We must be about the business of liberating the minds of Black children. In order for that to occur, the minds of all Blacks who interact with them must also be liberated. There is no other way. – Bobby E. Wright
Recently, my mother and I were discussing the revolutionary psychologist, Bobby E. Wright, who spoke about the sacred role of educators of Black children, which led me to pen this blog.
I have previously written what I believe are some of the conditions Black children need in order to be successful in public schools. Warm demanders, crafters of the school-to-activism pipeline, and educators with high levels of self-efficacy, growth mindsets, and cultural contexts are at an absolute premium. We need educators with a revolutionary mindset to ensure our students are successful.
While there are plenty of people who espouse the need for students to have a mindset conducive to learning, far more important are the mindsets and actions of the educators who choose to lead classrooms full of Black and Brown children – today the majority of our pupils are students of color and are being taught by White educators and sometimes, educators of color with White mindsets engulfed in whiteness (white supremacy).
Over the past twenty-six years in public education, here are a few things that I found that are inextricably linked to the mindsets of educators who are successful with Black children.
- Love. A deep, intense, and unwavering love. An undying love for the people will yield benefits. Benefits that can’t be captured in organized, but inept powerpoint slide presentations, Excel documents, or endless talk. Because at the end of the day or school year, those who know will tell you that no amount of Ivy-League educated teachers and principals can impact student outcomes the way that a content-sound educator who absolutely loves their students and sees them as a reflection of themselves.
In loco parentis is the concept that educators have the legal authority to act as the parent in schools and classrooms. Too often, it is brought up and exercised when it comes to disciplining or making a decision for and about a child. However, it should be mostly approached from the lens of how most parents are hardwired to lay down their lives for their children.
The best educators approach the work with a similar mindset, and in today’s climate where cowardly and greedy politicians are content to suckle on coffers not aligned to achievement of Black students, increasingly they, the educational heroes, approach it in action.
It is why I ask applicants, “How will these Black children know if you love them? How will their families know? How does anti-Blackness manifest itself in classrooms and schools? What will you do to combat it? We know a child won’t learn from someone who doesn’t love and demonstrate respect towards them and their parents. So, how will you champion anti-racist and culturally responsive pedagogy?”
The love of a community is foundational. How can one love a community that they don’t understand, don’t relate to, and don’t engage with? That has always been strange to me. Over the years, I have heard educators declare their love for their students, yet disparage these same children’s families and communities. They often reveal a level of educator arrogance; I am the only thing good in this child’s life.
How can one love a piece of fruit, but harbor intense disdain and contempt for the very tree that produces it? This is not to say that some students don’t come from horrific situations. But, there are also plenty of students who have families and communities that educators hurl unsubstantiated and dead-wrong pathologies on because it is different from their own. That’s oppression.
2. Justice. School staff must firmly believe that it isn’t education in itself that they are supporting, it is the idea that students and communities are in a literal fight for liberation; freedom from the shackles of white supremacy, and Black and Brown inferiority. When an educator approaches the work from this vantage point, it brings a whole new sense of urgency, respect, and diligence. It isn’t to pass a test or for the student to receive individual accolades, it is for the very survival and thriving of the community itself.
3. Knowledge. Content expertise should not, cannot, be downplayed. While the foundation of a classroom and school must be love, an almost reverence for the work of educating Black youth, it also needs to be accompanied with actual know how: how to break down complex concepts, what questions students have and what the building blocks of knowledge are, what concepts preceded this particular lesson and what are subsequent skills the student must acquire. The conceptual knowledge and the practical. How the knowledge applies to real life problem-solving and how to approach it for a variety of students. With poor content expertise, the default becomes low-level questioning, rote learning, busy work without meaning, and poor planning. These deficits will lead to disengaged learners who won’t learn.
- Humility. Effective educators are reflective – not just about pedagogical moves, but also how they are wielding their inherent power. How “softly” are our educators traversing their schools and communities? The best of us routinely think about and understand that even if we share some aspects of our students’ culture, we still have much to learn.
We should note that classism and elitism affect Black educators, many of whom may be “middle class” and internally and/or vocally disparage what they believe to be the “untalented ninety percent.” Unfortunately, so does anti-Blackness.
