“I Become What I See”: Addressing Academic Patterning Distress and the Importance of Black Male Teachers

The age-old adage of people becoming what they see has never been more salient to me than it is today as so many black students attest that I am the first black male teacher that they have ever had. I could feel comforted in knowing that I will not be the last in that most of these students are freshmen, and I am a professor at a historically black university (HBCU). Many of these students hail from fairly diversified or predominantly white districts that consistently lack black teachers from K-12. In many instances, these students sense something missing in their academic background and enroll at Florida Memorial University or other HBCUs. Some are on a journey to get a competent liberal arts education, revel in the HBCU experience and learn in the presence of an African American male faculty member such as myself.

As dismal as this may seem, I can’t help but wonder about not only the kids that go to predominately white institutions (PWI) but Hispanic serving institutions (HSI) as well. The obvious is the possibility of never getting a robust understanding of the importance of black history and the African diaspora. This can easily result in such students deferring to a flawed racial hierarchy in all instances and subscribing to a debilitating sense of inferiority.

More importantly, I ponder about black male students in particular, those who never matriculate to a college or university at all. If they had ever witnessed a black man in full command of a classroom with mastery of the subject matter, would they have furthered their education? How would having been taught by a black male affected their academic and or personal trajectories?

I become what I see.

Over 15 years ago, boys from our neighborhood would come over to play with my oldest son.

One afternoon, I sat at my dinner table reading the paper and suddenly the usual ruckus of my son and his friends playing video games and trash-talking each other fell to a hush. I turned from the paper and noticed one of them studying me with a furrowed brow. The boy, Devonté, was so transfixed that he lost the game he was playing with my son.

“Wassup, ‘Vonté?” I asked, sitting deep against the back of the chair.

He pointed at my arm. “You got a tattoo and steady be reading stuff. I ain’t never seen no man with a tattoo on his arm read no newspaper before.”

I remember the confusion I felt at the time. How could he not have seen his teachers read from a book at some point?

“What about the teachers at your school? When the teachers bring a newspaper and talk about the news or—”

“They all ladies,” he said.

The reason for this gender inequity in K-12 schools proved to be in the numbers. Demographic shifts show that ethnic and minority populations continue to increase. KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program)—the nation’s largest network of charter schools, offers free open-enrollment and are typically located in low-income communities—knows this phenomenon all too well:

“Since 2014, ethnic and racial minorities make up more than half of the student population in United States public schools, yet about 80% of teachers are white and 77% of them are female. People of color make up about 20% of teachers; a mere two percent are black men.”[1]

And what are the long-term repercussions of an already underserved student population who has never seen a teacher that looks like them during the course of their primary and secondary education? What are the short-term consequences of such an educational inequity? For starters, consider Academic Patterning Distress (APD), my term for the staggering levels of academic underperformance and pessimism in black male students that results from the scarcity of black male teachers.

“Kids do better when they’re taught by teachers who look like them. That’s just the way it is,” states California State University, Northridge (CSUN) education professor David Kretschmer. “That’s why we need more men of color in American classrooms, period.” Kretschmer codirects the Future Minority Male Teachers Across California Project (F2MTC), which seeks to recruit, prepare and retain male teachers of color at the elementary level in California’s university system.[2]

It goes without saying that the students most profoundly impacted by having a black male teacher are black male students. A landmark 2017 study co-authored by Johns Hopkins University economist, Nicholas W. Papageorge revealed that having just one black teacher in elementary school between grades 3-5 substantially increased the probability of a low-income black student graduating from high school and contemplating college; as for a very low-income black boy, the risk of dropping out decreased by 39%.[3]

Being a high school teacher for one year and a university professor thereafter has been transformational for both my students and me. For many students, my presence, intellect and energy opens their minds to the reality that black men are much more than the stereotypes fed to them through the media. In every instance there is mutual learning, growth and a genuine appreciation for an unexpected male point of view. The most rewarding and hopeful of all exchanges always seem to come from black males in my classes.

