Children are very perceptive; sometimes what they perceive reflects the missing components of society and education. ~Don Allen
By Don Allen, Publisher | Educator
Saint Paul, Minn – As some of you might already know, educating black children has been an uphill battle in Minnesota and across the United States. Classrooms, teachers and trainers for the most part white females who dominated and flooded the educational system with collective impact agencies, consulting firms and professors in major university’s that teach more white students, mostly white females the process of being a teacher.
Currently, I happen to be in graduate school at a local university. I also am a licensed short-call substitute teacher (K-12). The university I attend for graduate school (Master of Arts in Education), from what I can see has some of the best professors who seem to be hell-bent on embedding equity for all students in public schools and consistently advocate for their graduate students to look past the classrooms and into each student; this is important if you will go into teaching. I do not mean to sound cynical when I use the words “professors who seem,” but in all my classes in this program up to this point, I sit as the isolated black male in the classroom; unique, in-demand, praised for sticking in there, never requested and but not a victim.
There has been many substitute assignments for me this year. I worked in grades Kindergarten through 5th grade at schools where over 80 percent of the student received free or reduces cost lunch. The neighborhoods where the schools are located housed a wide-range of social and economic classes, ethnic and cultural traditions and for the most part, the students do well within their environments. My classrooms are filled with African American, Asian, Somali, Hispanic-Latino, Caucasian and newly arrived immigrants, just starting out their education in the United States. I’ve been blessed to work within a transitional Federal Setting 4 school…the children are severely physically and emotionally handicapped and must be segregated from the mainstream population. I found out there are many levels of special education; and a structured Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a necessity for these students just to inhale and socialize.
I was not prepared mentally or emotionally for what happened to me one cold Minnesota winter morning.
It was about minus five degrees outside with a windshield of twenty-below – your forehead felt like it would fall off if you walked for more than two-minutes from your car to the school building. It did not help being dressed in a fall suit with a crisp starched white shirt and one of my favorite power ties, the ones I wore when I worked downtown Minneapolis in Corporate America…of course, I had no hat. As I a started towards the door with a gallop, holding study on my feet as to not slip and fall in the solid ice (kids love to laugh), I finally made it inside…my glasses fogged up and it took a minute for me to get my bearings straight.
As I took my jacket off trying to shake the cold out before walking down the hallway into the office to retrieve my classroom key and identification badge children walked, ran and talked loud with smiles on their little faces as they passed me ready to start their day…whispering to their friends, “I wonder if he’s our guest teacher today?”
For some, it’s harder to create and maintain a professional image, but there are also more opportunities to shape your image too by imposing the right thing on the younger generations. In reality, my professional image around those students is the full set of impressions that have been missing from public schools for a very long time – I can handle most interactions as an opportunity to build on my reputation; today would lead me to think about image and reputation. It would lead me to think about my role in life and what I am doing to help young black boys and girls see hope.
Ready to get my day started, I walked towards the kindergarten classroom – my assignment for today. As I walked I passed a group of young black males, first graders, standing outside of their classroom…watching me carefully when one emerged from the group and asked me some questions: “Are you the guest teacher for the kindergarteners?” he asked; I said “Yes, what’s your name?” I inquired. Before I could get another word out, the young black boy, a first grader looked at me, tilted his head and asked, “Are you the President of the United States?”
This question, rooted in a cultural foundation brought to mind a story in the Huffington Post I had just read: “Can White Educators Successfully Teach Black Boys?”
The story talks about the vast majority of full and part-time teachers, in both public and private schools in America, are white and female, not to mention our growing awareness of the importance of understanding students, especially children of color — you have to wonder just how successful the typical American educator can be with the black boys in her classroom?
I turned to the little boy, patiently waiting for an answer from me: “No, I’m not the President of the United States, I’m better looking,” is all I could muster when for one of the first times of my life, I was at a loss for words. The boy turned to his classmates and yelled disappointedly, “He’s not President Obama, but he’s still wearing a suit.”
Children are very perceptive; sometimes what they perceive reflects the missing components of society and education. In this particular case, it was perceived I was the president because I, a black man, showed up at their school in a suit and tie. A culturally abnormality that compares, contrasts and connects the need for black men to be professionals in the classroom, but more so to have black professionals in the private sector reach out to these young boys and girls who’s only connection to a black man in a suit is President Obama. My follow up with the first grader went like this: Anyone can grow up, go to college, get a job and wear a suit to work everyday. You can wear a suit. Keep to your books and studies and always do your best. If you need help, ask right away. Do not let anyone tell you that you cannot do something…you can do and be anything.
The first grader entered his classroom; to his white female teacher, looked back and smiled.