Are Schools Seeking Black Overseers to Control Black Students?

A very successful educator sent me a text not long ago that said that all of the deans in a particular school are Black males. It raised an interesting and perennial question:

Why are so many deans Black men? Is managing school culture seen as a “Black male” thing to do?

To explore this theme, I asked several Black male educators for their thoughts.

It’s About Policing Young, Black Bodies

There was a consensus that Black males assume the majority of disciplinary roles because:

“It’s about policing young, Black bodies” and “society only sees us (Black men) as overseers, and the only way we can contribute to a school community is to keep Black and Brown kids in check.”

What does it mean to police a Black body? To be an overseer? When I first heard that response, I paused. “Overseer” elicits a startling image. The statement almost suggests that culture, in some schools, is seen more as compliance-driven than as love-driven. That the “overseer” isn’t expected to think, but to obey. If this is the case, are schools merely looking for bodyguards to manage behavior? Is that why so many deans and culture personnel are Black males?

One Black male shared, “Although Black male deans are the overseers that keep Black and Brown boys in check, the policies that are driven by the Black male deans are created by White people. [In essence] White ‘leaders’ create the rules and push Black males deans to keep the students in check.”

“There is misogyny and trauma at the root of much of what we see. Some of our Black boys do not genuinely respect women (white or people of color), and because of what they were taught, don’t view their voices as having true authority. Until a woman essentially proves herself to be equal, you still see levels of disrespect and insubordination that Black men often won’t experience.”

This particular thought struck me. I found myself speechless. Given that the vast majority of educators are women, this notion of misogyny and trauma raises the question of how to ensure that schools are places of healing.

To be clear, I have seen instances where schools seek to ensure that Black and Brown males respect women, for the woman’s sake. vcAnd this respect is important. But rarely have I heard the focus being on the need for respect so that these males are able to receive from their female teachers. It is certainly important for there to be mutual respect, but there is an opportunity to consider how this respect not only allows women to feel more affirmed but also creates a bridge that helps to lessen the communication gap between Black male students and female educators, thereby affirming the Black male student.

“Black men are more likely to have the relationships and impact to keep students in line” and “Black men (and women) have the added cultural connection that strengthens relationship building and allows for the management of kids to take on a much different feel. In many ways, it becomes familial. Much the same as kids would call me big brother, dad or uncle, the same is true for deans.”

There is a lot one might say about the psychology connected to being a Black male staff member given that most school staff is White and female. Is it the mere difference in race and gender that gives an advantage? Maybe initially so, but it could also be that individuals who share the background of students, racially and socioeconomically, a) speak a similar language as students, b) are not be afraid of students, and c) are less likely to label a Black student’s behavior as aberrant. These three elements can help to lay a foundation for building mutually beneficial relationships between staff and students.

Hiring managers select more Black males for culture roles “not necessarily because of racism but because of habits, results, implicit bias, White privilege and it’s what’s convenient.” Several respondents commented that they always know when there is a dean interview because their central office is “packed with Black men even though central office says they never can seem to find these Black men for instructional roles.”

This statement, quite frankly, is disheartening. Not only does this visual of an office being “packed with Black men” communicate a particular message to staff, but it also signals something to students and parents. Are Black male students noticing the trend in hiring and potentially internalizing a limiting view of themselves because of the hiring proclivities they observe in their schools and districts? Are Black male students passively being taught that they can only expect to be in certain roles if they decide to work in a school? Are we helping students to interrogate this hiring tendency as a way to empower them and as a way to build critical thinking?

How Do We Help Black Men ThrivE in Our Schools?

Respondents were asked to think about a school where they see Black men thriving and to note what that district, school, and /or school leader are doing differently. The response?

Listen to Black males. One might quickly respond, “But we should listen to all staff!” Yes, we should. But often, we don’t.

It is almost like the dialogue of “Black lives matter” and hearing the response, “All lives matter.” If the statement, “listen to Black males” offends you, could it be that you do not see the value in listening to Black males? Maybe. By sincerely and regularly engaging with Black males, asking them what they think about an initiative, effort, and process, this opens the door.

