by Lee-Ann Stephens

“Mrs. Stephens, I am having a good day today!”

That was how I was enthusiastically greeted by a kindergartener, an African American boy. He was going to tell me how many words he read, how many sentences he wrote or how many numbers he could count, right?


“I didn’t get any timeouts!” he said.

As soon as he defined his day as “good” based on not getting timeouts, my heart sank. It was another example of how our black boys’ success in school is marked by their behavior and not their academic prowess. Let’s face it: there is a presumption that black boys are a problem. Before they arrive at school it has been determined they must be controlled, subdued, and made acceptable for the classroom.

The fact that they are children, buoyant and filled with limitless potential, isn’t part of the story.

As a long time educator and true believer in the power of education, I wonder what kind of educational system have we created that instills the definition of a good day into a six-year old black boy by his behavior? Don’t we see a problem with teachers who don’t look like him or have his experiences being the ones to make negative determinations about his behavior (and ultimately, his future)?

In Pedro Noguera’s “The Trouble With Black Boys….And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and The Future of Public Education” he says “[a]s is true in society, an implicit social contract serves as the basis for maintaining order in schools. In exchange for an education, students are expected to obey the rules and norms that are operative within school and to comply with the authority of the adults in charge.”

Children who believe in the promise of schooling are more likely to be compliant with the house rules because they understand the personal benefit. But black boys get an entirely different message.

Dr. Noguera says they (and other under-privileged students) realize compliance isn’t relevant to their lives.

Not surprisingly, this arrangement tends to be least effective for students who are not receiving the benefits of an education. Once they know that the rewards of education—namely, acquisition of knowledge and skills and, ultimately, admission to college and access to good-paying jobs—are not available to them, students have little incentive to comply with school rules.

By now, as educators, we should have all the research we need to do better. We have the studies that tell us where we go wrong with boys. They are graded less on their ability and more on how closely their behavior resembles that of girls (read: white girls). Teachers ask them to sit still for inordinate amounts of time and to speak only when hands are raised first. Black students are more likely to be removed from school for disrespect, defiance, and disruption, which are highly subjective infractions.

Yet, when we fail with black boys it is because we see them as the problem that must be solved, because they don’t fit our conception of what a student should be. We try to calibrate them to be the model, without question the model or our complicity in selling education’s false idols to another marginalized generation.

Professor Christopher Emdin tells us that black students are different, but that doesn’t mean they are deficient.

To address the low achievement of black males, schools must be willing to accept that there are ways of looking at the world, modes of communication, and approaches to teaching and learning that are unique to black males. At the same time, educators must also acknowledge that these unique ways of being are just as complex as those of other students. The tie that binds all students is the desire to be academically successful.

In a large study of black students in New Orleans, eight out of ten black parents expressed expectations that their children would go to college. Fifty-eight percent of black boys who participated in the study said their teachers should push them harder, and 34% believed their teacher’s goals for students were too low.

If you are a critical thinking educator like me, then you have to confront the reality that we are swimming up-stream in schools that just aren’t made for black boys (and girls). We can choose to replicate the same rules over and over that fail us each time, or we can ask fundamental questions, like why are we asking these children to check themselves at the door and comply with a set of standards imposed upon them by mainstream society? Is that working?

Does it really make sense to have a shunning system that tells them if they can’t comply, then they will get timeouts or find their way to the “behavior” specialist?

In my time coaching teachers and working with students who have high promise in schools with low expectations, I’ve learned that nothing beats experience, self-reflection, and a constant challenging of the system to support black children.

I can’t offer any substitutes for that in a blog post, but I can suggest a few radically simple things to consider for any educator working with black boys.

1. Examine our belief systems and how we were racialized growing up. We need to remember that we teach who we are.

2. Don’t be afraid to love black boys.

3. Focus on the strengths that black boys possess. If they talk incessantly, plant seeds in their heads that they will be great debaters or attorneys.

4. Depict images of positive black males in your classroom, such as Moziah Bridges, Farrah Gray, etc.

5. Provide a kinesthetic environment for them.

6. See them. Hear them. Know them.

7. Get to know their families through home visits. Do not visit the home to judge. Visit the home to build a relationship/partnership with the families.

8. Ask them how you can help them to succeed. What do they need from you?

9. Teach with your heart. Your head will follow.

My dream is to have kindergarteners, black boys, approach me saying “Mrs. Stephens, I had a good day,” and by good they mean their brains were on fire for learning.


  1. Excellent! Easy to read and share with parents, educators and others. Schools are looking for answers, I will definitely share this with my Teacher Education undergraduate students and with others via my resources and network! Thank you for sharing your insight and your heart for our Black boys. We need you.

  2. My 8 year old “white” son comes home every day and the first thing he usually tells me is either he didn’t he in trouble or he did. Can this always be attributed to race, or are educators not allowed to hold “black boys” accountable for their actions?

