Have you ever been put in a box? Society does it often, especially regarding Black males from particular communities. Additionally, Black men get put in a box for their appearance if they have braids, dreads or visible tattoos. They get put in a box before they even get a chance to utter a word. Another place where Black males get put in a box is in schools. I am not referring to the students in the school but to the Black male teachers in the school. Black male teachers can be put in a box if they are a 6’4 high school middle school teacher like Mr. Brown. When I met Mr. Brown, I have to admit I put him in a box as well; I mean, I assumed that he must have played basketball in high school and college, and his dreams of the NBA did not work out, so he decided on teaching. Within 10 minutes of our conversation, he must have known what I thought because he made a point to mention that he played basketball in middle school and quickly gave it up in hopes of pursuing STEM. While height was something we did not have in common, we shared a love for education and an understanding of our value as Black male teachers in the space.
Mr. Brown’s experience of being boxed in by schools is one shared by many. In my dissertation, I discussed boxes in which Black male teachers are placed. Often those boxes include disciplinarian, father figure, role model, an expert on all things Black, or Mr. Brown cases, “Are you the new basketball coach?” Those boxes, while not all negative, hardly ever deal with them as teachers, instructional leaders and gatekeepers to academic success for their students.
Mr. Brown recalls the story of how he landed at his new school.
For context, Mr. Brown is a 23-year-old first-year teacher. He was a late bloomer in education, changing his major during his sophomore year. He recalls a conversation with his advisor while attending his historically black university on the need for more math teachers in schools. His advisor told him, “If you go become a teacher, not only will you immediately get a job, but you will have a job for life.” That was all Mr. Brown needed to know as he thought about his upbringing and watched his parents work multiple jobs looking for their passion.
When he went in for his interview, he was excited about the potential of teaching students math and for them to find their love of math, as he did in middle school. As he waited in the office for the principal to come, a few teachers there working at the summer school came in, and when they saw him, they spoke and asked if he had been helped. Mr. Brown mentioned to them that he was there interviewing, and what happened next caught him off-guard. One of the teachers immediately said, “We are finally getting that behavioral specialist. My students need someone who looks like them to support them here at this school.” Shocked and awed, they had already made their way back toward the copy-room before he could mutter and mention he was interviewing for the seventh-grade math position. Mr. Brown sat there stunned, thinking, “Behavioral specialist?” He told me he did not even know what that was.
Little did Mr. Brown know that comment would be just the beginning of what he recalled as a school year teaching inside the box. Mr. Brown did get the job and immensely enjoyed his first semester teaching. After returning from Christmas break, his principal asked if he was interested in getting more involved in the school. In the previous months, Mr. Brown had been thinking about starting a math or robotics club, tapping into his strengths and interests. Math and robotics club were different from what the principal had in mind. His principal asked Mr. Brown if he wanted to coach the middle school basketball team. The coach from last year had left, and the school was in need. Mr. Brown remembers how excited he was before the semester ended about his boys wanting to play and discuss the upcoming season.
Mr. Brown told me it was a memorable season and not in a good way. Wanting to be a team player, he decided on coaching. He hoped that by coaching basketball, he could do other things he was interested in, like math or robotics, because the principal let some other teachers do those clubs. I asked Mr. Brown, “Were those teachers white?” and he just looked at me with a look that conveyed, “What do you think?”
While Mr. Brown highlighted those two specific examples of being put in a box during his first year, he mentioned other small instances where he was placed in a box. During team meetings, he talked about the only time he was called upon or felt his voice was heard was when the team discussed problem students, particularly the Black boys in the seventh grade.
Mr. Brown’s experience of being boxed in almost forced him to leave the profession; being boxed in caused him to leave his school. He is hoping that next year things will be different.
The advice I gave to Mr. Brown is the same advice I give to any Black male teacher I speak with: Regardless of the school or whether you are one of one Black male or one of many, do not let anybody, including yourself, box you in.
Contact Indy Kids Winning reporter David McGuire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMMcGuire Facebook at David McGuire and Instagram @dr.davidmcguire.
David’s work is supported through a partnership between Indy Kids Winning and the Indianapolis Recorder. Visit indykidswinning.com to learn more.