Men Christian Living Relationships/Family

If You Want to Disciple Young Black Men, Be a Teacher

Jemar Tisby

Black males make up just two percent of public education teachers. That’s right…two percent. Yet public schools, especially in the inner city and other low-income areas are overwhelmingly comprised of racial minorities. I constantly hear black Christian men talking about mentoring black youth. But it’s almost always in the context of church planting, or other “vocational” ministry avenues. As a middle school educator for nearly a decade, I believe we have under-valued the everyday vocation of teaching as a means of reaching young black boys.

In all honesty, I entered teaching largely for selfish reasons. Sure, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to have an impact. But my notions were the vague idealisms of a fresh-faced college graduate. I didn’t have enough life experience to know my calling. or the cost of pursuing it. So, full of naïveté I applied and got accepted into Teach For America in the 2003 corps.

I spent the next seven years as a sixth grade Science and Social Studies teacher, and then a principal in the Delta region of Arkansas at a brand new charter school. Charter schools are public schools that essentially have their own school board and their own contract with the state department of education. This gives the schools the autonomy to implement their own unique vision, in our case a college-preparatory focus, with their own structure and management. In exchange, they have to teach the state standards and take the state test. If they don’t consistently demonstrate results on these standardized assessments, they are subject to probation and closure.

Beyond the politics and policies, though, charter schools are simply schools. Mine was a middle school serving children in grades five through eight. The desks were filled with kids from single parent households, unstable living arrangements, and a privation of opportunity. This is not at all to say the children weren’t phenomenal in every way or that their parents weren’t paragons of faith and perseverance. I have nothing but respect for our kids and their families. But compared to middle and upper income households, the students we served had many more challenges.

The middle school boys I taught needed special attention. Mass incarceration, poor education, and other social ills made positive adult role models rare in their lives. So many of these eleven, twelve, and thirteen year old young men looked up to rappers, athletes, and gangsters as their exemplars. Many more didn’t even recognize these two dimensional figures as people to emulate. I saw too many of my young, black, male students simply drift through adolescence with no benevolent male influence.

Yet as a teacher I had the opportunity every day to provide a godly, if imperfect, example of manhood to my students. Early in my teaching career, I tried too hard to impress my kids. I tried to be someone they could relate to on a personal level and failed miserably. I tried to talk like they did. I tried to dress like they did. I tried to “be their friend.” Over time, though, I came to realize my own unique mix of experiences and skills was all I needed to make a positive impression on my young men.

I learned it doesn’t take any special act or ability to give a young man a new picture of masculinity. Most of all it takes presence. As a teacher, simply showing up every day in the classroom as a consistent presence proves consequential for many boys. Seeing a black male dressed in a tie and jacket, speaking respectfully to kids, treating young ladies with dignity, and working hard for their education makes a lasting impression.

In my most recent assignment, I had one fifth grader ask if he could talk to me one-on-one. In our conversation, he opened up about the fact that he couldn’t sleep because he kept worrying about his half-brother. They had the same mom, but different fathers. Whenever his half-brother would stay at his dad’s house, he would come back with bruises. I told this boy who had tears in his eyes that he had a huge heart. I told him true manhood means respecting one’s children and nurturing them. I told him he could talk to me any time and we could get through the situation together.

I had the “sex” talk with another young man. He was a fifth grader, but bigger than all of his peers because he had been held back a year due to low academic performance. This child was going through puberty and becoming a man, at least physically. I called him to my office, because he had been caught spreading false rumors about a picture a girl supposedly texted to him showing her private parts. I looked the young man straight in the eyes and said, “Your friends and the streets are telling you women are nothing but objects for entertainment. They want you to treat these girls like video games–you play with them, and then toss them aside when you get bored. But I’m telling you they are human beings with real feelings and dignity. You must treat them that way.” I can’t be sure, but by his earnest facial expression, I think he heard me.

You may not be a pastor or a church planter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t disciple young, black men. The classroom is one of the hardest work environments that exists. You have to manage 20-30 different personalities all at once. On top of it, you are responsible for their academic and moral development. Sometimes you can’t imagine how you’ll make it through the day, let alone the school year. But when that young man opens up to you; When he seeks you for wisdom; When he comes to you for comfort; You’ll realize being a teacher isn’t just a job, it’s a ministry.

Talk to Us: Tell us your stories of mentoring young black males, and making a positive difference for them in the name of Christ!

1 Comment

  1. Charlie Mooney

    I’m not African-American (I’m white American) and I’m not teaching in the US (I’m teaching at a Christian school in Korea), but I loved this. It made me want to be a better teacher. You are 100% correct that teaching school is a powerful means of discipling young people. Too many people don’t realize that. And, it certainly helps minority students to have exemplary teachers who look like them.

    Thank you for what you’re doing. God Bless.

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