The Only One

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At a time when I was the only black 7th grade teacher at a charter school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York (2015). 

Every day I stand in front of my diverse classroom intensely aware of my skin color. As the only black man teaching at my school, I am one of the 3.7 percent of New York City teachers that share my identity. This May, during Teacher Appreciation Month, I celebrated the critical impact black male educators have on the life of students who share similar experiences based on our gender, race, and life experiences. Despite the crucial impact we make, there are less black male teachers in NYC today than ten years ago. It is time for NYC, and the rest of America, to double down on recruiting, retaining, and developing excellent black male educators.

Growing up in Miami, I was one of the only black students through most of my schools and classes. Still, my teachers reflected the great diversity of my hometown – I had multiple African American, white, and Hispanic teachers of both genders throughout my K-12 education. It was these teachers that challenged and pushed me to become the learner, and later educator, that I am today.

Now, as the only black male teacher in a New York City public school, I am not just a teacher to my black boys and girls, I am a father figure, their uncle, their big brother, their mentor, and their hero. At the end of my first year in this school, a group of my black female students started to affectionately call me “Uncle” Toussaint. It has carried over into this school year. On my birthday, I found a card on my desk, signed by this group of four black girls and the card read, “Happy Birthday Uncle, you’ve done so much for us. You’re an amazing figure to have in our lives.” My connection with my students go beyond the content and test results. I look at them and see myself, 20 years ago. And in turn, I am someone they can see themselves becoming.

A study by the Institute for Labor Economics found that if a low-income black male student has a black teacher in elementary schools they are 39 percent less likely to drop out of school and more likely to attend college. These effects were even stronger when the teacher is a male or shares the gender as the students they teacher. Conversely, the media reports constantly about the disproportionately, higher rates of suspensions that black boys face in American schools. Not only are black boys susceptible to systematic racism and discrimination, but they are also susceptible to stereotypes that too often become self-fulling prophecies suffocated by dreams deferred.

In an age when our black boys are under constant attack, we must interrupt the status quo for young black male lives and the limited narrative that offer such limited options. As an educator of fifteen years, the solution I’ve seen work best is to recruit and retain black men in the teaching profession. Education is the most powerful vehicle people have to rise from humble circumstances and fight for better opportunities for their families and communities. When we recruit, support and retain black men in the crucial roles of educator, principal, counselor, or coach we provide a powerful opportunity for our young black boys. They are able to share some lessons that only a black man in American can truly pass on to a black boy; like how to survive an encounter with the police; how to code switch, how to fight with your words and not your fist, how to advocate for those like you and how to give back. This is the important difference a black male education can have on his students. It promotes a narrative that at times can seem non-existent, and makes it real, that black men can be intelligent, caring and a vital part of the development of children.

Nationwide, black men make up only 2 percent of the teachers, while half of all students are students of color. James Baldwin said, Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Our children need to see black male educators, who are professional, passionate, intelligent and tangible. It is time to deeply invest in effective initiatives that develop and recruit black male educators that address this issue nationwide.

As a black male educator, I am not just a teacher to my black boys and girls, I am a father figure, an uncle, a big brother, a mentor, and their hero. They trust me. They love me. 30 years in the school system and it seems all too familiar. I look around and I am the only one. But this time, I am not the only black boy, I am the only black man. 

 

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What the 4th Means to Me

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Not trying to look into things too deeply, but as I become more and more conscious of the history and the conditions of my ancestors, I begin to see all the societal contradictions around me. The latest for example is the celebration of the the 4th of July. As a history teacher, I am very aware of the fact that when the Declaration of Independence was written, that Thomas Jefferson the author of the this historical document, had no intentions of freeing his own slaves, but at the same time he petitioned for freedom from England.

So what did the Declaration of Independence and July 4th mean to black people in America in 1776? It meant that nothing would  change. The date that actually holds more significance for African Americans from a historical and practical sense, is June 19th 1865. This was the date in which all ( I use the word all loosely) slaves were officially informed and emancipated from slavery. That is the date that all true Americans should celebrate. That is when we should break out our colors, sing, dance and give homage to those who bore the burden of enslavement, so that we could be free today. However, I would venture on to say that less than half of the black people in America are even aware of June 19th 1865 (also known as Juneteenth) and its importance.

Now, I am happy and honored to live in America. I consider myself just as American as anyone else. However, we still have some work to do as a nation. We still have to be honest. We should celebrate all of our freedoms, rights and liberties. Nonetheless, we must share all of our stories, the good and the bad. The ones that we are proud of and ashamed of, so that we can be conscious and not simply go with the flow. Some of our time- honored traditions can be quite disturbing, especially when it comes to the things that we celebrate. Do you realize that folks in  America actually used to celebrate the lynching of black people? They made post cards and greeting cards with black bodies hanging from oak trees, as a crowd of unconscious white folks grinned and smiled at their prize catch.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of superficial hype and commercialism. If I am going to celebrate or honor a day, I want to understand the full history, so that I can fully appreciated it. The 4th of July has a different purpose and meaning for different people. And we all have the opportunity and right to create whatever that meaning is for us.

