9 Things Every Educator Needs to Know When Teaching Black Students

Most of my educational experiences as a child were in an all-Black spaces and all of my experiences as an educator have been in schools that serve Black communities. And, although I can’t say I am an expert on everything about educating Black children (despite people’s misconceptions, we are not a monolithic people), there are some experiences that I have had that speak to what Black students need from the educators who profess to serve them.

It goes without saying that the educational experience should support the development of literacy, numeracy, communication, problem-solving, and personal development skills. Students also need to be equipped with the “non-academic” skills necessary to navigate the real-world. To do that, our children and communities need a certain type of educator.

To ensure Black students are equipped with the knowledge to navigate real-world situations, they need educators who are deeply reflective, express empathy, are critically conscious, and can guide problem-solving.

These nine suggestions aren’t just from my experiences, but also from the countless hours of communication with Black families about the aspirations they have for their children and communities. These suggestions are not just for school-based educators. Anyone who touches the education of Black children, either directly or indirectly, should be immersed in efforts towards equity.

  1. The Right Mindset: If you don’t believe Black children can learn at the same rate as any other child, then you don’t belong in front of them. Honestly, you don’t belong in a classroom full of White children either, because you’ll covertly (and even overtly) reinforce white supremacist philosophy. The right mindset would be one of growth and engages ongoing professional development. Research shows that Black children are particularly impacted by their teachers’ opinion about them. That can be both powerful and dangerous.
  2. Supporting Students in Developing a Positive Racial Identity: Students are bombarded with messages that they are worthless, achieve less, and that only the exceptional Black person can perform at the highest levels. Unfortunately, because of this constant attack on the Black psyche, some students have internalized this. Educators have a crucial role in perpetuating this negative self-image, or being there to ameliorate it. Ensuring that materials share the contributions of Black people on society, both historically and present-day can go a long way. Also, it is crucial that our Black youth see and participate in educators celebrating students’ efforts and achievements beyond athletics and entertainment.
  3. High Expectations, High Support, Much Love: Too often there is a lack of balance. Some will enact authoritarian demeanor and rules, in the essence of stripping students of their dignity in the name of instilling order. Others tolerate chaos and excuses in the name of love. The answer is in the middle. It isn’t about no excuses or “make all the excuses in the world” schools. It is about helping students develop self-control and self-discipline necessary to be productive leaders in their communities. Hilary Beard describes parenting of Black children as being in quadrants. She describes the style that Black boys respond to the best as “strict authoritarian.” That means holding high expectations and lots of love.
  4. Establishing Windows and Mirrors: Too often, White children’s positive sense of self is reinforced through media, and in life. White students see an overwhelming number of people in power and, consciously or unconsciously, begin to assume that it is their rightful place in life. Black children see this, too. Often, even when a student has a Black teacher, other positions of power may be overwhelmingly White, so students see that. Helping all students see themselves as contributors to society and leaders within it is vital.
  5. Serving Holistically: Often, when people describe a holistic education, they’re lamenting the loss of the arts in our schools—it is that plus much more. Our educational strategies should include the arts, health, career-technical education, computer science, etc. It should be grounded in college- and career-readiness and support students with pursuing robust post-secondary options. A holistic education without students learning about character education and social justice is a limited education and doesn’t truly prepare students for their work outside of school.
  6. Learner of Culture: Educators should be curious, respectful and knowledgeable about Black history and culture while maintaining a high sense of humility and curiosity. Even if you have taught Black children for decades, don’t assume you know the struggles of Black folks better than they do. Too many educators have this outlook.
  7. Skilled in Channeling Anger: Students should be angry. Often, it is impossible to truly teach Black students and help them to see the world as it is and the promise of what society can be at the optimal levels without them becoming angry. I am not speaking of the self-destructive anger, I am speaking about the anger that spurs action towards positive outcomes. Malcolm X said, when people get angry they take action. And, as James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
  8. Communal Outlook: Black culture often demands a marriage with individuality and community. Too often, American society and educators celebrate individualistic goals and place individual accomplishments above community achievements. This is a mistake and leads to disharmony and frustration. There should be a balance and community-based goals should be an integral part of any educational system.
  9. Sense of Purpose: Educators who are working for the liberation of students of color will need to have and maintain a strong sense of purpose. The why and the how they approach the work is crucial—without it being grounded as incubators of dismantling white supremacy in its many forms, it may miss the mark. Conscious and committed educators view our schools as environments that can foster a commitment to our communities. Educators must also do the work and professional development that hones their skills as liberators, not overseers of the existing system. Without a strong sense of purpose, an educator can easily become a perpetrator of the very injustices they initially sought to dismantle.
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About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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