Adjust Perceptions to Support Black Male Students

Conference News Online – 2013

By Robert Shappell

“What’s wrong with black males?” asked Baruti Kafele, who spoke to principals on a rainy Thursday morning at NAESP’s Conference in Baltimore. Kafele, an expert on motivating African American males, answered his own question.

“Nothing. But maybe we need to look more at ourselves and what we see,” he said.

Kafele illustrated this point by sharing his own struggles as a student. Characterizing school as a place he “visited sometimes,” he earned no credit his first time around in the ninth grade, and it took him five years to graduate with a 1.5 grade point average. His guidance counselor told him that he would never amount to anything.

“His perception was my reality,” Kafele explained.

This is a not a new problem, nor is it a problem plaguing only the United States. According to Kafele, reaching young black male students involves improving four key components of a school: the school climate, school culture, principal leadership, and student attitudes. He also believes we need to “stop focusing on the ‘Achievement Gap’ and start focusing on the ‘Attitude Gap.’”

Kafele challenged attendees’ perceptions, using images to help make his point. First, he projected a slide of a black child reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and asked us what we saw. That image sparked conversations about engagement, relevance, and feeling connected to the content. Then, Kafele projected a second image that was very different: the black child wore an angry scowl. Again, we were asked what we saw, but the ensuing conversation was not so positive. According to Kafele, the audience’s response is an example of how educators’ perceptions become a student’s reality.

“Put on his shoes for 24 hours, then come and see me,” he said. “His anger may very well be justified. It is not, however, an excuse for lack of achievement.”

In contrast, Kafele said that in the image he saw a bright child with great potential.

“You need to give them a message to hold onto. You have to reinforce the message with the mood, the lifestyle, and the attitude,” he said. He also explained why educators must be passionate about helping children, and knowing who they really are, because many wear a mask to hide their fear and pain, especially in front of their peers.

According to Kafele, education can dictate where children go after they leave school: college or prison, or worse. To make a difference, principals must be intentional, deliberate, and purposeful. For example, it helps to be familiar with pop culture. By understanding the lyrics to the songs they listen to, you can help combat negative messages.

Kafele suggests principals assess their schools’ climate and culture for their black male students by reflecting on the following questions:

  • Do I provide a learning environment of excellence?
  • Do I believe in him?
  • Do I know him?
  • Do I care about him?
  • Do I realize who he is; Do I know his story?

He also talked about the Young Men’s Empowerment Program that he ran in his former school, which addressed how men should relate to themselves, women, children, other men, and the community. In the “Power Monday” component of the program, young men come to school in shirts, ties, and dress slacks to learn from various mentors from the community. Some of the mentors were professionals with success stories, while others came from the opposite end of the spectrum.

As the session came to close, Kafele asked how we want to be viewed as leaders. Are we instructional leaders, informational leaders, inspirational leaders, or maybe a blend of each? He further challenged us by asking what people will say about our leadership in twenty years? Were we intentional, deliberate, and purposeful? This workshop was all of the above.

Robert Shappell is principal of Wilbur Watts Intermediate School, Burlington, New Jersey.

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