Humanize and Educate

3 principles educators should follow to ensure that every Black boy can perform well.

By Daryl C. Howard
Principal, March/April 2021. Volume 100, Number 4.

I’ve focused on the ongoing disproportionality in Black boys’ outcomes throughout my more than 20-year career. And I am still making calls for Black boys to be seen—and humanized—in educational spaces.

That’s what it takes to help every Black boy perform to the best of his ability. There are three principles that I think are useful in helping school leaders train their staff to better humanize, and therefore educate, Black boys:

1. Learn your bias, and think differently. Educators must first deal with any bias they hold against Black boys. Bias is sneaky, and humans often make snap judgments about things they don’t understand. If one doesn’t understand cultural differences, for example, those differences can be perceived as deficits or even deviant behaviors.

One of my first “asks” of any educator is to remove the term “Black males” from their vernacular. Such adultification contributes to misunderstandings. Calling Black boys “Black males” removes their personhood, prevents teachers from fully appreciating their age and stage of development, and adds to the potential for boys to be stereotypically codified as reckless, uninterested in education, and prone to violence. This bias is what causes teachers to view Black boys as adorable when they are toddlers, uncooperative as kindergartners, and a threat as fourth-graders.

A 2016 research study from Yale University tracked eye movements among white preschool teachers to show that they tend to oversupervise Black boys. And another recent study from University of Southern California researcher David Quinn shows that teachers gave lower grades on second-grade writing assignments containing names and verbiage that signaled their authors were Black boys.

Bias shapes how we treat Black boys, making school a place where they don’t feel successful or wanted. In order to change this, educators must first recognize that bias exists, then train themselves to interrupt it if we want our Black male students to do better.

2. Leverage how boys learn, and instruct differently. Black boys spend the majority of their education under cross-gender and cross-cultural supervision and instruction. In other words, the individuals who are least like them in gender and culture are responsible for teaching and guiding them five days a week. Efforts to bring more male educators of color into the profession are important to changing this dynamic.

However, we must start training all teachers to leverage how boys learn best. Too few educators think or learn about teaching practice and differences in the ways boys and girls learn—and in particular, how boys’ brains work. There are sociopolitical considerations surrounding equity and heteronormative or traditional understandings of gender socialization, but there are also undeniable aspects of gender biology we can’t ignore. Recognizing learning differences allows teachers to provide better instruction for all students.

Boys are known to be up to two years less mature than girls, yet they are held to the same behavioral standards. Boys are often competition-centered, and they typically use other boys as mirrors to measure their success. Educators could benefit from reflection that considers how moving from the theoretical to the tactile, and the didactic to the experiential, could help engage male students.

3. Love Black boys like your own, and engage differently. When teachers imagine Black boys as their own family, the emotional commitment yields different results. Being a culturally responsive educator means recognizing the importance of relationships and learning partnerships.

Students from collectivist and relational cultures often have an “auntie” in school—a trusted adult who they know cares for them but isn’t going to cut them unnecessary slack. This type of loving relationship helps maintain high expectations and demands their best, treats students with empathy, and exercises discipline with a differentiated approach.

When teachers seek to dominate Black boys in their classrooms, the boys experience a fight-or-flight instinct and disengage. Teachers can hold Black boys accountable for their learning and behavior, but they must recognize that restoration, rational detachment, and forgiveness are part of the relationship.

Teachers must be trained to humanize Black boys, because it might not come naturally. Loving and understanding Black boys is key, alongside strategies for instruction and engagement that “move the needle.” As school leaders, it’s up to you to make it happen.

Daryl C. Howard is an equity instructional specialist and author of Complex People: Insights at the Intersection of Black Culture and American Social Life. Follow him on Twitter @darylhowardphd.

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