Black Boys and White Educators
by Kassandra Minor
As a white educator who works to build inclusive spaces with many teachers, students, parents, and school leaders, I grapple with the concept of critical humility: the paradox of knowing and not knowing at the same time (European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness 2005). I accept that my knowledge is partial but continue moving forward with the body of information and experience around teaching and learning that has carried me where I am today. But it’s hard. It’s hard to be critical and humble when the kinds of systemic change our students need is urgent. It’s hard when the folks I am coaching, teaching, and learning within the realm of equity and inclusion are trusting me, a white woman, to guide them toward affinity, understanding, and actionable steps. I’m supposed to . . . know.
As I move forward and back throughout the Black spaces in various school communities I’ve worked in, as well as within my own family, and continue to permeate the spaces I work in governed by whiteness, I find myself asking, How much do I know? How much do I not know?
One thing I’m sure of: I have not always questioned my actions as deeply as I should.
Recently, I ran a restorative circle with a group of student teachers who were taking a course on positive behavior management. It was the fifth day of the institute, and I was the guest instructor for the day. They were open and inquisitive and eager to think about how they might shape their future classrooms. Shortly after we began, I spoke about how the power of restoration is rooted in our own mindfulness, and that when it’s continuously practiced throughout our own lives and in our classrooms, it is deeply connected to the types of learning our students will experience.
As an introductory concept, we started with a restorative circle. I instructed the student teachers to follow typical restorative circle proceedings: deep breath, relax, talk only when holding the talking piece. I showed the group three prompts I had carefully constructed, hoping to surface the influence of teachers’ decisions on students’ positive and negative memories of schooling.
- What are some of your fondest memories of school?
- Name a teacher with whom you associate positive feelings. Why?
- Talk about a time you shared with a student or young person you are not proud of.
Five participants shared, and everyone talked about their fondest memories. I leaned in, smiled encouragingly, and took a deep breath; I knew I had to model what it looked like to be vulnerable in front of students. I shared a story that shows all the things my young, white teacher self might have talked a lot about but most certainly did not know.
A few years ago, I taught Rashid (name has been changed) along with two co-teachers and a classroom paraprofessional. Rashid voiced his opinion often, and just like any other fifth grader, he was curious about the topics my co-teachers and I introduced and asked lots of questions. Unlike many other kids in our school, he was the only African American student in the class, alongside our majority Latinx and East Asian student body.
Also unlike most other students in the school, during the first month of the school year, he was called the n-word by a Mexican classmate, resulting in a physical altercation that took place in front of the whole class. I didn’t witness the fight, but even now, years later, I think about the racial trauma induced by that incident and how it must have deeply influenced Rashid’s ability to be fully present and participate in our community.
There wasn’t a lot of “before” in the school year when I think about the incident; what we all experienced was the “after,” so that’s what I’ll describe.
Rashid spent A LOT of time at his desk engaging in a variety of activities, including sitting at it, sleeping on it, standing on top of it, and using it as a percussive tool. Periodically, he threw books across the room, refused to take assessments, shouted at all the grown-ups (and sometimes his peers), and attempted to leave the classroom. Although Rashid and talked often, his peers did not like to spend time with him, and his presence had the ability to send the whole class over the edge. Parents scheduled meetings, requesting their child not be seated next to Rashid.
We tried numerous “interventions” to support and include Rashid, including developing passion projects with him, creating an individualized adaptive schedule, fostering peer supports, and providing a school aide who worked with him 1:1. We even tried in-school therapy for Rashid and implemented whole-class group therapy with our team of guidance counselors. We were in constant contact with his family. Even so, nothing seemed to make a difference in how Rashid felt, performed, or participated, and by the end of the year, everyone involved was frustrated.
Like so many other young Black boys, Rashid was recommended by the team of adults who worked with him, including myself, to be evaluated for special education services. I remember one of our school leaders scheduling a meeting with me and my co-teacher, imploring us to reconsider the recommendation, saying that Rashid would be at great risk for being pummeled into the school-to-prison pipeline if he was given an IEP. Yet we insisted that he would not survive his sixth-grade year if he did not receive special education supports.
