The 2%. No, I am not referring to the milk. No, I am not referring to my phone battery. The 2% indicates the percentage of African American male educators in America. As most people are aware, African American males are severely underrepresented in the education system. This past year, I joined the 2%, and with this opportunity came grave responsibility.
I will always remember the weight that I felt on the morning of the first day of teaching. I was so overwhelmed with the fear of not being adequate for my students, being one of the few that looked like me, and not being treated fairly. But most of all, I questioned if I was what my students would need.
I also felt as though I would be under a microscope within the school and that I would have to prove myself to other colleagues, parents, and even some students because of my age and the color of my skin. All my worries and doubts slowly went to the back of my mind the moment I watched my students eagerly trickle into the classroom. I could see on their faces that they knew I was not like their other teachers.
Although I could see my students looking at me as the “cool and young” teacher, I was some of my students’ first male teacher or first Black male teacher. When I looked into their hopeful eyes, I knew this year would be monumental for them.
Within a couple of weeks, I noticed that many teachers were making comments about the group of students that were placed in my class. They made comments like, “I can’t believe they would give a group of students like that to you” or “good luck with that class.” It didn’t take long for me to realize that the students who were placed in my class had been labeled as some of the problem students within the grade level. I didn’t come to this realization based on the students’ actions, but merely by the comments of my coworkers.
The question that settled in my mind was, “Why was I being asked to be a disciplinarian first and a teacher second?” The unapologetic answer is… I am a Black male. Although these “troubled” students were placed in my classes and my coworkers tried to influence my view of these students, I realized that I understood what the students needed. They needed love. They needed someone not to judge them for what they did last year. They needed an authority figure that didn’t yell. They needed me.
It had not been long since I sat in the same seats at the very same school of my students. I was able to relate to them in ways that other teachers could not.
Although I was happy to help all students (even those not in my class), some coworkers viewed me as their hallway disciplinarian. Having students sent to me from other classrooms to discipline or counsel created a challenge for me. There were times when I was forced to make a decision to continue teaching the lesson, assist this student in need, or say no to the teacher. What would you do? Are you a teacher who sends your “troubled” students to a teacher that you have deemed a disciplinarian? As a Black male teacher, I learned quickly how to deescalate a situation with a student and get to the root of the problem. I knew that the child wasn’t a troubled child or a problem child, the child was encountering a problem or was troubled by something.
If previous teachers looked at the students that I taught as if they were a problem, then the students probably believed them. So, I wanted to make sure my students knew they were capable of reaching their full potential. I decided to go into my classroom and tell my students something similar to what Rita Pierson stated in her TED Talk. I told them they were special and placed within MY classroom because they were the best of the best. We came up with a classroom chant: when I said, “we are” my students replied with “the best.” Simple. Reciting this chant with my students invigorated them to be their best.
Although data isn’t everything, my students’ scores grew the most in the whole school. I realized that the highest priority for my students was forming relationships and building their confidence. After that, everything else fell into place. I saw their attitudes change before my eyes. They were excelling in their academics and reaching their full potential.
They believed that they were the best and they became the best.
Although I feel as if I am under a microscope as a Black male teacher, I persevere each day so my students will see my strength. I strive for my students to see me as an encourager and someone who is approachable, and caring; rather than a teacher they are afraid of. I aspire to change the narrative and show my students a positive example of a Black male and not the stereotypes they see when they turn on the television.
Brian Bowman is a fifth grade science and English language arts teacher at Wells Elementary School, Macon, Georgia.
Published in AMLE Newsletter, August 2020.