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How Teachers Can Make a Difference for Boys of Color

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In early February, I participated in a Teach to Lead summit, an event hosted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I worked with fellow educators at the summit on developing ideas to tackle the issue of equity in our schools. For me, that issue is deeply personal.

I am what is considered successful. The road wasn’t easy for a Latina from a poor, tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, but I’ve always done well in school. Now I hold two degrees in education and am eight years into a successful career with Boston public schools.

The story is similar for my sister Marie. After a successful career as a teacher in New York City public schools, she is now a principal.

Things were different for our brother, Louie. He didn’t do well in school. He didn’t follow rules. He talked excessively and wouldn’t sit still. As a result, his grades were low. As soon as he could, Louie started skipping school, hanging out all day with boys who were just like him. Louie was placed in the first of many juvenile correctional facilities when he was in middle school. When he reached adulthood, he graduated from “juvie” to prison. At the age of 24, he was murdered.

How did this happen? How did three children from the same circumstances end up so completely different? School made all the difference. Louie couldn’t find success there. As a teacher, I know the boy that Louie was in school. All teachers know him. He’s “difficult,” he’s “challenging,” he makes your day so much longer.

But as Louie’s sister, I have an insight for which I am thankful. Yes, this boy is talkative. But Louie’s talking made him the life of any social situation. Yes, he is always moving. When he wanted, Louie could channel his high energy and be amazingly resourceful. Yes, he doesn’t always ask permission. Louie was strong-willed; where we come from, that is vital. His teachers didn’t know Louie and Louie couldn’t reconcile being himself with being a successful student.

Making Connections

My brother’s story isn’t exceptional. Too many of our young black and Latino men are not successful in school. Here in Boston and in urban districts across the country, our school systems are consistently and dramatically failing black and Latino males. Compared to their counterparts, these boys graduate at lower rates, are expelled and suspended at higher rates, and are more likely to be identified as having learning disabilities.

Even in light of such dismal data, I continue to believe in education as the ultimate equalizer. School does make all the difference.

How do we, as teachers, change the trajectory for our black and Latino boys? First, we must accept the task of really getting to know our students. These boys have assets that make them strong and courageous in the eyes of their peers and survivors in tough neighborhoods. Too often, they disconnect from school because these personal traits aren’t valued in the classroom. As teachers, we must get to know what makes these boys special. This means gaining insight into their lives outside of school. It means gaining their trust.

Next, our schools must make better connections with the communities we serve. When we talk about parent engagement, we envision getting more parents and families into our school buildings. Getting teachers and administrators out into local communities is just as important. This means establishing relationships with other community agencies that serve our children such as YMCAs, recreation centers, and local businesses, as well as having schools and districts participate in and sponsor community-based events.

Our social instruction for black and Latino boys must be specific. The major difference between black and Latino children who find success at school and those who do not is the ability to intuit differences in environments and to respond accordingly. We need to explicitly teach these boys how to adapt to different sets of expectations without passing judgment on them or their experiences. We must have real conversations that involve explicit lessons around identity, societal expectations, and behavior in order for them to have the chance at success that they deserve and that we owe them.

I am a teacher in an urban elementary school in a low-income community. I see my brother in the face of every young boy who enters my classroom. I appreciate, teach, and serve each of them with the hope that my work and commitment make the difference.

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