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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Giving Back

I was out celebrating with good friends the night before. We decided to meet up in the city for drinks and good music. I had a great time.

We joked around , partied and recited old rap lyrics, as the DJ spent hip-hop classics like Tribe Called Quest and Leader’s of the New School’s “Scenario” and “Slam” by Onyx. I felt like I had traveled back in time, to 1993.

As the night wound down, I realized that I had to get up in the morning to supervise three middle school basketball games.  It was a struggle to say the least. An hour subway commute from Harlem to  Brooklyn on a crisp Saturday morning is not exactly what one might call fantastic voyage.

I was running a little late because of typical weekend service in Brooklyn. No trains were available for several stops, so I had to take a shuttle to my final destination. Once I arrived at the school, I immediately began to set up. The gym was already stating to fill up with families and athletes from the other schools. The neighborhoods of Bushwick, East New York and Williamsburg had all converged on our gym in Crown Heights.

As the games played on, I finally relaxed and enjoyed the scene. A peace came over me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was home. Very few things bring me happiness like serving my people and my community. Mothers and fathers got an opportunity to watch their sons and daughters play basketball on a Saturday morning. The countless smiles, cheers and happy faces made me feel good. I guess this is important to me because even though I played high school and college athletics, I always wanted my family see me compete, but they never did. To look up in the crowd and see your mother cheering you on must feel awesome; I can only imagine.

African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.
African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday mornings, children in Crown Heights can be out getting into who knows what. But not these kids, they are with us, being kids, they are safe, working in tandem with their peers and learning to be part of a team.

It was tough, just functioning on a few hours of sleep, but it is always worth it. The next Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Lisa Leslie could be playing at our gym and I was responsible for giving them the safe space to realize their talents. Someone did it for me. So how could I not give back? Personally, I suck at basketball. Football and track were my sports, but I understand the importance of giving children the opportunity to discover their abilities. I get to do that. All it takes is a key,  a light switch and a cup of coffee.

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