Building trust with black, urban kids
Every time I read about a murder of a young black man or woman, it hits me hard. I teach in a mostly minority school in Prince George’s County, and I worry that someday one of the kids in my classroom might be the next statistic. And when calls go out for more collaboration between police and the communities in which they work, I wonder why the teachers in those same communities are not called on to help too.
I think this because teachers in urban minority schools and the police are working with the same black youth. Teachers like me regularly handle the threat of violence at work — and we need to use classroom management strategies that both maintain order and respect student rights.
Early in my career, I came upon a 7th-grade black boy who was repeatedly kicking a locked door while his classmates egged him on. Their teacher had just stepped a few feet away to look for a key. I asked what was going on, and almost immediately the boy, whom I’ll call “Shawn,” and I got into a shouting match. “What are you doing here? Go mind your own [expletive] business,” he yelled. I yelled back. Later, I found out that Shawn got suspended for disrespecting me.
I know now that I could have done things differently. Shawn had a difficult home life; I made things worse by reacting with hostility to his bad behavior. Instead of allowing the situation to escalate, I could have applied the best classroom management practices I’ve learned after teaching for eight years. Shawn wouldn’t have been suspended. He would have learned to trust me as a guardian of his welfare and safety. So what do teachers know that can help? First, it’s important to recognize that poverty has just as much of an impact on student behavior as it does on a child’s ability to succeed in school or society at large. A child’s motives for acting out are incredibly complex and too difficult to process in the heat of the moment.
Second, teachers know that their own behavior largely determines how a child will respond. If I want a student to calm downand listen to me, no matter how tense the situation, I need to demonstrate that same calmness and ability to listen.
And third, teachers have to follow up for mutual understanding after every incident. Parent contact is critical, and I always need to remember that even if children can’t offer a good explanation for their actions, they deserve to hear mine so our future interactions can become more predictable.
This last point is incredibly important because research shows that struggling students don’t see a connection between their actions and behavioral-academic outcomes. In other words, we need to teach children, especially poor children, that they have the ability to influence events in their lives and in the lives of others. This means that the lion’s share of a teacher’s work with disruptive students comes on the back end, helping children to understand the consequences of their behavior, whether positive or negative. The real work that teachers do is not simply a matter of stopping bad behavior when it happens. It’s all that we do after an incident that makes the difference in a child’s life.
Oneof mysixth-grade students was a black girl who consistently did good work, but she also overreacted to even the most minimal corrective action. Her mother and I frequently discussed her behavior over the phone, and I always have to remember that no matter the disrespect or disturbance, the girl’s behavior is almost never personal or ever meant to be threatening. On any given day, she could have been bullied, she could miss her father, or she could just be hungry. So each time she has an outburst, I strive to show her that I can remain calm and that my response to whatever she’s done will be entirely predictable.
When it comes to black children, we — teachers and police — are the adults. It’s our responsibility to think and act judiciously, even when a developing young mind is struggling or confused. That is why we need to find ways to put the professional knowledge and personal connections of teachers to greater use in minority communities. Because if we are ever going to put a stopper in the school-to-prison pipeline, teachers and police who are working with the same kids need to be on the same page.
Even though Shawn got suspended at the end of our terrible interaction, he found it within himself to apologize to me at the end of the day. But I was the lucky one; I had another chance to make a positive difference in Shawn’s life. I had a chance to show him that I was really there to help. I want the same opportunity for every other teacher and police officer who works in our community and across the country.