One way to do this is to invite all of the Black male staff in your school to be part of an advisory committee that is comprised only of them. Meet with them regularly to share problems, ask their advice, and enlist their support. Make commitments from these convenings and then follow through on commitments.

Develop Black males. Prioritize consistently coaching Black males and identifying their areas of strength and growth. Set long and short-term SMART goals that align to performance outcomes. Coach them with the belief that you are successful as their manager only if they are successful. It would serve managers well to also get consistent coaching and feedback on their own skill, will, and mindset on how to best work with Black males, specifically considering the manager’s own proclivities and blind spots.

Consider this: when the manager is stronger at this work, she can then better coach others to be more effective with Black males, particularly students. Developing Black men is really a straight line to developing the Black male student.

Interrupt bias and negative mindset on staff. Focusing on the voices of Black men in schools that are majority White and female can be particularly problematic for those who are not Black and male. The only way to ensure that magnifying the Black male voice feels normal is to simply do it with consistency and to do so unapologetically.

The more we highlight why it is important to amplify the voices of Black males in this work, and then actually amplify Black male voices, the more normal it will become. If staff become uncomfortable, it is important not to apologize. Sure, listen. Engage. Discuss.

We do not apologize when we add an assessment that we think is important or when we bring in a revolutionary math curriculum. Why then do we apologize when magnifying the voices of Black males, faces who represent a significant portion of the student and parent body, particularly in urban areas?

Prioritize identity work and space for adults and students to engage with it. Start with yourself as the leader and then expand the work to the leadership team then staff. Get clear on your biases and blindspots. Begin to look at how your privilege, or lack thereof, influences your thoughts, language, and decisions.

Include Black males in the planning stages of doing this work so that they can help anticipate potential roadblocks that may impact Black male students and other students and staff of color.

Acknowledge the Black male’s contributions and unique perspective. Sometimes the contributions of Black men are invisible because of our own biases. Maybe because they do not operate in the way that we would. Perhaps they communicate differently than someone else. Possibly they are not complaining as loudly as others.

Get really clear about the fact that having a Black male staff member in a school is a gift.

Consider what achievement data has looked like for Black boys nationally and in your school. The goal is for Black boys to be as successful, if not more so, than the Black male adults in our buildings. Who better to know how a Black boy can achieve success than a Black adult male who is already successful?

Pay Black male staff more. Where there are staff shortages (e.g., special education, bilingual education, high school math, high school science), networks and districts often pay bonuses to those individuals or even offer a higher salary. The same consideration should be given to Black males in education.

There is certainly a plethora of information about the unfairness of men earning more than women, but this isn’t merely about maleness. In this case, this is about the need for urban schools to insist that school staff and central offices increase the percentage of Black men on staff. When schools and districts value something, they tend to show it in a quantitative way—measurement and money.

Put It to Bed

In the words of one Black male educator, “I would love for this stereotype of Black males only being disciplinarians to be put to bed. The playing field needs to be more leveled, and we shouldn’t have to work twice as hard to receive recognition and equal pay, and our path to leadership shouldn’t only be through school culture.”

None of this is to suggest that we stop hiring Black men for culture roles. Black men have contributed significantly in the area of discipline and culture.

But if your school, network, and district finds itself with the perennial dilemma of not being able to “find” Black male candidates unless it is a culture role, consider your “habits…implicit bias, White privilege and [whether or not] it’s what’s convenient.”

If this description is accurate, what message does that send about who is capable of doing what work? How then might students, particularly Black males, interpret, digest, and internalize the visual of a central office “packed with Black men” but only when it’s for a culture role?

If you were a Black male student, what might you be thinking?

A Note About the Title of This Blog Post

This article is based on interviews with several Black male educators who work in urban school settings on the East Coast. In an effort to honor the perspectives of these participants, several of them created the title for this article.

I often think one of the best questions to ask ourselves is, “What am I learning about myself and about those around me?” In this case, the title the Black men selected was not something I would have chosen, but after interviewing them, I have a better understanding of their perspective. Great lesson for me.

What do you think?

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Kelli Seaton

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