      • I was an elementary school mathematics & science teacher prior to mathematics education doctoral researcher using qualitative methods to collect and analyze empirical evidence (read: observation, video/audio tapes, survey instruments & interviews in urban and suburban classrooms) to focus on the co-construction of racial and mathematics learning identity among African American adolescent girls… I agree, White children have markedly different school experiences [compared to their non-White peers] – of both learning environments and behavior expectations…

    • Of course it can’t *always* be attributed to race, but there is a large and consistent body of longitudinal statistical research showing black boys are more likely to be punished (and punished more harshly) than other children for identical behaviors. I’d encourage you to read some of that research if you want to contribute to this discussion in a meaningful way.

  3. Robert I’ve studied the research & i can tell you that the premise of race skews the data, the underlying problem lies with the standardization & feminization of boys (of all races). There are other variables that explain the race aspect. The blog touches on some of these topics but doesn’t focus on it because racial causes are more sensational than male gender concerns.

  4. I teach in a racially diverse school in a high poverty neighborhood. I expect the same behavior and set the same standards for all of my students, black, white, boy, or girl. I teach my students to value the uniqueness in everyone. If we focus on one race or sex we set they apart and I believe we set them up to fail. ALL students should have the same academic and behavior expectations! Does this mean that every student is going to be on the same page all the time academically? No, but I expect them to do their best and challenge themselves to succeed.

    • This sounds like an “all lives matter” answer to research that shows black children are treated very differently by teachers and education systems.

      • To me it sounds like an educator having the same high expectations of all students…an “all students can achieve” attitude-not to try and co-opt a school reformer slogan (but it’s true!) that should be respected and encouraged. An attempt to provide a classroom setting that welcomes all students coming into it. Research shows that for children coming into schools from homes and communities that have negatively impacted their cognitive and social development-this is the type of research-supported educational approach that they will benefit from. But I can see where “high expectations for all” doesn’t really fit with the theme of some children being treated differently.

  5. We must look beyond what we see. As the mom of a son who tried to be on “gold” in elementary school and rarely (never) made it. ?. A son who struggled to: behave “appropriately”, raise his hand to speak, control his temper when challenged, determine if he could be “smart and cool” in middle school, figure out if he had to excel in sports when he could not play well, find his strengths and be ok in his skin… The struggle is real.
    We were blessed to have some teachers that tapped into his academic strengths along the way, but behavior was a focus because it could get in the way.

    We must look beyond what we see. Oh and yes he comes from a two parent, well educated home and I was the principal of his school. The struggle is still real and it is not easy! Whew it wasn’t easy for his teachers either! ? We have prayed, anointed and continue to cover him with the blood of Jesus.

    Don’t let the scholarships he has for college, straight As, clean cut, articulate young leader you see now make you think he isn’t the “black boy” that went from being cute to being a threat to some in the blink of an eye.

    So what do we do? Stop being armchair parents and criticizing. Realize that the struggle is real for those who are doing the very best they can. When you know better, you do better, but that better must improve your current situation.

    For those that have perfect children…ok.??

    For those of you who are like me and don’t have the perfect child, build on their strengths and drive their narrative at home and school. See the perceived bossiness as leadership potential. See the perceived stubbornness as determination. See the perceived defiance as an ability to think for themselves and defy peer pressure. See the perceived disrespectful tone as thoughtful dissent. See the perceived attitude as solitude. See the perceived temper tantrum as an alternative way to using words to express emotions. See the perceived inattentiveness as thoughtful reflection. See the wanting to rush through the work as a desire to complete a task. See the perceived lack of a smile as preparation for a career in (________). Fill in the blank! LOL?.

    See those things that are not as if they are. Speak life into our children. They become what we say and what we see so look beyond what you see.

  6. Consistency is critical, parents. And teachers must understand our expectations and our level of excellence for and belief in our children. We cannot and will not accept less than or half way. When that’s the standard for how we do business in our family, it must be clearly communicated with teachers, administrators, coaches, everyone. I don’t want a watered down, beat down, child.

    Lemons into Lemonade… My son debates because he argued with his teachers beginning in pre-school and we told him that he’d debate one day…just not at that time. We had to teach him to “code switch” as Lisa Delpit says. He’s comfortable speaking to adults because we made him speak when spoken to and refused to answer/speak for him. He has manners because we had a point system from the age of three for instilling those behaviors e.g. in public places. He writes well because we made him write to express himself when he was frustrated, wanted something or to apologize for “all” of the times he got into trouble (see points made above for potential opportunities for trouble). He’s thankful for things because we took his 6th birthday party away from him for being greedy, ungrateful and beginning to have a sense of entitlement. Yes, we cancelled it and returned all gifts!

  7. My 5th grade teacher visited each child’s home at the beginning of that school year in 1977… Hmmmm…. She was doing a lot of this back then. Rose Nell Iles ended up being my favorite teacher.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here