Principals, I Am Not Your Magical Negro

For many schools, having a Black man in their buildings often means having a disciplinarian in their school to supervise Black students, particularly Black male students. Sometimes, schools specifically hire Black men to dole out discipline and other times schools make Black men the de-facto disciplinarian. I’ve seen this happen to Black men in schools. It happened to me.

Once folks caught wind that students listened to me and that I was a competent classroom manager, I became a go to person for discipline matters. I was asked to speak to students on the spot when they defied a teacher, I was asked to step inside a classroom and address students if a teacher saw me walking by, I was “asked” to house misbehaving students in my classroom, assigned students who other teachers “couldn’t handle,” and I was often left alone for lunch duty. My supervisors didn’t ask me to help build the staff’s competence by coaching struggling teachers or leading professional development. They ignored that my classroom management was grounded in love and building an effective and mutual learning community.

Non-Black teachers and administrators alike referred students to me for what they described as needing “guidance” and they were usually Black male students – many of whom I didn’t even teach. I love(d) working and building relationship with Black male students. However, their referrals implied that there was some mystical language that Black educators and students spoke that non-Black educators didn’t or couldn’t.

Sure, there are collective experiences and a shared culture among Black people and those things inform my teaching and disciplining Black male students in particular. But that doesn’t excuse white educators or other non-Black educators from their responsibility to be culturally competent and culturally responsive when educating Black students.

Educators must stop saying that Black children don’t care about education when the reality is they themselves don’t give a damn about Black children. And, they should recognize that all criticism is a form of autobiography…your criticism, often grounded in deep-seeded racial biases, exposes your mindset and beliefs about Black children and the communities that sent them.

To be perfectly honest, schooling in America is racist. You probably won’t find the N-word spray painted on school lockers, however that depends largely on where your school is located, but I digress. What you will find are racist policies and educators who believe racist ideas.

Nationally, Black students are disciplined in schools more than any other race of children no matter the grade.

School suspensions, whether in school or out of school, means that those students miss instructional time. Missed instructional time means that academically, those students are put at a disadvantage. Damn a test score; Black students are deprived of their right to an education and possibly in the pipeline to prison.

In my home state of New Jersey, Black students are suspended at higher rates than any other race of students. According to the data, Black boys make up 16% of all male students (8% of all New Jersey students) but make up 40% of males suspended; Black girls make up 16% of all female students (7% of all New Jersey students) but make up 50% of all females suspended.

Some teachers appreciate when an assistant principal or the principal walks to their door or comes in their room because students often behave when these figures of law, order and authority make their presence felt. But what happens when their presence departs? Teachers better have something engaging for those students in the way of a lesson and activity whereby learning continues or else that moment of students tracking the teacher and staying on task will revert back to not paying that teacher any mind.

But oh… that’s right. Here is where Black male teachers come in; we are often called on to fill discipline gaps; particularly when it comes to Black boys. But here’s the thing; Black men aren’t the crutch for teachers (or administrators) inability or unwillingness to engage Black students. We are not your magical Negros.

Non-Black educators must understand that the way to good classroom management and well-behaved Black students isn’t finding the closest Black male around to get them in check. The best way to ensure great classroom management; the best way to apply anti-racist principles in your teaching is to actually engage with Black students with culturally responsive teaching, culturally relevant lessons using culturally affirming resources, and cultural competence.

For example, Coronavirus has altered the sports landscape. Normally, at the start of the school year, we’re talking football, but it’s the NBA playoffs. Maybe your lesson of the day is about percentages and fractions. On its face, percentages and fractions are boring. But, maybe start the class showing pictures of NBA players and their sneakers. Show some Kyrie’s, some LeBron’s, some Harden’s and throw some J’s in for good measure (Jordan’s). Create word problems asking students to solve for the price of sneakers if the sales price is half off, 20% or 30%.

Some math teachers say they actually fell in love and began to understood fractions, percentages, and ratios because their teachers used something they loves (in this case sports) to show how math worked. Batting and free throw percentages, yards per game and season, etc. were all inroads to the aware. Students can then be exposed to larger ways these concepts work in the world…and, in life.

Teachers can ask student to solve for the average price of three pairs of sneakers if the sales price is buy two pairs for $59.99 each and the third pair is free. But before you create the lesson, teachers can write to or visit a Foot Locker or any sneaker store and ask for some discount coupons as part of a classroom assignment and hand them out to students who correctly answer questions at the board – for students to actually implement what they learned that day. I can guarantee you that the only problem you’ll have is quelling the excitement of your students.

Of course the next day a teacher may not give away anything, but when teachers care enough to invest in an actually lesson in culturally competent and responsive ways, students take notice and will remain in anticipation for the next such lesson where you give goodies on the surface while providing gems that internalizes learning.

Utilize your Black male colleagues for their content and cultural responsiveness expertise. Teachers can consult them for help with ideas for such lessons as stated above or ask them to walk through lessons to check for cultural responsiveness and relevance. Administrators can ask (and compensate them with time, money, etc.) them to deliver professional development and coaching to faculty on creating these lessons, building relationships, and managing their classrooms.

But you cannot use Black male teachers to evade your responsibility to actually teach Black children. If the faculty and administration at your school do know how to do that or would rather not do that, then hire more Black male teachers. There are some ineffective folks in our schools who are taking up space that should be reserved for people those who know what to do.

Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.

–James Baldwin


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