Sunday, October 27, 2019

“HAVE YOU EVER SPOKEN TO AN AUDIENCE AS WHITE AS THIS ONE?” (Let’s Talk About Unconscious Bias in the Classroom)


As an education speaker, I speak to a wide array of audiences regularly. Because I have spoken to such a variety of audiences all over the U.S. and different parts of the world, I am very comfortable speaking to all audience compositions, which include when I am the only African American in the room (which is often). As a speaker, I would argue that one must strive to feel comfortable with all audiences if one is going to experience longevity in the world of speaking.

Countless times in my capacity of speaker, I have been the only African American not only in the auditorium, gym, library, cafeteria, classroom, ballroom or meeting room, but I have been the only African American in the entire building when you consider the support staff who are in the building who are not a part of my presentation. In this context, there is this one engagement that will always stand out for me that has probably crossed my mind at least once per day over the past year since it occurred. I was in a state that shall remain nameless where the African American population is rather small with a rather large white majority. I was invited to speak to the entire school district staff at their day long professional development conference via a morning opening keynote and an afternoon closing keynote.

When my contact person invited me, he informed me that the district had no African American educators but that they did have a small percentage of African American students. Since this was not going to be an uncommon experience, my response to him was a simple, “no problem at all…I’ll be ready.” On many occasions when I am the only African American in the room, it is quite normal for me to address the “elephant in the room” early on by making a light joke of the fact that “I guess I’m the only African American in sight,” because the “elephant” is so obvious and blatant in those situations, though not uncomfortable for me at all. After all, I’m a speaker and speakers speak to people…all people.

As I walked into that gym that morning full of educators, I felt a different vibe from my norm. I am accustomed to being spoken to by somebody…anybody. I was alone that morning. No one acknowledged my presence. People walked past me as if I wasn’t in the room. I knew I stood out not only because I am an African American but because I was that one unfamiliar face in the building. I truly felt alone, isolated and invisible in that moment…and I was the keynote speaker. That meant I had some “heavy lifting” to do that day for sure. Consequently, due to the "vibe" in the room, I even refrained from resorting to my normal joke about being the only African American in sight. I didn't think it would fly in this setting.

The morning keynote went well. I don’t mean it produced “amens”  throughout my presentation…lol…but I thought it was productive. As I engaged in my normal self-reflection and self-assessment during my down time, I concluded that the presentation went over well. But it’s that afternoon keynote that motivated me to write this blog post a year later. I walked back into that gym while everyone else was filing in and thought that now that everyone heard me in the morning and was now familiar with me, they would open up to me….not hardly! Again, it was like I wasn’t even in the room. It was as if I hadn’t spoken to this same audience just a few short hours ago. I was invisible! When I was being introduced to come up and deliver my final presentation, I said to myself, “Here we go again….you got this…let’s do this!” As I took the microphone from the introducer, I stood on the half court line of the gym directly in front of a little over 500 faces, all white, with mine as the lone African American face in the room and the first words that came out of my mouth were, “Are there any questions, comments, feedback or concerns about anything I said during this morning’s keynote address?” Whenever there is a break in my presentations with the same audience, I will ask this question 100% of the time before we resume the discussion. Immediately, a woman enthusiastically raised her hand which relieved me. Her hand going up so quickly made me feel that on the one hand, she was engaged in the morning session, and on the other hand, I anticipated that there were probably many more questions to come from others. My thinking in that moment was, “Great…this is going to be an awesome afternoon!” But then she proceeded to ask me a question that literally blew me away. She said, “Have you ever spoken to an audience as white as this one?” Immediately, many in the room began to laugh. I just stood there and looked at my audience. I didn’t say anything…not a word. I just took it all in. I wondered though was the organizer of the event (or the person who introduced me) going to take the mic from me and address this awkward turn of events….it didn’t happen. I wondered if maybe one of the educators in the audience was going to stand up and condemn what just occurred….it didn’t happen.

Time froze for me momentarily. I was deep into my own thoughts in front of a live audience of educators as an African American man…an African American speaker…who now felt completely detached and disconnected from his audience. All sorts of history popped into my head regarding the Black male experience in America. The recurring theme in my thinking though was this feeling of isolation. I thought to myself, “So what you are an internationally renowned and respected speaker, author and educator…that’s not what you are in THIS room in THIS moment.” More importantly though, I thought about that small percentage of African American children who are enrolled in the schools where the members of this audience teach and undoubtedly have their own testimonies of isolation and invisibility (my high school story for another time). Or those African Americans who work in the lonely world of Corporate America for example, and the ongoing feelings of isolation and invisibility that many of them endure (my story too for another time). Time was truly frozen in that moment. The reality though was that I felt compelled…obligated to address what had just occurred on behalf of the African American children that they service.

