“Unintended” Messaging About Black (Male) Teachers

Teachers who establish meaningful relationships with their students should be celebrated and modeled after. However, social media has a way of turning any narrative on its head; making teachers overnight sensations for sharing complex handshakes with their students.

Inventing customary handshakes for each student doesn’t make a teacher great, however I get the point of all the hype; if a teacher cares enough to have a special handshake with each student, it says something about their attention to detail and care for each kid. It also says something about establishing solidarity with students.

Barry White Jr., a fifth-grade teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James fan. He began doing handshakes with his students because he wanted to bring to his class the same bond and closeness shared on the Cavs at the time to his students. David Jamison, a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, memorized 75 different handshakes with his students. Like White, Jamison sought to create a stronger bond with his students.

His efforts, and the response received on social media earned Jamison with an appearance on Good Morning America.  

It must be said that both White and Jamison are Black men. It matters because the “handshakes” are an offshoot of the dap. In fact, almost all of these complex handshakes have the dap to credit as its foundation.

The dap and the practice of dapping originated in the late 1960’s among Black soldiers during the Vietnam war as a way to protect each other from racist violence, after a Black soldier was murdered by a white soldier. Although dapping was banned by the military out of fear that is was code for Black insurrection against the nation and armed forces, dapping continued amongst Black soldiers.

However, Black soldiers were punished for it. It’s estimated that hundreds of Black soldiers stationed overseas, in Japan, Puerto Rico, Southeast Asia, Europe and even Hawaii, were punished by the army between 1962 and 1975. Some soldiers were given extra duties while others were put in military prison or even dishonorably discharged.

Dapping was never code for insurrections of any kind. Rather it served as a trust building and point of solidarity amongst Black and white soldiers. When speaking to family and friends who served in the military, they routinely articulated that in order to be confident in battle, you need to know that your fellow soldier has your back; something very important for Black soldiers to know of their white counterparts during the Vietnam war at the heels of the Civil Rights Movement.

Dapping even served as a trust builder between recuperating Black soldiers and white medical staff, in addition to serving as a tool used to root out Black informants. Dapping was a tool of solidarity and survival that literally saved Black lives.

Nowadays, dapping is a universal greeting amongst all peoples, not just Black people. As it relates to the celebration of educators and their handshakes, white teachers too have dabbled in the art of complex handshakes with their students; one in Colorado and another in Kansas.

It’s cool that teachers seek to connect with their students in this way, but there is an unintended message (or intended depending on who you ask) sent that’s antithetical to the work of districts increasing Black teachers; particularly Black male teachers.

The message is that Black teachers are expendable; it’s a twofold message.

First, what’s communicated is that Black teachers are only good for building relationships with students. Establishing relationships is important, but more important than that is a teacher’s ability to teach. Not that sharing dap of teachers and students is wrong, but why wasn’t a video shared of White or Jamison breaking down theory and concepts at the board while calling on engaged students to provide responses and questions?

I wonder if such a video had been shared, would either teacher landed on Good Morning America?

Intentionally or otherwise, these sorts of videos has the potential to reinforce a dangerous idea or stereotype; that Black teachers aren’t content leaders. The idea that Black teachers aren’t content leaders is vexing for many Black teachers; their qualifications are regularly in question, they are passed over for advancement opportunities, and it’s believed that they can only teach Black students. Too often Black men are hired to teach, they are wanted for policing Black students in schools.

I don’t mean to be the fun police, but this is a part of the invisible tax that heavily contributes to Black teachers leaving the profession at high rates.

What else is communicated is that Black teachers are expendable; that anyone can do what Black teachers do if all they’re good for is creating complex handshakes. Let me be clear, white teachers who engage in these sorts of activities with Black children aren’t necessarily wrong for doing so. But special handshakes developed by isn’t a guaranteed trust builder between them, Black students and Black parents.  

When white teachers greet their students with special handshakes, it doesn’t automatically mean that they love Black children. White teachers can’t dap it up with Black children when they walk in the door, then fail to provide them with culturally responsive teaching and provide culturally responsive resources that shows they have a revolutionary love for their Black students.

And, if schools have white teachers who “dap their students up” it doesn’t mean that schools aren’t in need of Black teachers; that the impact of Black teachers on Black students is overstated.

I know folks don’t think about all of these things when they scroll down their timelines and see a teacher engaging with their students in heartfelt way such as this example. On the surface, we see these interactions and feel good. We may even wish that we were or that our children are taught by these folks. However, when you think about it, these videos deserve our reflection on how Black children are educated in America’s schools.

Building relationships with Black students is important for all teachers to do, no matter their race or ethnicity. However, understand that the Blackness of Black teachers does inform their practice and is a benefit to Black students. Therefore, the contributions that Black teachers provide Black students shouldn’t be assumed as a universal ability; we aren’t expendable.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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