time for Black History Month, we at BAM Radio Network decided to take on a topic we hadn't before addressed on Teacher's Aid: the education of black children. Black boys, in particular.

Why black boys? Well, with the vast majority of full and part-time teachers, in both public and private schools in America, white and female -- and our growing awareness of the importance of understanding students -- you have to wonder just how successful the typical American educator can be with the black boys in her classroom. Can the gender and racial gaps be closed?

Baruti Kafele, a former principal and the author of Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life, who served as a panelist on this segment, hears a question like this every day. His answer, he assured me, is "empathically, absolutely."

Is it easy? No. But what about teaching is? Getting to know students and forming relationships with them -- a critical element of success in the classroom and a recurring theme in many episodes of Teacher's Aid -- is a process. It takes time and commitment. And, admittedly, there is probably more time and commitment involved when teacher and student don't share a culture and/or a gender. But what choice does an educator have? She can reach only the students most like her, or she can make the effort to reach all of her students.

The latter is both simpler and more difficult than it seems. Simpler because, as panelist Jose Vilson indicated, the teacher only has to really want her black male students to be in class. More difficult because of the myths involved in having them there.

When asked about it, Vilson admitted there are several myths surrounding the teaching of black boys. Primary among them is that teachers have to be "tough, tough, tough" on them. But he's found that the female teachers in his school who exude warmth tend to have more success than those teachers who practice strict disciplinary procedures.

Indeed, Kafele emphasized that the skin color or gender of their teachers doesn't really matter to the kids. All they want to know is that the teacher cares about them. If you can convince a black male student that "you're in this thing for the long haul; you're not going to give up on him; you're not going to quit on him; your expectations for him are sky-high; and you're going to maintain those expectations no matter what the challenges are," that student is going to embrace you, regardless of whether or not you're African-American. The concern that you can't "walk in his shoes" is an adult hang-up, Kafele insisted.

Vilson attested that his own teachers were either Jewish or Irish-Catholic and that, indeed, it hadn't mattered to him as long as they were authentically themselves. They hadn't tried to participate in "street talk." They hadn't pretended to know "the code." They weren't living life in the same way he did, but they did care and that was what counted most.

Serendipitously, while writing this piece I stumbled upon a blog post that, to most people, would not have seemed connected in any way to the subject of teaching black boys. In it, the author shared the comments of two students chatting about teachers and unaware that there was a teacher eavesdropping. Among those comments: "I don't care if a teacher is tough, as long as I know she cares about me." And: "I don't want to be babied. I don't want to be spoon-fed. I want to be CARED about, and ready for the real world."

From the mouths of babes. These "babes" happened to be white and female, but it's become clear to me that the desire to have their teachers understand and care about them is a core need among all students, regardless of gender or culture.

Jason Flom, the third educator to make up the panel and the only white member, advised teachers to "listen, learn, and find ways to connect students with the material in ways that connect with their lives." That's excellent advice for succeeding with every student -- again, regardless of gender or culture. And, again, it takes time and commitment.

If you're a white teacher, are you expecting black boys to behave according to cultural norms you feel are most appropriate? Do you believe you don't understand black males well enough to motivate and inspire them? Black History Month might be just the time to ask yourself such questions.

Flom confronted his own earlier relationship with race and, with brutal honesty, classified it as "ignorant." To hear about the commendable efforts to which he went to change that, click here. And watch for Baruti Kafele's upcoming new show on BAM Radio Network. It will be called At Risk and will address the education of all at-risk populations.