As educators, we must be humble and reflective. Demonstrating curiosity and humility as we educate other people’s children, is one of the keys to success and relationships. And, humility isn’t the opposite of boldness. Standing for justice can be both humble and bold. Our students need and deserve educators who consistently embody both.
When I was a kid, I used to read Langston Hughes’ book, Not Without Laughter. One of the characters was an aunt who moved away from her family physically and culturally, constantly bemoaning her mother’s and siblings’ Blackness and worldview. I’ve never forgotten the lessons Hughes attempted to paint in that book.
In 1948, DuBois argued against “the talented tenth”: “…I realized that it was quite possible that my plan of training a talented tenth might put in control and power, a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men…”
5. Patience. When I was a teacher, one of the activities at the start of school was a reflection exercise where we shared something about ourselves that impacted our teaching and what we wanted to change about ourselves. My colleagues were shocked when I said I wanted to work on my patience. They viewed the impatient as the yellers and screamers, those with poor relationships with students, because they couldn’t or wouldn’t take the time to explain things and build relationships. For me that wasn’t the case, but I knew that sometimes my sense of urgency would get the best of me and I harbored little patience for myself or others, despite that it didn’t manifest itself in the ways that it did in others. Often, it is what helps me in my work, but it can be a self-destructive mindset as well. Balance is the key. Again, the love helps a lot.
- Relatability. Malcolm X used to speak to world leaders and be just as comfortable standing on the corners of Harlem and west Philly speaking to the youth in the communities. Great educators approach the work from the same vein. They are not only comfortable in their powerful positions as leaders of schools and classrooms, they can walk kids to the neighborhood stores, eat water ice on a family’s stoop, and can conduct home visits easily.
Relatability means that these educators can not only develop relationships with the students they see for 180 days a year, but they can also spark up a conversation at the bus stop with a hooded, tatted kid from the neighborhood who doesn’t attend the school at all. While some educators would have their mind filled with thoughts of, “I don’t know that hulking, skulking, and menacing looking teenager,” others see a child and community member. Two very different mindsets about people.
- Education vs Training. One is developing and the other can be limiting. Students will often be what they are given the opportunity to practice. If we want obedient and submissive adults, we will incessantly demand perfection of practice . Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice leads to perfection. How often is what we essentially train our students to practice actually perfecting subservience in a nation built on institutions and a culture of demanding Black and Brown subservience? Schools have to work to undermine that. How? By being deliberate in students practicing the very opposite. Education is for liberation.
Training is to ensure people (and dogs) fall in line and don’t mess up. I recognize there is some semantics involved, but the mindset and approaches around this is real. I firmly believe Black children, all children, need self-discipline in order to be successful. Discipline in thought and action can be vital in developing self-determination. Effective educators know the difference between being strict disciplinarians versus helping a child develop self-discipline. May we all be better.
- Structure. Outcomes for students are met because of structure. My martial arts teacher, Baba Changa, used to say, “Technique rules most worlds.” Bury the misguided debate and false dichotomy about structure vs chaos. Students won’t learn and thrive without reasonable boundaries guided by love.
Hilary Beard speaks of how parenting works in homes and schools. She pulled together the research that proves the best parenting of Black kids, boys in particular, was approached from a strict authoritative style – firm boundaries in a nurturing environment. Some have termed this the warm demander. I love you. Here are my (super high) expectations. I am going to help you meet them, but you will meet it. As a matter of fact, we will meet these expectations together. I love you.
Don’t let anyone fool you to believe that a sense of order and super high expectations are not warranted in our schools. But, we must also not allow people to come into our communities and set up authoritarian institutions. Black and Brown folks know those all too well.
- Outcomes. The highly effective teachers and educators don’t shy away from being accountable for Black student outcomes. They don’t decrease their beliefs about Black children based off the circumstances that the child was born into. Highly effective educators are on a relentless and agile pursuit of ensuring goals, high goals, are set for themselves and the students they teach.
When we are effective, a mindset permeates throughout the class and school year, we will reach this goal together. I shudder at hearing educators who have seen the oppressive nature of the barriers our Black children face, yet declare in action that poverty, low reading levels, bad parenting, means that we shouldn’t expect great growth and results from our students and ourselves.
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.