Teaching and Learning While Black

Matthew Morris

When I was in high school in Toronto’s east end there were rules that impacted school culture but didn’t necessarily influence student success. One of those rules was a no-hat policy. Students were not permitted to wear hats inside the school. Naturally, I wore my hat all the time. I consciously kept it on and waited for a teacher to tell me to take it off. I felt even better if I was “caught” wearing my hat in class – more people to witness me challenging authority. At the time, I defied the rule because I had come to the subconscious conclusion that the system was silencing me. I felt that wearing my hat was part of my identity and when I looked around, this rule – like other aspects of school culture – seemed to mainly target black students. As a black teenager, I felt this over two decades ago. As a black teacher, it seems that little has changed in the way black boys experience schooling.

My resistance to school culture in general was in response to a feeling that suggested I did not belong. I had been told that the times I answered questions or commented during whole-class discussions without putting my hand up, times in school when I was actually engaged and excited about a topic, indicated a lack of self-regulation. On many occasions, when I would earn a stellar grade on a test or assignment, I was told by my teachers that they were pleasantly surprised that I actually did well and knew the content. A few educators would question a good test score, implying that it had not been honestly earned. I undoubtedly picked up on the undercurrents of these comments but was not articulate or bold enough to name or confront them. So, I wore my hat. I came late. I reflected hip-hop culture, which I identified with. Unfortunately, like other nonmainstream, non-Eurocentric forms of expressions, my identity was viewed as contrary to the implicit culture of my school.

If we look at aspects of school culture like dress code policies, ineffective teaching strategies such as assuming a lesson taught is a lesson learned or failing to establish cultural relevance, and procedures that facilitate pathways into special education, it would not take long to notice that our revisions to curriculum and improvements to teaching practices fail to address the specific needs of black students. As educators, while we have made efforts to address issues of sexuality, diversity and ability in our school system, making changes to how and what we teach as well as removing physical barriers, we have not sufficiently dealt with the issue of race. We have not sufficiently addressed extensive research that says black students, and specifically black boys, consistently deal with microaggressions, stereotypes, lowered expectations, culturally biased IQ testing, over-representation in non-academic strands, ignorance about black culture and a lack of black role models as teachers.

In the 1980’s, the Toronto Board of Education’s study, Post-Secondary Plans of Grade Eight Students, reported that 50 percent of black students indicated their intention to go to university, but 35 percent of these same students eventually found themselves in special education classes (1983). The trend continues well into today as a 2013 study conducted by the Toronto District School Board shows. Looking just at students who are enrolled in special education programs, 14 percent of black students are on Individual Education Plans for sub-par academic performance compared to just 0.4 percent of black students who are in gifted programs.

When we step away from academics and look at regulation, studies indicate that black students are suspended at over twice the rate of their white counterparts. In fact, nearly half (42 percent) of all black students will have been suspended at least once, compared to only 18 percent of white students, by the time they leave high school. Is it any wonder that the push-out rate among black students is double that of white students? Juxtapose all the changes we have made to address other segments of our school communities with the lack of changes made for black students and ask yourself this question: What is going on?

Recently, Grant Linton and John Rieti of CBC News Toronto did a series of interviews with four grade 12 students at Fletcher’s Meadow Secondary School in Peel highlighting many of the challenges black kids face simply because they are black. “To be honest,” says student Rayshawn Ross, “to be black in a Peel school, just feels like, there may be a little bit of a difference. There’s kind of that stereotype that is pushed more towards you, that’s different than everybody else.”

Over the last two years, the Toronto Star has published several accounts of the experiences of black male students. Perhaps most prominent was coverage of York University professor Carl James’ study, Towards Race Equity in Education (2017) . James argues that school boards around the Greater Toronto Area are not doing enough to collect race based data. He suggests that, “If you want to be able to work with particular groups of students, you should know who they are, otherwise you might be putting (resources) where they’re not addressing the issues directly, and that doesn’t help.” Seems obvious. A census every five years is not enough. Actually, a census is not enough. Dr. George Dei’s study, Anti-Racism Education: Theory and Practice , indicated that black students experience an “othering” that results in a fractured view of schooling and the way it operates, leading to their disproportionally high push-out rate (Dei, 1996).

What is “othering?” Student Jace Smith from the CBC documentary explains it this way: “I don’t really think of it as being different from anybody else, but I guess people look at you kind of differently. People see me and they kind of think automatically that I might be maybe trouble or in a gang or something like that. But that’s the opposite of me.” Because Jace, as he describes himself, is


ETFO President Sam Hammond

The election of Donald Trump in the US has had powerful reverberations internationally. This new political reality underlines the importance of ETFO continuing to work with and support our social justice partners. We must work together to fight against systems that undermine and oppress us.