To black male students, I become a glimpse into a way of being, a way of carrying themselves. I become a guidepost to demonstrate that being an intelligent, educated black man is a reality that is accessible. My stomach tightens and my resolve intensifies upon sensing curiosity under their cynical, cool pose on the first day of class: How can you even begin to understand my life?

Upon my assurance that I can relate with a few applicable stories, they run the details through their minds to imagine if the manner in which I carry myself would garner them respect in their neighborhoods and families. Eventually I pass their “cornball test” and soon thereafter, they lean forward onto their desks, almost cutting each other off with the questions that seem impossible to avoid but hardest to articulate.

“How can I make it to where you are with all this dumb, constant pressure to prove myself to everybody?”

Tell me. Show me, so I can become what I see.

I have been asked to stand in the cold of night to cheer and be one of the first to take a picture or two with former students, hoarse and grinning from ear to ear, after crossing over into the fraternity of their choice. I have been called from my seat during awards ceremonies to hallways to give black males students (who request that someone find me and only me) emergency tutorials on how to tie their ties before they take the stage. I have had some, even after I had to fail them for not taking my class seriously, invite me to family gatherings. And why? Because a man whose tough love they trust is so rare that they seek to maintain bonds by any means necessary.

This isn’t an entirely new experience for me. I was an Americorps member assigned to assist an elementary in an underserved community in raising their reading scores. During my undergraduate years at Florida A&M University, I worked with summer camps and Upward Bound/TRIO programs. I then became part of a teacher training program at Florida State University during my graduate years, where I gained my initial experience teaching college-level classes.

But what about the black men out there without as much experience who are considering a career in teaching? Your own life experiences may have prepared you in ways you have not imagined. Many black men are teachers first and foremost in their communities and homes. There is usually someone their junior taking note of how they enter the room, the things they find funny, the tone and topic of their conversations. This happens frequently in barbershops where black boys in middle and high school turn down their headphones to “ear hustle” on the concerns and perspectives of older men coming in for a close shave and sharp lineup.

A black boy engaging a black man as a teacher in one of his classes is all the more special. This is particularly the case when the black teacher is not in the stereotypical physical education instructor, which gives the notion far too often that the only talent or wisdom we as black men can offer is a perceived superiority in sports.

Teaching is a calling more than a job. With all callings, there are challenges, and this one is no different. Far too many times, the pay is underwhelming. Additionally, politics keep teachers and their perspectives under a microscope. The pressure to win popularity contests, especially if one is a black male (since it is assumed that they are “naturally cool”) can be draining.

There is a huge temptation from the many female colleagues and administration to have every black male student with some sort of issue sent to you, the sole black male teacher’s classroom (whether they know the student or not) so that you can “fix it.” This puts you in the role of de facto disciplinarian for all black males in the building.

And if you navigate all of that as I have, your time with students will come back to bless you with students who email you just to let you know something you said rang true to them and comforted them in their darkest hour. Blessings come to you when you’re greeted by a former student so delighted to see you that they tell your own children how lucky they are to have you as a dad. Blessings manifest even when you’re simply out living life. I remember once after finishing a meal at a local restaurant, I discover that my bill was covered by a former student who was working after school as a busboy and paid for my meal from his tips as a thank you for demanding more out of him instead of just keeping him out of trouble. Making an impact in classrooms and communities that need you is an honor.

If you are not careful, there is a great chance that you will become the greatest version of yourself.

Dr. William Hobbs is the chair of the Arts and Humanities Department at UNCF-member HBCU Florida Memorial University, the only HBCU in South Florida. Dr. Hobbs is a former K-12 educator.

[1] https://www.kipp.org/news/two-percent-teachers-black-men-yet-research-confirms-matter/
[2] https://www.kipp.org/news/two-percent-teachers-black-men-yet-research-confirms-matter/
[3] https://releases.jhu.edu/2017/04/05/with-just-one-black-teacher-black-students-more-likely-to-graduate/