A recent study showed that young black boys being taught by at least one black male teacher in elementary school reduces their risk of dropping out, increases their success on standardized testing, increases their likelihood to attend a four-year university, and gives them a more positive perception of teachers.
At most schools, the black males our students see most often are the Joe Clark type principal, the janitor, or the sports coach. That is not to say that black men are only suitable or allowed to fill certain roles. But the reality is that rarely do our boys have the pleasure of being taught by black male teachers. In turn, our boys do not see themselves in those roles often enough to aspire to fill those roles when choosing careers. They gravitate towards what they see most, whether positive or negative; this is why positive male imagery is so important. Our children cannot aspire to be what they cannot see, and if we allow the only images they see of themselves to be what they do in the media, they will aspire to be no more than that.
Something that the absence of the availability of positive black male images for black elementary school students does is exacerbate the struggles of transitioning from boyhood to manhood. These struggles are not unique to black boys, but to all boys informative years. So many men today are just boys in grown men bodies because no one helped them through the progression from boy to men. Boys become men by watching men be men.
In my experience, I only had one black teacher until I attended an HBCU. Granted, I was taught by phenomenal women educators. But I had to search outside of my home and schools to find men whom I admired and wanted to emulate or someone to show me that I was ok to be who I was. Additionally, it took more time for my to finally be comfortable in my own skin as I was usually the only black boy in class.
As an educator, I often feel like a token, novelty and an anomaly. What I know of being a young black male educator is that there are not many of us doing this work, though we are sorely needed. Whenever I walk into a room, I instantly notice how many people look like me. I live with an awareness that, when I am the only black male in a room, I represent all black men. Because of this, I am constantly code-switching and deciding which version of myself it is safest to be. I recall this being true for me as a student and I imagine that our students have the same realizations.
There is so much strength in diversity, but there is also power in being among people whose image and culture is a reflection of your own particularly when one’s sense of self is not entirely realized, such as with elementary school students. The distance between who our kids are now and what they aspire to become could be as short as the distance between a student and teacher. So, if we really want to help young boys and men of color and if we are truly our brothers’ keeper, we must also be our brother’s teacher.