I decided to spend my Independence Day celebrating my African roots and culture at the 45th Annual International African Arts Festival, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It was amazing. I felt as if I had traveled to another world and another possibility; to a place where blackness was celebrated, and beautiful, and peaceful and free. That is the America that  I hope that we all can experience everyday.

 

More Than a Game

Since 2010 I have worked and partnered with a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization called Community2Community. They help to build self-sufficient communities in Haiti, by working with the community.

The organization is focused on tackling four areas the impacted the people of Piton, a mountainside village just outside of Petit Goave, Haiti:

1. Building a road to allow supplies to come in and out the community, as well as allow commerce and transportation to take place more efficient and effectively.

2. Reforest the mountainside, which had been ravaged after years of excessive production of chabon, which is Creole for charcoal.

3. Providing a centralized clean water source, so that the people of the community no longer have to spend 6-8 hours a day fetching buckets of water to perform their daily tasks; such as cooking, laundry and bathing.

4. Rebuild the school that had been damaged by the earthquake and subsequently destroyed due to a series of hurricanes.

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Being a teacher, I naturally gravitated towards the rebuilding of the school. After a few conversations and brainstorming with Marie Eusebe, the found of C2C and I came up with an fundraiser called Change04Change.  It started off as a basic operation of having students and staff members bringing in loose change and donating it to our cause, coupled with a bake sale and a few other activities. The homeroom that raised the most money won a pizza party and was celebrated at a school-wide assembly. Our goal has always been that and we have met our goal essentially each year. Our hope is to get as many schools in the New York City area to do the same. But it has not been an easy task.

Five years later, Change04Change has evolved into a more focused and engaging initiative. During the month of May which is Haitian Heritage Month we not only fund raise, but we really engage our students throughout the month.

1.Our Global Citizen Essay Contest– students write essays about what it means to be a global citizen and how they can get involved in assisting with our efforts in Petit Goave. The top three finalists are awarded at our annual Hope and a Future Celebration.

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2. Hats04Haiti– students and staff all wear the hat of their choice for a day and give a kind donation to show their support.

3. Flag Day & Dance04Haiti– In commemoration of Haitian Flag Day, students wear the flags of their national origin to school and after school, students who make a donation can come and celebrate at the school’s Dance04Haiti celebration.

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4. Hoops04Haiti– The students and staff play each other in a “friendly” game of basketball. It’s a great way to celebrate what our kids already love, but also bring the school together to play for a purpose.

This year something special happened. After years of tension with our neighboring school, as we are in co-located space. We were able to work collaboratively to have a game in which our students played our neighboring school’s students and then the staffs of each school played each other. We all came together for a good cause and as a result have started the beginning of a beautiful partnership between my school, which is a charter school and our neighboring school, which is a public school.

Thus far we have raised  nearly $800 but are still well short of our goal of $1000. After sending out a thank you email to all the staff members and everyone involved, the assistant principal from our neighboring school called me down to his office and said “We didn’t make our mark, I want to make sure that you reach your goal of $1000. Let’s have a rematch before the end of the school.”

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Farewell Mandela

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When I heard the news of Mandela’s passing, it did not immediately resonate with me. I finally decided to head home from a long day at work, when Kendel, a night custodian at the school stopped me on my way out, and said,  ” You know Mandela died today?” I stopped to looked at my watch.  It was, December 5th , 2013 at 5:08 p.m. – 95 years old I thought to myself. Consequently, I will always remember where I was, the day Nelson Mandela died. It seemed instinctive, as I responded the same way when hearing about my grandmother’s passing. My father and I received the call. I looked down at my watch, it was 10:33 a.m. on September 12, 2012, she lived to be 88 years old.

It wasn’t until I logged on to facebook that evening, that I began to feel the weight of what had truly happened. Virtually everyone’s status was dedicated to Mandela. I continued to scroll down for what could have been an hour. The prayers, condolences and tributes went on and on.

He fought for freedom, equality and justice for all people. While Malcolm and Martin were fighting in America, Mandela’s fists were raised in Africa. The turbulent 1960’s  snatched the lives of our great freedom fighters, however, the durable and hopeful Mandela eventually emerged as the last man standing.

After serving a 28 year prison sentence, he never gave up and become the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, as the manacles of apartheid were summarily broken. What an incredible story! It is practically biblical.

This week, world leaders from over 100 countries ascended onto the beautiful nation of South Africa to honor this great man. I only wish that I could have been there to bid him farewell.

