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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A New Year: One Day at a Time

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On Marcus Garvey Avenue. Photo by Anthony Dickens 

Approaching the new year is always a complicated process for me. I try to treat it like any other day, but it’s more than that. As a person who constantly self-reflects; how can I view the turning of a new calendar year as something simple or trivial?

As someone who loves history, dates and timelines are very important. Knowing when something happened in relation to other significant events, creates a sense of context and relevance in which all things are connected. For example, I was born in 1980. That’s the same year that Ronald Reagan was elected, the U.S. boycotted the summer Olympics, the Mariel boatlift resulted in the arrival of over one hundred thousand Cubans into Miami and my neighborhood of Liberty City (Miami)  burned for nearly a week after the McDuffie riots; one of the worst riots in the city’s history. Each year is shaped by the events that take place within them. Some years stand out more than others, as a result of the impact of those events. 2016 will be remembered for all the celebrity deaths and the election of Donald Trump. What will 2017 be remembered for?

Usually a few days before January 1st I hunker down to jot all the awesome feats that I plan to accomplish in the upcoming year. The list can become quite ambitious some years, while fluffy in other years. Open-ended goals like read more, exercise more and saving more, never actually seem attainable. Furthermore, if I don’t get started right away, then I probably won’t start at all, giving up on my resolutions before Valentine’s Day. This year I already read a status on social media that said, “I already messed up this year, but I’m ready for 2018.” We’re not even out of the first week of January for crying out loud.

Now, what I won’t do is declare my fate on the results of my annual to-do list. I also won’t pretend as if this isn’t a great opportunity to refocus and recharge. This New Year I’m just going to go for it. I’m going to remain committed to chasing my dreams. Your dreams don’t change from year to year; just your commitment to them do. Sometimes life changes our trajectory, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still pursue your passion.

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Laughter is a good thing. Photo by Anthony Dickens

As far as I know, you only get one chance at life. Why not give it your all? Just before the new year, I received word that one of my football players was diagnosed with leukemia. His name is Tariq and he’s a very gifted athlete. The news shocked all the coaches. Tariq had an amazing season, as one of the best players in the city. After suffering from severe chronic headaches, he eventually went to see his doctor. When the results of his blood-work came back, he was asked to return to the hospital and hasn’t left since.

Just imagine, at the age of 17 years old, having your entire life ahead of you and the next day being told that you have cancer. Though I’ve only known Tariq for a few months, we have always had a mutual respect for each other. I’d give him a few tips here and there and sometimes cover him practice. I had to go by the hospital and show my support; especially at a time like this. As I visited with him I couldn’t help but admire his courage and strength. He’s a fighter on the field and a fighter in life.

Some of his friends and teammates had also come by to see him. You could see the concern and fear in their eyes. One of the young men begin to shed tears as the time passed. From his hospital bed, with tubes in his arms, Tariq calmly and confidently said, “Don’t cry…” The young man looked up at Tariq and nodded his head.

Each day is a blessing and every year is a milestone. I pray that Tariq pulls through and that he gets the chance to celebrate many more New Years to come. In the meantime I am committed to living my best life, one day at a time.