We ultimately fought for the evaluation, and it happened. He was classified with the “emotionally disturbed” disability label shortly after his psychological evaluation, a label that he will carry with him throughout his life in school, a label wherein Black students are more heavily represented than any other category. A label that will inform how much time he will spend in general education classes and that will inform the likelihood that he will be both victim and perpetrator of bullying (Samuels 2018). A disability label that in and of itself is not a condition but rather a federal manifestation of IDEA to describe a number of specific and general behaviors students demonstrate, including anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders, in addition to showing learning difficulties, hyperactivity, and aggression (Council for Exceptional Children 2018).
That was just one of the times with a student I am not proud of.
As I looked upon the very still and very quiet student teachers who sat around me in our restorative circle — many of whom were white like myself, most of whom will inevitably teach students similar to Rashid — in the spirit of restoration and mindfulness, I thought about what I could tell them that would have the most positive impact on their future students.
- All behavior is a form of communication, and everything a child shows us in a classroom, whether it be reading quietly for forty-five minutes or jumping on top of a desk, can tell us what’s going on in a child’s body and mind and inform the decisions we make for them and with them. In retrospect, I think about how Rashid’s behavior was indicative of a forcefield he had to create when everyone around him treated him like a challenge rather than a full human being who had a range of smartness and emotions. The racial trauma induced by one of his peers calling him the n-word at the beginning of the year created an unsafe space in his own classroom, where he was forced to spend most of his time. Even when adults try to help students, the protective layers created by a child to bar further hurt and pain are immense. Reducing the cognitive load and lots of patience can do wonders for sensitive student-teacher relationships.
- If you are white, and your students identify as persons of color, be aware of that dynamic. I am white, and this is a thing, and it affects the interactions I have with all types of people, both positively and negatively. For white educators, this can especially affect the interactions we have with our young Black boys who come to school to learn and are instead treated as a “challenge” or a “problem” when they do not follow directions and color within the lines. When Black boys are responding to white educators in ways that schools have perceived as negative, know that those responses are typically symptomatic of how whiteness has responded to Black boys’ general presence in society.
- Restorative circles, other mindfulness work, and many other positive behavior management practices we create won’t always go well at first. One general rule of thumb when thinking about teaching and learning is that for something to become a habit, it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. Additionally, restorative work is more impactful when done proactively as opposed to reactively. I remember starting circles after Rashid’s class was feeling super frustrated midyear. They were mildly effective, but I can only imagine how they might have gone if they were a practice we had initiated at the beginning of the year, how Rashid might have felt if we had honored his feelings in a better way.
Many of the students I support are children of color. Many of the teachers I support are white. Most of the students of color have ability labels defined as “emotionally disturbed” or “learning disabled” on their IEPs. The teachers and I work to create a number of positive behavior management practices in their classrooms, including restorative practices and other relational kinds of work to support their learners. I exclaim a number of times and in many different ways how we can think about a child’s behavior as a form of communication, how we can examine the behaviors to inform our next steps. The teachers respond to me with simultaneous doubt and enthusiasm and agree to reflect on how it all went during my next visit.
I will tell educators all those things. We will have a vibrant discussion. And maybe something changes. Maybe there are some things we all know.
As a self-described critically conscious, inclusive educator who examines everything in the context of race, equity, and inclusion, I do know some things. I won’t deny myself the body of knowledge I’ve built. But I continue to ask myself the questions that hover around critical humility: How much do I know? How much do I not know? and How can we break this loop of white educator, good intentions, Black child, IEP?
Perhaps the most salient piece of advice I could have given those young educators sitting in the restorative circle around me is this: You can read and research race, equity, and inclusion, and talk and recommend and try, but no matter how much one reads, experiences, participates in, and explores with, the mishaps made will be immeasurable unless we accept what we do know, and more importantly, what we do not.
Kass Minor is an inclusive educator who is deeply involved in local, inquiry-based teacher research and school community development. She works as cofounder of the Minor Collective and in partnership with the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project. You can reach her on Twitter @MsKass1.
Council for Exceptional Children. 2018. “Behavior Disorders: Definitions, Characteristics & Related Information.” http://www.ccbd.net/about/ebddefintion.
European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness. 2005. “Critical Humility in Transformative Learning When Self-Identity Is at Stake.” http://www.iconoclastic.net/eccw/papers/eccw2005c.pdf
Samuels, Christina. 2018. “Fact Sheet: Students with Emotional Disabilities.” Education Week 37 (24): 14–15.