As I made my way out of my momentary silence and back to my present reality with 500+ educators awaiting my response, the first words out of my mouth were, “Yes, I speak to audiences as white as this one regularly. White teachers across America comprise over 80% of the total teaching force while African American teachers are about 6 to 7%. Since I do about 200 presentations per year, I talk to a whole lot of all white audiences regularly.” I proceeded to ask her why she felt so comfortable asking me this question in this forum, particularly when I was seeking questions and feedback related to my morning presentation. Instead of answering the question, she apologized to me repeatedly. I decided that I would not spend my hour addressing my topic of student and staff attitudes but instead, I would turn my presentation into a teachable moment and talk about the repercussions for African American children when they feel isolated and invisible in white majority classrooms and schools, which would include a discussion on cultural responsiveness, cultural relevance, equity and some of the realities of being an African American male / African American man in America for the next hour. Ironically, this experience was one of those realities.

Between this teacher and the many who found her question funny, I truly believe they didn’t see the wrong and the hurt in their behavior…a clear example of “unconscious bias.” To them, it was probably quite normal and business as usual. In other words, my feelings weren’t considered until I opened my mouth and addressed them to an extremely captive audience. When the day finally ended, many in that audience, led by the woman who raised the question marched right over to me to apologize. Several were crying including the woman in question. Many had long explanations with their apologies and expressed feeling badly about the situation.

As I close, this essay is actually not about me nor my presentation. I’m a “big boy” and I will be fine. This essay is all about African American children. As educators, we must all and we must always “check ourselves” toward ensuring that we leave whatever biases that we may possess at home. Our children cannot and must not be subjected to them. When they are, we run the risk undermining their efforts toward truly maximizing their own potential to be amazing young people and eventually amazing adults.

For further writings by Principal Kafele, visit PrincipalKafele.com

Saturday, September 28, 2019

21 REASONS WHY BLACK MEN SHOULD CONSIDER TEACHING AS A CAREER OPTION


Over the years, I have written ten books and about fifty articles and blog posts for educators. This is by far the shortest, but probably the most important piece that I have ever written. Black men comprise between 1.2 to 1.3% of the total teaching force across North America! I will consider this to be a national emergency for Black children in general; Black boys in particular. With almost 70% of Black children growing up without their fathers in their homes (and frequently out of their lives) and then going to school and in most cases having never been exposed to a Black male teacher or administrator, the question becomes, where is the Black man who is “holding his hand” and walking him through the process (and maze) of becoming a man? The unfortunate reality is that far too many Black boys are deprived of the experience of a strong, positive Black man in their lives to help them navigate their journey and the consequences to this reality are all around us. Resultantly, these 21 REASONS WHY BLACK MEN SHOULD CONSIDER TEACHING AS A CAREER OPTION serve as my clarion call to Black men that there are a plethora of Black children in general and Black boys in particular who need you! Yes, I understand the challenges of entering the profession, getting hired, low salaries, unfair treatment, etc., but none of the aforementioned take away from the reality that BLACK MEN ARE NEEDED IN AMERICA’S SCHOOLS. To that end, here are my top 21 reasons why.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to enter the ranks of the most important and influential profession on the planet.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to make a significant difference in the lives of Black children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to have access to countless numbers of Black children over the years and decades.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to be positive role models for Black children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to be examples of manhood for Black boys.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to become teachers of manhood for Black boys.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to be a presence in the lives of Black boys that they can relate to and identify with.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to teach and demonstrate leadership for Black children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to be mentors of Black children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to engage Black children in constructive, thought-provoking and empowering conversations.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to fill voids in the lives of so many Black children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to be an alternative to the negative and destructive Black male images that so many Black children often see portrayed in the media and in some cases, in their own communities.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to have a “birds eye view” of the current problems, issues and concerns that exist within the schools of Black children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to monitor the current problems, issues and concerns that exist within the schools of Black children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to positively impact the current problems, issues and concerns that exist within the schools of Black children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to establish a Black male presence in a school which can prove to be beneficial for the entire school community.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to make a difference in the communities of the children they teach.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to use the classroom as a vehicle to infuse Black history (in an interdisciplinary fashion) and social justice issues for the children.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to bring their unique qualities, strengths, talents and ideas to non-Black children as well.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to serve as examples for other aspiring Black male teachers.