I never met Mandela, but his story made me want to change the world. If Mandela was a 900 page book, I would be honored to be a drop of ink on a single page…not even, a word, just a drop.

http://www.biography.com/people/nelson-mandela-9397017

 

A Coach’s Joy

 

After a long challenging week at work, coupled with a late Friday night at happy hour, I tried my best to wake up early on Saturday morning, in order to hold on to a promise that I had made. The one week that I showed up late for practice, is the only time we lost. During my post-game speech, I apologized to my athletes and their parents. I promised them, that it would never happen again. How could I hold my team accountable if I wasn’t discipline enough to be punctual myself?

We haven’t looked back ever since. And on we are on a five game winning streak. Next week we play our archrivals; a well coached team from Williamsburg, who has won the league championship; a few times. In my four years as head coach, I have yet to beat them, let alone the championship.

Three seasons ago, we lost to them in the finals, on the last play of the game. Even though we are the favorites this year, we cannot afford to take anyone lightly. I’m sure that my rival coach has some tricks up her sleeves.

There are a few kids on my roster who have been with me since they were 5th graders. It would be nice to send them off as seniors, with a championship trophy.

As an athlete, nothing felt better than winning. In college I remember being filled with tears of joy after making a game-winning play. Now that I am a coach, my joys as a player don’t even compare.
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The Day That Changed Everything

I was running late for my 8 a.m. class, as usual. It was my senior season at Wayne State College (NE) and the football team had 5 a.m. workouts that day. It was a real challenge to meet the rigorous demands of balancing college athletics and academics, but I embraced it. The morning of September 11, 2001, was a typical daily grind for me; get up at the crack of dawn, put in an hour workout with the team, run over to the cafeteria for a hardy breakfast, jog over to the dorms for a quick shower, grab my books and run to class.

As I jogged past hundreds of co-eds up to the second floor of the Humanities Building , I failed to notice anything different or out of place. All I could think of, was damn, I am late again. I could just imaging interrupting my professor’s lecture, but instead, everyone was engulfed in the images on the television. I didn’t even realize that classroom had a television until that morning.

As I approached the screen, to get a closer look, I saw that one of the Twin Towers engulfed in smoke. No one said a word. Their eyes were simply glued to the burning image. The scrolled message at the bottom of the screen read, “Plan crashes into one of the Twin Towers.” As the building continue to go up in smoke, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. It did not seem real.

I could just imagine all the people who must have died instantly on that plane. And suddenly, I saw a large shadow fly across the adjacent buildings and then …. an explosion! The second tower was hit by another airplane. Everyone in the classroom let out a yell of disbelief and awe.  That is when I realized; I think we all realized, at that point, that this was not an accident.

Class was no longer important. The campus went silent.  For the next few hours more news was revealed about the terrorist plot. For the next few days, America shutdown. Classes were cancelled, practice was cancelled, NCAA, NFL and Major League Baseball games were cancelled. For those few days America stood still. From that point on, everything had changed.

A view of the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn. The blue lights are a tribute to the Twin Towers that fell on the fateful morning of September 11, 2011.

To Whom Much Is Given

I understand the importance of my career and I always have.  To whom much is given, much is required.  However, every now and then, I reach a place in which I feel like what we do as educators, is trivial and almost futile. No one really cares, they just act like they do.

We bust ours butts to give our kids a shot at something. Something more than what society says they deserve.  At times, I ask myself “who died and made me qualified?” How can I tell this child that this is what they need to do, and that everything will work out?  Am I any different than his uncle or older brother who hustles or who tells him that if he is clever enough, that he can hustle the system too?

Because of the times that we live in, I need to have concrete evidence that I am making a difference. Not just for my employer, but also for my own sanity. This is usually bundled up in standardized test scores and annual evaluations; certificates of merit you might say.

To say you have had over a decade of positive impact on children or an entire community is not enough. It just so happened that I was reading the news feed on my Facebook page and someone tagged me. The feed read “The best teacher any student will ever have Ashley Toussaint, he never gave up on me.” -Wilma

First and foremost Wilma is not a girl. He was a 9th grader that I taught during my first year of teaching in Miami, Florida. Wilma would come to school high, skip class, get into fights, curse at teachers and more.  As a result, he failed  the 9th grade. I would have Wilma for 3 more years.

I remember his senior year, with a huge grin on his face, he said to me, “you know what Mr. Toussaint, I’ve had you every single year of my high school career.”  Thankfully, by his senior year he had changed his tune. All the while I thought he was simply maturing and realizing that his errant ways were leading him down a “nowhere” path.

Truth be told, I had more of an impact than I realized. He didn’t “shout me out” because he passed his state exams or graduated from high school or got accepted into Florida State University. He thanked me for never giving up on him.
How do you measure that kind of impact? What is that really worth? How do you put that on a resume? We have been told time and time again that success is measured by test results. Well how about life results?  Even though the result of this third grade reading scores might have indicated that he would end up in prison, he defied the odds.

I have no problem taking credit for that.