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During my time as a principal in South Philadelphia, I made the same gimmicky mistakes that most leaders are guilty of when trying to control students and their behaviors.

Before I became its leader, my school was one of the only middle schools to make the state’s persistently dangerous list, which meant that in the previous year it had at least 20 reported physical assault offensives, along with incidents of weapons and drugs.

Therefore, I did what I was brought there to do: Get it off the persistently dangerous list and make it a safe school for learning.

Both of which I did, only to realize that my initial approach was all wrong. Even though I followed what top education leaders and reformers consider a formula for safety, I also created a culture of fear and intimidation.

I followed the well-worn path for making urban schools “safe” or “great” — ensuring that Black and Latinx students receive constant supervision with a culturally blind and no-excuses attitude toward student behavior — all in support of a hyperfocus on skills, devoid of cultural connections or relevancy.

Yet it was confusing: The kind of school I was creating was nothing like the one I wanted for my own children. I wanted mine at a school that encouraged them to learn who they are, with all their quirks and gifts. A place where they could develop and track meaningful goals, exercise academic choice and openly advocate for themselves.

Yet here I was running a middle school with more detention rooms, timeout rooms and in-school suspension rooms than I could count, a school where teachers judiciously monitored student behavior using color-coded behavior charts and where there were zero options for taking advanced courses.

Would I send my kids to my school? I would not.This juxtaposition haunted me. I knew my school had to change.

So I changed my approach. In my first year, my successful school turnaround was not without several mistakes and a lot of learning on my part. I did not inherit a school that functioned on its own, and there were times when student voices were not front and center.

I share this in transparency, hoping that you are able to reflect on the culture you’re creating in your own schools.

Ample studies show the challenges that Black students face in school and highlight the difficulty educators have in ensuring their academic and social success. Complicating these challenges are teachers’ who desire to control students and systemic beliefs that Black people are unintelligent and uneducable, fed by the stereotypical portrayals of Black youth as untrustworthy and wild, needing to be tamed, that have been propagated in media, politics and other popular discourse for generations.

Black people are no less impacted by what we repeatedly see and hear than everyone else. We, too, fall victim to co-signing the same stereotypes against our Black communities that we so vehemently fight against.

Complicating [Black students’] challenges are teachers’ who desire to control students and systemic beliefs that Black people are unintelligent and uneducable, fed by the stereotypical portrayals of Black youth as untrustworthy and wild, needing to be tamed, that have been propagated in media, politics and other popular discourse for generations.

For example, no matter how cute and innocent I thought my own kids would be, I knew their presence might threaten others for no reason at all. They might be told, even by friends, “to go back to Africa” in what would be meant as a joke. They’d likely be seen as “the problem” in school, and their physical presence — too big, too tall, too out-there and too Black — might intimidate teachers or make them feel uncomfortable.

Their natural emotional responses to hard things would likely be scrutinized and labeled as “at-risk,” “impulsive” or “in crisis.”

I knew from my experience as a school leader that they would be forced to question their hopes and dreams because of societal norms and the low expectations placed upon them, and that they’d see far fewer images of Black people holding powerful positions.

When we are influenced to believe negatives about Blackness, it breeds mistrust, fear and envy — even within our own communities. The labels, lies and misunderstandings about Black children attack our own truths.

Related: If schools don’t overhaul discipline, ‘teachers will still be calling the police on our Black students’

However, something very important also happened during that first year as a principal. I learned about the art of culturally relevant pedagogy, being bicultural, the impact of teacher self-efficacy and social responsibility.  Later, I’d teach others to implement these practices.

This had a profound impact on my life and ultimately changed my leadership lens altogether. I now believe we must rethink our responses to the behavior of Black and Latinx students. We must challenge ourselves to develop culturally and socially responsive programming that allows these students to have a voice, express their feelings and question leadership choices that aren’t meeting their needs.

Schools should be modeling, for students, what it looks like to self-advocate, and then allow students the space and grace to practice. Students of color must be taught how to argue for their needs, while also remaining conscious of the consequences when doing so in the real world.  Educators must build their own sociopolitical awareness in order to help their students navigate mainstream culture.

It wasn’t until I reflected upon my maternal instincts and revisited the needs of my students by consulting with them that I learned what schools should look and feel like for them. That’s how I began creating a school that they could thrive in.

Allowing student leadership to impact our school community ultimately transformed our school and my leadership practice.

Taryn Fletcher is a former middle school principal and deputy superintendent of Camden, New Jersey schools. She is the founder and CEO of Truly POC Inc. and the author of “In All Lanes: Action Steps for New Leaders to Empower Black and Brown Students, Rethink School, and Transform Behavior.”

