A diverse perspective: Breaking perceptions and stereotypes one day at a time.
**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**
A guest post by Justin Aaron Foster
As one of only two black male educators in a school district of over 400 employees times can get very interesting, not to mention lonely. As an educator now for over fifteen years being the only minority employee in a district is something not exactly new to me. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics only 2% of the nation’s 4.8 million teachers are black men*. As a certified school counselor working in an elementary school, my being a black male in a profession where many of my colleagues are young to middle aged white females I do have to admit to many times feeling out of place. At the professional conferences I attend there is no hiding for me, especially when topics about race come up. I can feel all eyes become focused on me! At first this used to bother me somewhat, but over time I have come to accept this reality and kind of relish it. I began to realize that I have unique insights being a black male and I enjoy offering my perspective. Growing up and attending school has its own inherent difficulties and challenges. For many minority students attending school in an environment where many of the people teaching you look nothing like you and may not be able to understand where you are coming from either culturally or emotionally can be very scary. Unfortunately from my experience as a student and teaching professional, I have found that stereotypes and misconceptions about these differences can be barriers to relationships in some cases, barriers that at times impacts students learning.
Yes I am different. When it comes to my day to day life in my elementary school one of the things I love most about who I am and the opportunity I have is to break some people’s perceptions of black males. Last year, my first in my current district, as I meet colleagues in other buildings and parents at school functions for the first time one of the questions that I fielded quite often was, “do you teach gym”? After I’d smile and say no, I‘d explain to them that I am certified by the state of Pennsylvania to be a K-12 School Counselor. My answer sometimes would draw sheepish blank stares, to which after a few seconds I’d pat the person on the back and say don’t worry, I get the gym teacher comment a lot. I work in a suburban Pennsylvania school district and from what I have been told by many long timer staffer is that I am the first professional male of color to ever work in my particular building. I will never forget on my tour around the building during my interview, one of the students walked up to me and asked if I was the “President of the United States”. After a good laugh I told the young man no, I am somebody who wants to teach here. He looked strangely at me as to say you teach? Now mind you, I look nothing like President Barak Obama, but as it was explained to me after we all had a good laugh that day, many of the students in my building have never seen a black male in a suit and tie.
Making an impact. For me one of the saddest and at the same time angriest moments of my career took place last year. I was working with a young second grade female student in my office when she asked me if I “stole stuff”. I answered her by saying no, I don’t steal things. A little stunned I said to her, why would you ask me that question and she answered because her father often says at home that “black guys steal everything.” The young girl clearly meant no harm by asking me the question, she was very innocent, but in her mind up until that point she had a negative and false image that may have lingered for years had she not met a black male to break her negative misconception. Many students during my first year would also ask me without any negative intent things like why don’t I play pro football or basketball, or even why don’t I fight MMA? As if being a black male I should be a professional athlete, this was what to this point many of the students knew black males to do. As someone weight trains often and takes care of myself, these types of questions are not too out of line, but the reality is many viewed me in this way due to their lack of exposure black male teaching professionals.
I recall back when I was a student in K-12 I only ever had one black teacher, Mr. Turner. I will never forget, Mr. Turner taught art in my high school I was always so excited to have his class. Up until that point I never thought about teaching, I did not have any reference point for what an educator looked like other than a white male or female in their mid to late fifties. I remember doing everything I could to impress Mr. Turner, not ever wanting to disappoint him. It was this experience that first gave me the desire to want to teach. Mr. Turner, a man similar looking to me inspired me to want to do even better in school.
Going forward. My hope is that over the next few years the numbers of minority teaching professionals grows. The opportunity for students of all colors to have exposure to black male professional people in the classroom who can not only teach them academic skills but that by their positive presence can also day by day break down many of the stereotypes and negative perceptions they may have learned unconsciously are not realities. This expanded view of who black males are and who they can be will only benefit our society.
Justin Foster currently works as a public school counselor in Pennsylvania and has over a decade of experience working with youth and families in both public and private education. Justin is a speaker, trainer, author, and educational consultant who enjoys working with students, parents, community leaders and others with a vested interest in being positive influences in the lives of our young people. His messages focus on stressing the power and importance of education, character development, and personal responsibility.
You can connect with Justin on twitter @justincounsels or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org