Dr. Cornel West said we have a history that is “inseparable from though not reducible to victimization.” This is just as essential as it is difficult to keep in mind when white high school dropouts own more wealth than black and Latino college graduates. Black children in America today are constantly being told that they do not belong and they are not enough.
The past several years have forced me to reflect on what it means to be not only a black man in this country but a black educator for black and brown kids. My role as their teacher is to encourage them to reach for the stars. Instill in them a sort of practical intelligence that gives them opportunities to deliberate on their own lives. To give them the power of choice. To let them know that there is nothing in this world that they cannot achieve. But I find it increasingly hard to do that.
How do I convince my students that they are worthy of, and expected to do, great things when black children in America today are constantly being told that they do not belong and they are not enough?
My childhood was not different from that of many of the children I teach. Growing up in Harlem, I was faced with many hardships, including the low expectations that exist in many of the schools in under-served communities today. I’m grateful to have a mother who refused to give up on me and pushed me to see myself the way that all black children should be seen — as a bright, intelligent, and hardworking person who could accomplish anything I put my mind to. And as we know so well, it truly takes a village to raise a child.
Enter my middle school math teacher Frank Corcoran. He was and continues to be an incredible force in my life. From the time I entered middle school, he saw my full potential. When I grew weary of the challenges and obstacles that school sometimes brought, he refused to give up on me. I remember several instances that Mr. Corcoran would show up to my home to lecture me for ditching school and undervaluing my education. Although I wasn’t exactly a captive audience in the moment, his words and actions still inspire me today. As a child, your worst fear is for your parents and teachers to have such close contact. Now that I’m older, I’m glad Mr. Corcoran was a simple phone call away when I would refuse to go to school.
Mr. Corcoran is one of the main reasons I decided to pursue a career in education. I mean, if a white man with a totally different upbringing than mine could make such a meaningful difference in my life, what kind of impact could I have on kids who looked like me? Many studies have confirmed my belief that children will reach greater heights by having just one teacher who shares their ethnicity. This fact ignited a passion in me that simply cannot be extinguished. It is my goal to not only help my students reach their academic goals, but also to demonstrate a love that they likely had not previously received in their classroom.
It’s no secret that black and brown children, specifically black boys, are disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts. And we see this happening broadly in society. There should not be violent, and far too often fatal, results from activities as mundane as going to the park. As a result, our kids respond in anger and lash out. It’s unlikely our children understand why they are reacting this way. Even as an adult I find it hard to remain calm and collected in the face of these realities. Why do we expect a different behavior from our children? It’s important that as teachers, and adults, we exercise discipline that is grounded in love. Kids will be kids, and they need our guidance to help ensure they evolve into responsible and productive adults. Expressing love and compassion is a necessary variable in this equation.
Let’s be clear. I know that the approach I describe is often easier said than done. Inspirational phrases spattered around a classroom and out of your mouth here and there cannot take the place of what it truly means to be a teacher. My first year in the classroom was extremely difficult. There were many days that I didn’t think I was cut out for this work. But not dissimilar to my experience with school as a child, I had an incredible support system in my colleagues, leaders, and my professors at Relay Graduate School of Education. At Relay, I was trained not only to support students in math, but also in the art of classroom management, where the focus was on the creative ways to engage and push our students to achieve their full potential rather than harsh discipline.
I was trained in how to impart practical intelligence to my children while delivering opportunities for them to grow a knowledge of self. I learned what I knew all along — that children respond best to love and support. It’s through love, kindness, and pragmatic teaching and thinking that our children will believe they can do better, take on challenges, and confidently try again when they fail — especially when the system is designed against their well-being.
You don’t need to be a teacher or go through a formal training to reinforce and be examples of the love, kindness, and confidence we want for our children. It is our job as adults to do our best to ensure that our kids know they have a village of folks who believe in and love them fiercely.
Disclosure: The 74’s CEO, Stephen Cockrell, served as director of external support for the KIPP Foundation from 2015 to 2019. He played no part in the reporting or editing of this essay.