In the mid-nineties I earned my money and fed my family the old-fashioned way, I earned it as a high school public school teacher. I taught chemistry, earth science, and physical science. My salary was awful and teaching was challenging, but I enjoyed it immensely.
I saw many things in the profession, as it related to black male students, that perturbed me greatly. What disturbed me the most was a culture of failure for black male students. And no one seemed to care. Indifference and willful blindness abounded. No one rocked the boat to save those young men including their parents. Below I described what irked me the most.
Low Teacher Expectation
George Bush called low teacher expectation soft bigotry. I agree strongly because it’s a form of bigotry when teachers do nothing to stop their students from failing and allow them to sit in their classes day after day without demanding their student’s best. It’s also uncaring and unjust. Shame on teachers who allow this chronic failure to occur.
Guidance counselors and high school coaches are notorious for this soft bigotry too. Many couldn’t care less about the future of their students besides performing on the basketball court or football field. They track black male students into low level courses to make as much time for sports as possible. And yes, this insidious practice occurs in college too. The Wake County District Attorney’s office prosecuted a University of North Carolina professor who taught a fake class for UNC athletes. Most of the students were black and a report opined that coaches and staff knew of the despicable practice. Some people, including myself, believe the late revered and beloved Coach Dean Smith must have known about the fraudulent classes.
Meanwhile, one of the high school basketball coaches at my school approached me about a student. I’ll leave both nameless. The student was the star basketball player, but he was failing my class. The coach wanted me to pass the kid to protect his eligibility to play. I refused. No way would I participate in that injustice. I expected more of my students especially my black male students.
Nearly all my black male students performed poorly academically. This poor performance was largely due to the low expectation of their teachers and uninvolved parents. I was determined to be different. I put the word out that I wouldn’t tolerate mediocre performance, especially from black male students. I told them to come to class prepared to work because I wouldn’t allow them to continue sitting in the back of the classroom acting foolish. That day was over. I demanded their best.
Many responded by working harder and increasing their grades. A few were too far gone for me to reach and they continued to fail despite my best efforts. Several even dropped out as I had done years earlier. I was happy most responded well. At the end of the year, my classes had the best test scores in some areas and second best in other areas.
Before I got my students to work harder academically, however, I had to transform their classroom behavior. I’m sad to report my black male students misbehaved the most initially although their misbehavior was no more severe than other students. They just seemed disengaged and uninterested in their education. The disengagement, indifference and low teacher expectation led to horseplay and frivolities, which led to academic failure. I responded with lots of tough love and innovative teaching methods. I played classical music, utilized hip-hop and many other techniques to engage them. I also sent many to the principal’s office when they deserved it. The misbehavior decreased significantly.
My unorthodox and tough methods didn’t win me many friends especially in the white community. More than a few couldn’t get their heads around why I demanded respect from my students. My predecessor had reportedly allowed the students to do as they pleased. I was different and some of my spoiled brat students and parents couldn’t accept it.
My tenure teaching was short-lived mainly because of low teacher pay. I couldn’t afford to teach. But I learned two things from my short-term tenure as a teacher—public schools need many more black male teachers, and they’re needed mostly in elementary schools. Black male students naturally respond better to black male teachers. This statement isn’t anecdotal. Research supports it. Public schools must do whatever is necessary to attract black men teachers.