Growing up in my home, education was pushed as the most important resource to obtain. My parents reminded me repeatedly that I was already born with two strikes against me — being a female and being Black. They prepared me for the harsh yet true reality that although I was smart and did exceptionally well in school, I would have to work twice as hard to earn the same accolades as someone less intelligent and/or less qualified but of a different race and gender.. The only thing that the powers that be would have a hard time disputing would be my educational attainments so my job was and still is to attain them.
I didn’t know then that the knowledge and guidance my parents imparted to me about how I had to function in the world if I wanted a fighting chance at success would help me as a parent when my own child was discriminated against.
I write a lot about my son Christian because, of my two children, he has given me the most challenges when it came to finding the proper educational setting for him. He knows well what it is like to be the only or one of few Black students in his honors classes. He’s a senior in college now and has been in honors classes since kindergarten. Although undoubtedly bright, when he went to middle school he experienced many interactions with educators who, at some point or another, questioned his academic abilities.
On one distinct occasion, he was accused of plagiarism because the teacher couldn’t fathom that a little Black boy could possibly write so well. I had to write letters, call the school, and go to the school to meet with the teacher to confirm that, indeed, Christian wrote what he said he did. Even though all of his academic records and standardized test scores told the story of what a gifted child he was, he was doubted – because he was Black and his White teacher couldn’t believe that he was capable of being so talented.
Beth Hawkins, a journalist for The 74, states it plainly:
Call it stereotype threat, implicit bias, or pity born of privilege — there is a mountain of data on how poorly students fare when the adults in their lives don’t set high bars and push them to vault them. But to parse those decades of research isn’t to understand on a gut level what it feels like to realize your teachers have sized you up and dumbed down their estimation.
Black children are sized up and dumbed down on a regular basis. I experienced it as a child when some teachers were shocked at how smart I was or how well I did on fill-in-the-blank examinations. I experience it as a teacher hearing conversations from other colleagues about why certain students cannot do certain activities — it’s just to hard for them. Is it? Really? Because the way my pedagogy, expectations, and classroom and classroom are set up, that same student is able to manage fill-in-the-blanks just fine.
I could pat myself on the back and say that those results are solely because I’m such an amazing teacher. That plays a role, but there’s much more to it than that. My belief that my students can and will do well is the big difference in why that same student thrives in my class fails in another. Of course, other factors like the content area and student needs play a role but, overall, the thoughts, energy and effort that a teacher has towards and puts into his/her students plays a huge role in how well they will do in school and in life.
As a means of conducting my own research into the matter, I surveyed a few students and asked them why they do better in some classes than in others. Here are some responses:
“So, say all around you have a messed up situation at home and then at school my teachers are just giving me busy work, when will I ever get a chance to excel at what I know? Do I have to go to the library after school because regular school ain’t hittin?”
“No funny, sometimes after-school and Saturday programs dead be better than regular classes because the teachers there want to be there and the students do, too. No one can make you go to school on the weekends, y’feel me?”
Students are always so on point. Remember that the majority of our communication is nonverbal and students pick up on this lack of belief. Black students are denied access into elite academic spaces, even when they are exceptional. I know. My own son experienced this. When Black students are one of few, this lack of belief undermines their chances for success. Thankfully, in my son’s case he managed to persevere and succeed. What about the hundreds of thousands for whom this is not the case?