I had made it to the proverbial finish line that many black students are preached to read in our communities: I went to college, survived a predominantly white institution, did exceptionally well academically, then graduated with all the pomp and circumstance to make “momma-nem” proud on commencement day. Upon graduation, I had three amazing opportunities to work in education, or in educationally-related spaces. I had the chance to work for Teach for America in New York, a rotational program with Steelcase, and some youth engagement work in my hometown. In the end, I decided to commit myself to a one-year graduate program at my alma mater: Syracuse University.
The day after graduation, I started an MS in Education program, focusing on social studies education (ambitious in many ways) in order to teach history. What originally seemed like a daunting task has turned into a lesson that has further developed my sense of blackness and maleness, as well as the understanding of my agency as an educator. So far, the experience has taught me three major lessons that reveal the inner workings of an educator-in-training.
Lesson #1: I am not going to save all black male youth.
During the first few weeks of my graduate school experience, I was placed in a student teaching experience in an urban middle school in Syracuse. The classroom was filled with students whose needs ranged from English language acquisition to “emotional disturbance.” I was thrown into the space and many of the faculty believed I was “the right guy to help these young black men.” Quickly, I had to do myself some mental caretaking; I had to separate people’s perception of black male support from my actual agency. Yes, there is value in being a black male face in a profession that does not have many people that look like me. But my value and impact goes further than race or association. This became most real when I was working with a student that I will call “Ant.” Ant was a young African-American male who was labeled as the “problem child” by many of his teachers and peers. He would walk into class, scream curse words, barely participate, and oftentimes leave at random points in class to walk the hallways in search of his friends. All too often, he ended up in in-school suspension, where he told the supervising teacher: “You ain’t shit.”
I had to separate people’s perception of black male support from my actual agency.
Because I wanted to know what made Ant tick, I did some investigation and found out that when teachers met with his familyn to think about ways to better serve him, his mother would say, frankly: “I’ve given up on him.” Although I didn’t spend enough time in the school to be more of a support for Ant, I had to understand that I could only stand in the gap for him and encourage him with the tools I had; I would not save him. I could only enable him with my tools and experiences. It was depressing in many ways, but it taught me to push towards a mark and be fine with knowing that I, too, am human. Being a black male teacher doesn’t mean I’m magic.
Lesson #2: Most of my classmates might not understand what privilege really is.
Now, the Syracuse University School of Education is a great institution with faculty that “get it.” They understand systematic and institutionalized oppression, racism, and hierarchy. They even understand that the concept of inclusivity is not limited to a teacher’s classroom, but must be the “stuff” that permeates the entire building. But there is one fact that remains: education is a majority white, female, and under-appreciated field compared to other disciplines. For me, entering into classrooms as the only black male within several secondary education graduate programs in a room full of white men and women quickly became a norm that I had to be comfortable with. I would sit in classes of about 25 students and realize that I was literally alone when it came to a socio-racial experience. This became even more recognizable when we began to debate and propose ideas to increase inclusion in classroom spaces for all learners during one class day.
Education is a majority white, female, and under-appreciated field compared to other disciplines.
A fellow student had asserted, “I want to be inclusive of, say my black students, but how do I address situations when they say the n-word? And I know that it is not good to use.” Initially, I wanted to be the black studies minor from undergrad, pull out Race Matters, and give the classic treatise on understanding systemic oppression and the power of black people to show affection through heated argument. But I quickly realized that approach would be ineffective because privilege allowed my classmate not to see the power of language for the black student. Instead, I replied: “Maybe you should ask your student, why do you use that word? What does it mean for you? Do you know where it came from?” Now, do I love the use of the n-word? No. But I had to realize that in America, many young black people are taught by white educators who want to have an impact but will never have the cultural or social experience of being black to fully relate to their students. My hope is that in that situation, they will be empowered to ask questions to get students to think critically, as opposed to feeling like they need to be the “schooling for social justice” guru. We have to be realistic and account for the realities of it all.
Lesson #3: I will be underappreciated for the majority of my career by many people of color (who don’t “get it”).
This can be seen as a generalization, but hear me out. If you do a random sample of friends and loved ones, and ask: “What are your thoughts on teaching? Would you go into it?” How many would give you a positive answer? Every friend that I speak to says something like: “God bless.” “Bruh, you are crazy.” “How you gonna eat?” I laugh about all these things now, but they make complete sense. For many people of color, education was a place and means of survival, not of thriving. We spent our time in high school trying to make it out, in college trying to make it out with respect (given the overwhelming presence of barriers), and once we get out…we don’t necessarily have too many fond memories unless we had a unique experience. So, why even teach or become an educator? For the typical black person in my circle, it might just be because we are too jaded. This epidemic, in my opinion, will persist until American schooling makes the decision that we are not going to problematize black youth and we are not going to teach post-racial litanies that insulate white privilege, further enslaving the minds of our youth. In order to re-brand the faces of education, we need to show Black America that education is actually for us. That we deserve it.
I may have several months left in this program and a series of expensive New York State certification exams to take, but these three lessons have shown me why I must become an educator and impact the world of education policy. I have a lot of work to do, good work that excites me. But I will need to run a course that is not taken by many men of color.