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Letters to the Editor

3 Letters

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  1. Why do we need to Recruit, Hire, and Retain Black Male Teachers?

    I remember growing up and hearing that I was an endangered species as a young black male. The drug epidemic and gang violence were prevalent in my neighborhood in the late ’80s. I lost several friends by way of incarceration or murder. I always believed that education was the great equalizer, and if our schools were more engaging, the streets would be less attractive to my friends. I did not have one black male teacher in grades Kg through 6th, and I can only remember two black male academic teachers in grades 7th through 12th. The other black males in the building were gym and shop teachers. All the other black males were security guards. Now in the year 2021, I see that things have not changed. I only have one black male teacher in the elementary school in my current district, three in the middle school, and two in the high school. Several students will go through my district without ever experiencing a highly effective black male teacher. This can have a negative impact on their academic achievement, self-identification, and self-esteem.

    According to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, black males are less proficient in math and reading than white students. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled, which can result in retention. The research shows that students retained at a grade level are more likely to drop out of school. Moreover, high school dropouts have a higher likelihood of incarceration. Black males are more frequently identified as special needs and more often referred for behavioral health services. They tend to be stereotyped as deprived, dumb, dangerous and disturbed.
    Is it fair that there are so few black male teachers in K-12 Education? Equality asserts that every student should have access to a high-quality education regardless of where they come from. It also requires that all students be held to the same standards and objectives irrespective of their circumstances, abilities, or experiences. Are black male students receiving an equitable educational experience if they do not have black male role models?

    Some research says black males need the guidance and mentorship of black male teachers. Therefore, this research argues that there should be a focus on recruiting and retaining black male teachers to improve black male students’ academic, cultural, and social experience. This research argues that black male teachers look past the stereotypes that burden young black male students. They connect with these students culturally, often understanding their circumstances and potential from personal experiences. These teachers can connect with black male students by building trusting relationships to see past the misbehavior and look for the root causes. Black male teachers tend to have higher expectations for black male students because they are more interested in empowering them to make a better life for themselves, their families, and the community. When black male teachers teach black male students, a sense of pride is anchored in the collective black identity. These teachers perceive the success of their students as gains to the black community. Most of our black male students are not academically engaged in the curriculum. Therefore, I ask two questions. Is this because of the person’s color and gender standing in front of the class? And about relationships between the student and the teacher? It has often been said that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
    As a black male in K-12 Education, I do not believe that black male students receive an equitable educational experience because they do not have black male role models. Students need to see people they can identify within the front of the classroom. Importantly, they need someone who understands their behavior, physical movement, verbal and nonverbal language, values, and learning styles.
    As a school district, we are responsible for recruiting, nurturing, guiding, and encouraging more black males to embrace teaching as a career. District leaders must develop partnerships with colleges and universities, primarily the Historically Black College Universities (HBCU) in their area. As a Superintendent, I have spoken to University Presidents, Deans of Colleges of Education, and professors to create a pipeline to recruit black males.

    I have found that there are not many black males in school for Education, which tells me we have to start at the local level recruiting students. Therefore, we need systemic change to create an educator pipeline for black males. There must be a national effort supported at the state and federal level where the focus is on recruiting, hiring, and retaining black male teachers.

    Yours in Education,

    Eugene Blalock Jr.
    North College Hill City SD

  2. In my last year of teaching (2016), our whole school was all over this. We failed. The school is now being closed. Nothing the author says is new; responsive teachers have known this for decades. But if you get relocated in a neglected school, the school will fail you and the kids. In another school, I was applauded and then when I had to try my magic in a failing school, I failed and was washed out, never to return. Don’t talk to me about what schools “should” do. The district name rhymes with ‘Denver Public Schools’. Our higher-ups (of whom I was one for a few years) imagined they knew all. Reform. Discipline. Uniforms. Private funding. Charter schools.

    It was all B.S., but then, we knew that except that no one cared; it was all about advancing in one’s career ladder, not those of the students.

  3. When will the powers that be in education finally reconcile that from grade school we must determine those who can perform at grade level and those that are unable. Place those that are unable in remedial courses that focus on basic reading writing and math that will help the student at least achieve the ability to care for himself in an ever changing world. In middle school transition these students into real world skills, the trades, mechanics and the like.
    Some students are simply unable to aspire to average scholastics and will only bring down the average to gifted.
    Nothing wrong with placing those who can’t into remedial classes and the trades.

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