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Caring for Black Male Students Requires More Than Good Intentions, According to Education Study

UT researchers were part of a team that observed relationships between black male teachers and students in a recent study. Results  show that politicized caring enhanced their relationships with students.

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AUSTIN, Texas — Earlier this year, a video of English teacher Barry White Jr.’s unique handshakes with each of his students went viral. In the video, White, who is black, greeted each of his students at the predominately black elementary school with elaborate high-fives that he said were based around each student’s personality and helped him connect with each child.

Connecting with students isn’t just about producing good feelings. Research has shown that teachers’ relationships with students affect educational outcomes. Yet relationships between K-12 teachers, who are predominately white and female, and their black male students are in need of improvement. It’s a concern because black male students’ educational success still lags behind other groups.

Researchers from the College of Education and the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis (IUPRA) at The University of Texas at Austin were part of a team that observed relationships between black male teachers and students in the Manhood Development Program in Oakland, California. The goal was to determine which characteristics of the teachers’ interactions might be replicated by other teachers of African American boys, to improve their educational outcomes. The study was recently published in Teachers College Record.

“We have all heard the expression, ‘Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” said assistant professor of STEM education Sepehr Vakil, one of the study’s co-authors. “Yet caring is a complex human phenomenon, and it requires more of teachers than good intentions.”

Assistant Professor Sepehr Vakil

Assistant Professor Sepehr Vakil, Christina S. Murrey

The way the Manhood Development Program teachers engaged with their students is what researchers term “politicized caring,” which is demonstrated, Vakil said, when “teachers acknowledge the ways schools reproduce racialized and gendered stereotypes. These teachers then cultivate relationships with marginalized students in ways that acknowledge their oppression and their developmental needs as children and as learners.”

The researchers observed the teachers and students at three high schools and one middle school in an Oakland school district with persistent racial disparities in discipline and academic success. The teachers’ goal was to improve black male students’ academic success and their experiences in school. They also wanted to teach the young men about their cultural and community histories.

Results of the study show that politicized caring enhanced their relationships with students.

Program teachers demonstrated politicized caring by cultivating relationships with their students. The teachers had a strong desire to push against what they saw as the oppressive institutional structure of traditional schools, which disproportionately penalizes youths of color, particularly their black male students. Instructors were also involved within the local community and went to great lengths to get to know and develop each child, rather than rely on stereotypes.

The study’s findings offer practical actions educators can take to better prepare teachers to successfully teach marginalized youths of color. Recommendations include:

  • Increasing pathways for a more diverse teacher population to enter the field.
  • Creating teacher education programs that develop cultural competency for pre-service and in-service teachers.
  • Designing professional development programs that help teachers understand the politicized and racialized dimensions of caring in service of deeper student-teacher relationships.

Study co-author and IUPRA postdoctoral fellow kihana ross, whose research considers the ways black girls endure and resist anti-blackness in schools and how black spaces within education can positively impact their educational experiences, added that it is critical “to also address the specific needs and experiences of black girls. Thinking about how caring can be conceptualized from a black feminist standpoint, and how it manifests in these spaces is another important avenue for future research.”