It’s all too common for the strengths and assets of Black male students to be overshadowed in the educational discourse. Often, the focus is on performance metrics like graduation rates and reading and math scores, but these present a narrow view of a student. It’s time we shift our perspective: High-achieving Black male students who exude intelligence, confidence, and a strong sense of purpose in their educational journey are in every school. We should focus on helping them thrive in middle and high school.
However, Black male students often feel disconnected from caring adults within the school environment. Connection, in its essence, forms the bedrock of meaningful relationships. It’s a testament to the profound impact of authentic relationships in education, and it lays the foundation for support, guidance, and collaboration, granting Black male students the recognition they deserve: a sense of being seen, heard, understood, and valued.
Relationships are the foundation of academic success
My recent research shines a light on high-academically achieving Black male students in middle and high school and the factors that matter to their success. I choose to study high-academically achieving Black male students because there is very limited strengths-based research on this subset of students. In their quest to be successful academically, these students face the hurdles of stereotypes, bias, and systemic barriers.
When there is an entire world that continues to create a narrative that suggests that you are incapable of greatness, success requires a substantial amount of individual self-awareness and an inordinate amount of social and emotional stability. It’s also easy for the achievements of these students to go unnoticed. Unlike other students, these students have the unspoken responsibility to disprove the negative perceptions of the adults in their classrooms. The mental double Dutch that these Black male high-academically achieving students are playing daily is incomprehensible to the adults and peers in their schools.
There is an intersection of three identities for these students: being young, Black, and male. Unfortunately, our Black male students are not perceived as kids in the eyes of the adult majority. Instead, they are perceived and treated as adult men.
Most people don’t understand how perplexing this is for young Black male students, who are also confused as to why they don’t have the luxury of being treated as a youth just because they are Black and male. Or how difficult it must be to desperately want to be your authentic self without being judged or perceived as a stereotype—all the while trying to show up in classrooms and hold emotional space for learning, dreaming, and setting goals for your future.
These challenges may not be surprising, but what is remarkable is how resilient students can be. Despite these obstacles, Black male students are achieving academic greatness. What sets them apart? The answer lies in those meaningful connections and genuine relationships. In the words of one of the students I interviewed, “The teacher’s attitude is important.” Indeed, it is.
When they encounter teachers who believe in them (so they are seen), respect their voices (so they are heard), and genuinely care (so they are understood), they soar to academic success.
4 ways to foster genuine relationships
Targeted universalism acknowledges that when we proactively address the unique issues faced by a specific group, we ultimately benefit society as a whole. The goals may be universal, but the strategies must be tailored to meet the specific needs of the group within the broader context. So, as teachers, we should go beyond superficial relationships and pledge to build authentic connections.
Here’s some wisdom straight from the Black male students in my research:
1. First, recognize that they are individuals, not a monolithic group. As one student put it, “Don’t let stereotypes define all Black male students in your classroom.” Shed any preconceived notions, and engage with curiosity and high expectations. Teachers have to acknowledge that they have bias and that what they have seen and heard about Black males has created stereotypes, which causes them to prejudge the ability and intelligence of these students.
Once they have this heightened awareness, they can begin to catch and challenge themselves when they are making assumptions based on these stereotypes. They should ask themselves, “Is this belief based on my own personal experience, evidence, or prejudice?” Offer student office hours, a space where you can truly get to know your Black male students without making assumptions.
2. Listen attentively, as if you’ve received a special invitation to an important meeting. “My favorite teacher is someone you can lean on even if it’s not about school,” said another student. In conversations, ask open-ended questions, explore their interests, and understand their dreams and challenges. Be open about your own experiences and limitations; vulnerability is a powerful tool.
3. Encourage dream exploration and goal setting. “My favorite teacher breaks things down and does not expect you to get it the first time. My teacher’s motto is ‘Think different,’” shared a student. Black male students are future-oriented. Help them identify their passions and aspirations, and provide the tools to turn those dreams into reality. Remember, they need only one teacher to be that crucial connection.
4. Positive reinforcement and recognition go a long way. “When you are getting the help you need, if you don’t understand and the teacher makes sure everybody understands, [that] is a key factor for my success in a classroom,” emphasized a student. Celebrate their achievements, both big and small. When they see you acknowledging their progress, it boosts their self-esteem and strengthens their connection with the school community.
Ultimately, improving the experiences of Black male students should be the goal of all educators. Teachers and school leaders should see Black male students as more-than-capable individuals who have greatness in them. Do not treat them as a collective, prejudged group. Instead, engage with them with respect, and make time to listen and get to know them. This is how genuine connection is created and trust is built.
When teachers and school leaders begin to understand (by listening) the complex psychological process that these students have to go through daily to become high-academic achievers, taking the time to show interest in their dreams and aspirations and celebrating their successes behooves the entire school community. Together, we can create a more inclusive and equitable educational system that celebrates and uplifts Black male students. The power of connection is within our grasp—let’s harness it and change lives, one relationship at a time.