By Martha Lopez, WATG Board Member
When you tune in to the news, it seems that most stories concerning Black and Latino males are overwhelming with bad news. In the United States, Black and Latino males lead the nation in many negative statistical categories, including incarceration, death, unemployment, and high school dropout rates (Davis, 2011). A large proportion of Black and Latino male children live in poverty, in high crime neighborhoods where they see little hope of pulling themselves out of the cycle of failure. For over a decade, I have worked closely with Black and Latino males as their teacher and advanced ELA teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools.
The first thing we need to know is the truth: 9.1% of Black male students are in special education compared with the national average of 6.5%. Meanwhile 14.5% of Black males are in honors classes compared with the national average of 25.6% of all students (Toldson, 2012). We can look at these figures and focus on the fact that Black males as a group lag behind other student groups. However, we can also look at the figures another way, celebrating that there are more Black males in honors classes than in special education. Black and Latino gifted male students can succeed—and they are succeeding every day. What about Black and Latino male students that are potentially gifted? How can we help them succeed also?
Bridging the Gap.
It’s a simple concept, but one that is too often overlooked. Building relationships with students is the key to their success. Our goal as educators should be to educate, activate, and motivate our students regardless of their background. Otherwise, we fail them.
How do we build healthy relationships with Black and Latino male students? We must know who they are, both in and out of school. We must take the time to explore not only their test scores, but also information like family dynamics (incarceration, homelessness, abuse, hunger), strengths and weaknesses, emotional well-being, speech problems, and other obstacles affecting their success. Next, to help bridge the gap, I will suggest additional recommendations that have worked for me.
Be an Active Listener
When your students express their thoughts, pains, or concerns, listen without distraction and without judgment. You may find that some kids are dealing with serious issues at home. Even when their concerns are minor, the empathy you display will go a long way in determining how they will perform in your class. By practicing active listening, you let students know that you really care about them, thereby gaining their trust and making them more eager to learn from you.
I have learned so much from my students by simply listening to them. Several years ago, one of my students approached me before our reading enrichment class. This youngster was broken and had low self-esteem. His perception of himself, especially as a student, was negative. I listened to him tell me about his family dysfunction, including an absent father and lack of support. I actively listened to him and after he was done talking, I told him his current situation wasn’t his final destination. He may not control other people’s decisions, but he has total control of the decisions he makes. After this conversation, he knew he could come talk to me anytime he was feeling down.
Be Fair and Consistent
Treat every student fairly. What does being fair look like? It means that you are impartial and you hold all students under your leadership to the same rules. It’s tough to build relationships with students who feel they’re being treated unjustly. When you and your students set rules, everyone must abide by them. For example, if you have a rule of no chewing gum, that rule should apply to all students. If you are ever in doubt about your discipline choices, ask yourself if you would treat your own child that way.
As a coordinator for our elementary ballet program, I had a close relationship with my young dancers, who trusted me enough to lean on me for guidance and advice. At the same time, I was known as a firm teacher with high expectations. At times, my young dancers would try to get away with irresponsible behaviors like claiming they were too tired to attend ballet class. They knew without a doctor or parent excuse, I had to hold them to the same high standard as I did with other students. At the time, it was tough for them to understand, but eventually they respected the fact that I held them accountable.
Healthy communication means connecting with trust and respect so that you know students and they know you. Let your students see that you’re not perfect. Let them know you made mistakes along the way, and tell them how you overcame those mistakes. You can’t teach students to learn from their mistakes if you never share your own. The more transparent you are, the more students will trust you. For example, one of my Latino students was having a tough day and said, “It’s not easy being the dumb one in math.” I shared with him that when I was in school, math was a tough subject for me too. Like him, I was a better reader and writer. I mentioned to him that I also felt frustrated and understood how he felt, but I was motivated to get help and work extra hard. We both came up with ideas and strategies he could use when he felt stuck in math. Number one on our list: Ask for help! His math scores began to increase and so did his self-efficacy.
Challenge Your Mental Models
When judging someone, we often fall back on mental models, which are thinking patterns established by past events, experiences, and messages we receive from the media. These models serve as filters through which we respond to the world. They shape what we see and hear, what we feel, and what we do. Unfortunately, mental models can give birth to stereotypes. We all respond to situations and people based on our mental models, which are often invisible to us.
That’s why it’s important to stop and ask ourselves, “Is there a possibility that I could be wrong?” If your unconscious mental model tells you that Black and Latino males aren’t capable of being successful students, it will affect how you respond to them and they will perceive your low expectations. We cannot lower our expectations for our students at any time. Every student has the potential to succeed. No matter what their home situation is or how they dress or look, we must view every student as a potential success. For example, one of my students had trouble reading at grade level. He would get upset because he was embarrassed that he struggled to sound out words. I stopped students from making fun of him when he read aloud. In private, I explained to him that if he wanted to compete with the rest of the world for his education and future employment, he would have to work on reading until he got it right. I shared about my dyslexia and my fear of reading aloud because I knew my classmates would laugh at me. Therefore, I had to spend extra time sounding out words until I got it right. I set high expectations for him instead of feeling sorry for him. I was not going to let him self-doubt or underestimate his potential—I was going to challenge him to do better. We continued to read aloud, and this young man became one of the best presenters in the class!
Discipline with Care
Discipline is essential for all students, but it has to be the right kind. Two mistakes are especially harmful to Black and Latino male students. The first is using sarcasm. Sarcasm is the last thing that a young person coming from a tough background needs to hear. A sarcastic remark may make the educator feel superior, but it can only make the target of the remark feel inadequate. Second, I’ve observed many educators showing anger when they have conflicts with students, and the results are never positive. There’s a difference between being angry and being firm. What our Black and Latino male students need is an understanding teacher who doesn’t take their behavior personally, but instead responds with empathy and calm during high-stress situations.
Whatever form of discipline you use, do it with care and concern for the student. Many students have serious emotional issues that are not being addressed. To build healthy relationships, you must let students know that even if they make a terrible mistake or decision, you still believe in them and their ability to bounce back and make better choices. That will go a long way toward building better relationships with them.
Hungry to Learn
Finally, some low-income Black and Latino males may feel under-appreciated, unimportant, and unequipped to succeed. They feel that educators not only don’t expect them to do well, but also don’t put forth effort to help them grow. But poverty doesn’t have to mean “at risk.” Many young people who grew up in poverty have become gifted doctors, lawyers, business owners—and teachers. Beneath their exterior, these young men want to be educated just like any other student. They are hungry to learn. They just need educators with empathy who care enough to build relationships with them.
If you have any questions or comments about this topic, please contact Martha López at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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