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 “bigger” and “darker skinned,” he experiences his world from two separate views. He understands how he feels about himself while simultaneously feeling or perceiving how others view him, simply based on the skin he is in. Statistics and experiential evidence show that this experience happens long before high school. Take the example of the black six-year-old who was recently handcuffed for having a “violent” temper tantrum at her school in Mississauga. An advocate for the child’s mother reminded us all that, “handcuffs are used for violent criminals [and offenders]…I don’t know what a child could have done that would require them to use that level of restraint” (Hudes, 2017). She was six. How must she have been viewed by those intervening that they decided handcuffs were an appropriate response?
Extensive research indicates that many black students share similar challenges. Data clearly points to some of the root issues. The overrepresentation of black students in non-academic schools, lower expectations, culturally based standardized testing, lack of culturally relevant sources within the curriculum and lack of black teachers all contribute to enduring stereotyped perceptions of black students. Undoubtedly, many boards are attempting to figure out ways to reflect our ever-evolving contemporary culture by finally asking the question, “What is happening in our schools that negatively impacts black students and their educational outcomes and what can we do about it?
Many board and school dress code policies are outdated, sexist and racist. Dress code policies like no headgear and no sagging pants implicitly suggest to particular students that their bodies are to be scrutinized and their culture is not valued. For many black students, whose point of aesthetic reference often stems from hip-hop culture, this denial of their culture in the school relays a message to them that they are not important. Devaluing our students and damaging their self-perceptions is not an aim of education. So why impose rules that do just that?
When we revise our paradigms for education to reflect more inclusive practices through strategies like differential assessments of learning, dissolving narrow school policies like dress codes and recreating teaching strategies and methods that put student’s realities, cultures and experiences at the centre, we will see an altered and more practically improved landscape for public education. I have no doubt that we will see improvements in both the quantitative data on student academic success and the qualitative data on student school experience as it relates to our black students.
As a teacher, my approach to student learning has changed from my first year to my seventh. As a young black male seven years ago, I naively thought that my mere presence would be enough to connect with my black students and inspire them to learn. For some it did. But for others, I quickly learned I had more work to do. Simply being a black male teacher doesn’t mean you are going to get black male students to “learn.” But black male students not demonstrating learning doesn’t mean that those same kids are not incredibly smart. We must take full responsibility for the achievement gaps that exist for some racialized groups and come back to the drawing board with proposed changes based on student voices and statistics. We must devote ourselves to finally plugging the gap that leaves many black students feeling like school “is not for them.” We have been on the same train for decades now, hoping that it will take all of us, even our most marginalized, to the destination of academic and social well-roundedness. But that train has never really left the platform for many students.
Matthew Morris is a member of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto.