I have argued for many years that the achievement gap is simply not the issue. Of course, there is certainly a gap in achievement with black males collectively being on the short end of academic success. Many years ago as a new teacher, in order to effectively reach this population of learners, I began to ask why. Why was it that so many black male learners were underperforming in school? I felt strongly that the implementation of superior math, reading, and writing programs was not going to resolve this issue because I didn’t feel that deficiencies in those subjects was the problem. I consequently began to delve deeper to examine the attitudes of my black male learners toward school and life. I wanted to understand what the circumstances were that enabled such large numbers of young men to be complacent with mediocrity and underachievement. More importantly was the question, “How do we as educators motivate black male learners to strive for excellence in school?” Said differently, how do we encourage them to develop a strong sense of will to excel?
Throughout my years of teaching and leading, I developed a framework to answer this question. I knew that if success was going to be the reality of my black males, I had to motivate them to want success first. Therefore, I focused squarely on their attitudes toward the closure of what I coined the “attitude gap”—the gap between those students who have the will to strive for academic excellence and those who do not. I was convinced that if these young men did not have the will to strive to achieve excellence, then excellence was not going to be achieved. I was also clear that will could not be taught, but that it had to be tapped into or unleashed. I knew that if I was going to effectively motivate these young men to have the will to strive for excellence, the climate and culture of my classroom had to be conducive to a young man wanting to achieve. Because of my focus on transforming attitudes, achievement did in fact become their reality.
To help create an academic learning environment that is conducive to your black male learners striving to achieve excellence, I’ve included the following five strands of the framework:
- Attitude toward Black Males (Do I believe in them?): Your belief in your black male learners translates into how they see themselves and whether or not they believe in their own ability to achieve excellence. Your examination of your own level of belief in them begins with a personal assessment of your own purpose, mission, and vision for them. In other words, when you look into their eyes, who and what do you see? Do you see a scholar? Do you see greatness? Do you see extraordinary potential? Who and what you see speaks volumes about who and what they will become.
- Relationship with Black Males (Do I know them?): Teacher-student relationships in the classroom must be strong. Within these relationships, teachers must be able to gauge how their black male learners learn, what keeps them inspired about learning and motivated to excel, their experiences and realities, challenges and obstacles, needs and interests; and even their neighborhoods. Teachers must consciously strive to build strong relationships with their black male learners to toward motivating their black males to excel.
- Compassion for Black Males (Do I care about them?): It is so much easier to learn from a teacher who has demonstrated genuine care and concern for his or her learners. I interact with so many black males who tell me that they do not feel that their teachers care about them. Teachers must therefore make it obvious through their words and actions. What is key is not the claim of caring, but the student’s perception of whether or not their teacher cares.
- Environment for Learning (Do I provide them with a learning environment of excellence?): The classroom learning environment must be one that is inviting, stimulating, engaging, and nonthreatening. What is it about your classroom learning environment that says that it is cool to be smart? What is it about your classroom learning environment that says that it is not acting white to be smart? What is it about your classroom learning environment that allows your black male learners to remove the invisible mask that so many of them wear to school everyday?
- Relevance in Instruction (Do I realize who they are?): I have argued for the past twenty years that at the end of the day, if black males do not recognize who it is in their mirrors looking back at them historically, everything else we do is for naught. They must know who they are historically and culturally. It is the foundation upon which they stand. When they are exposed across the subject areas to what their ancestors have already accomplished, it puts them in much better position to build upon those accomplishments.
It is my strong contention that through the earnest implementation of the aforementioned framework toward the academic success of black males, the probability for their success will increase exponentially.
Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator who has excelled as both a teacher and principal for 20 years. As a classroom teacher of students in grades 4–8 in East Orange, N. J., he was selected as Teacher of the Year in both the East Orange School District and Essex County Public Schools. He was also selected for inclusion in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers six times. Principal Kafele is also the author of the national best-seller, Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life. You can follow Kafele on Twitter @Principalkafele.