Why I Still Teach

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I have often said that if there is one reason why I would leave teaching, I mean actually pack up my bags and say “Adios!” “Hey, It’s been real.” “Hasta, la vista, baby!” is the day I have finally had enough of student apathy —a growing disaffection with learning among students. As someone who had to work to earn every penny to pay my way through undergrad and graduate school, I have a deep appreciation for the privilege of education. In fact, I still get excited by the idea of learning something new. Hence, one of the hardest parts of my job is to walk into a classroom and feel the weight of a monstrous cloud of apathy that has settled over the room. Many days, I push against this Cloud Giant to make it to the front of the room even as the monster grips me by the throat and tries to choke out my enthusiasm. Yet, I still sputter the words out, scanning the faces in search of that one or those two students who are there for more than a letter grade, for more than a university stamp of approval, or this particular class to earn them that additional bump in their salary. And though I remain fiercely committed to the learning of every student in my classroom, it is those students who inspire me to continue teaching. But there are also other reasons.

Over the years, because of my interest in social and academic outcomes for Black males, I have been particularly sensitive to the needs of the few Black male students whom I have encountered in my classrooms, and they have been few, indeed. In fact, at my current university, it is not uncommon for me to have a class without any Black male students. However, having taught at the tertiary level in Trinidad, in the British Virgin Islands and here in the US, I recognize that this is not just a US issue; it is an international issue. And I could wax on and on in scholarly speak about what the research has revealed about factors behind the growing gender gap in pursuit of higher education in the Black community. However, I have done so elsewhere.(1) This blog is personal. You see, though I am the mother of two girls, I feel that in the course of my several years of teaching, I have birthed many sons—or I have tried to mother them as a Black matriarch.

walter and me 2
Me and one of my former students, Walter Barrett, who is now the Chaplain and Rehabilitation Coordinator at Her Majesty’s Prison, Tortola. BVI.

Within the Black community, the role of Black women within the family structure is salient. In the US, given the harsh realities of inequitable incarceration of Black men and other socio demographic realities, Black mothers, aunts, and grandmothers have been single handedly raising boys even as they wage war against systems and structures designed to marginalize, essentialize, and even disenfranchise them. In Caribbean societies as well, women play critical roles in the socialization of males. And the ways that Black women effectively parent run counter-cultural to dominant views of effective parenting styles. For example, Diana Baumrind’s typology of parenting styles (2) suggests that the authoritative parenting style was deemed more effective than authoritarian parenting styles (3) among a group of mostly European middle class pre-school children. However, other research has shown that higher parent control, like in the authoritarian parenting style, has been linked to better grades for African American children (4) and greater emotional maturity for inner city kids . (5) This is often the way that Black women parent–with an iron fist. In fact, one of my Black male students said to me recently after class: “Wow! You are the first professor in the program who intimidates me!” Then with a broad grin on his face, he continued, “That’s a good thing. I’m EXCITED!”

Kendoy
One of my former students, Kendoy Penn, BVI Crown Counsel, who passed away on September 22, 2005 . Rest in peace, my son.

There is a way of being and interacting with Black males in an academic setting that I get intuitively as a Black woman that is inextricably linked to my cultural ethnic identity. Yet, in the department where I teach, I am one of two such women. Moreover,  my research agenda and my intimate understanding of the ways gender and cultural ethnicity intersect in academic settings to hinder or facilitate Black male success emboldens me to act.  If I step away from the chalkboard, how many of us will be left to mentor Desmond, and Kevin, and Marlon, and Kendoy, and Walter, and Brice, and Philip? (6) Who will say to them: “You better recognize!” “I have my eyes on you!” I am gonna be on you like white on rice!”? Who will say to them, “You’ve got this!” I believe in you.” Who will hug them hard and look them right in their eyes and say: “I am so proud of you, my son!”

Notes

1. See for example, Hernandez, K. C. & Davis, J. E. (2008). The Other Side of Gender: Understanding Black masculinity in teaching and learning. In R. Milner & E.W. Ross (Eds.), Diversity and Education: Teachers, Teaching, and Teacher Education (pp.17-30). Westport, CT: Greenwood/Praeger; and Hernandez, K. C. (2006). Under the Afro Tree: Perceptions of the School Related Experiences of British Virgin Islands high School Students. In K. Mutua & C. Sunal (Eds.), Crosscurrents and Crosscutting Themes: Research on Education in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, Volume III. Greenwich CT: Info Age Press.

2. See Baumrind D. (1991). Effective parenting during early adolescent transitions. In P.A. Cowan & M. Hetherington (Eds.). Family transitions (pp. 111-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

3. Diana Baumrind’s typology of parenting styles suggests that the authoritative parenting style which is defined by less strict punishment and more guidance was viewed more effective than the authoritarian parenting styles– a strict parenting style where children are expected to be mature and do what the parent says.

4. Glasgow, K. L., Dornbusch, S. M., Troyer, L. Steinberg, L.. Ritter, P. L. (1997). Parenting styles, adolescents attributions, and educational outcomes in nine heterogeneous high schools. Child Development, 68, 507-523

5. See Garner, P. W., & Spears, F. M. (2000). Emotion regulation in low-income preschool children. Social Development, 9, 246-264.

6. These are the names of a few of the Black men I have had the privilege of teaching over the years. Kendoy Penn passed away tragically on September 22, 2005.

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