  1. Teaching provides an opportunity for Black men to advance into leadership / administrative positions.

I would dare say that I could have created a list of 50 reasons, but I didn’t want my list to get too lengthy. If you are a Black man and you feel you have much to offer to the children, I hope you will take these 21 reasons to heart. Ponder over them for as long as you need. Whatever it takes.

On the other hand, if you are not a Black man but you have Black men in your life or you are connected to Black men on social media, forward this list to them. This blog post might just be what one of them has been waiting for to “make that move” into the classroom.

Lastly, if you are a Black man and you are already in the classroom but contemplating leaving for whatever reason, I wrote this list with you in mind as well with the hope that you will return to your initial “why” toward reigniting your “fire.”

Note - I also made a You Tube video of my "21 Reasons." Click the link to view.

For further information, order Principal Kafele’s books, Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life, Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success, and The Teacher 50: Critical Questions for Inspiring Classroom Excellence @ principalkafele.com or wherever education books are sold.

Monday, September 2, 2019

A “DEFICIT MINDSET” HAS NO PLACE IN A SCHOOL!


Recently, I had an opportunity to spend a week with the leadership teams of the Cincinnati Public Schools where I spoke to a different cluster of leaders each day. To launch each day, the Deputy Superintendent would open up with a review of the district norms. One of the norms spoke to reframing deficit speech and deficit thinking. On the first day, she reviewed this at 8:30 in the morning but it stayed with me throughout my presentation and into the night. I kept thinking, “deficit speech…deficit thinking…what is the depth of their implication in the classroom?” When I went to sleep that night, it was still on my mind. And as you probably guessed, I woke up with it on my mind as well. In fact, I woke up about a half hour early because those words were still swirling in my head. So instead of getting ready to get to the facility to present, I started playing with those words once again mentally, but additionally, I started writing about them. And as I wrote, I came up with the following:

DEFICIT speech in schools that reflect DEFICIT thinking produce a DEFICIT culture that puts children at a DEFICIT.

Let that one marinate for a moment. In fact, let me repeat it:

DEFICIT speech in schools that reflect DEFICIT thinking produce a DEFICIT culture that puts children at a DEFICIT.

This is why the Deputy Superintendent’s words stayed with me for 24 hours…because I knew there were deeper implications for deficit speech and deficit thinking in the classroom that I hadn’t previously considered, but I needed time to process it and further think it through. Let me elaborate.

The language that is used by the adults in schools matters exponentially. The language used by the adults in the school is a mirror to their thinking (and maybe even a mirror to their humanity). Said differently, the language used by the adults in the school is the evidence of thought. As educators, we have to be ever-so-mindful of the speech we use toward children, around children and about children. Deficit speech is real and it has a way of sabotaging the dreams, ambitions and aspirations of children. For example, the label, “at-risk.” Although, as a professional educator, I fully understand its intent, when directed at or toward children, it falls into the category of “deficit speech.” It literally tells children that the probability for their failure is real. It stigmatizes them. It places them at a deficit. But let’s go deeper…seeing a student as “at risk” not only stigmatizes the student, but it stigmatizes our own thinking about a given student. In other words, instead of seeing this particular youngster as “at-promise,” “at-potential,” or “at-possible,” we are viewing this youngster as a deficit instead of as a surplus…we’re literally putting this student at a deficit in our classrooms via our thought and speech...we are looking at this student through a deficit lens. In this scenario, we must therefore examine our own thinking, beliefs and values relative to children who have more academic, social and emotional need than others. Because the need is greater doesn’t translate into an “at-risk” student. It simply means that we have to examine the level of equity and cultural-responsiveness that exists for our students in our overall learning environment.

Deeper still, is the impact of deficit speech and deficit thinking on school and classroom culture. Imagine a school that is situated in a location where the reality of economic poverty is pervasive which includes all of the social and emotional challenges that are typically associated with poverty. This doesn’t mean that the school has to be a reflection of the challenges exhibited outside of its walls however. The school can be something dramatically different. The school can be a very special place in the neighborhood. It can be an oasis of hope…an institution of possibilities where everything that students see, hear, feel and experience is calculatingly positive. In other words, there’s an intentionality of positivity in the air. There’s an intentionality of positive thinking, positive speech and positive actions. There’s an intentionality of creating a school and classroom culture where all students can check their outside challenges at the front entrance and enter the building with an optimism that they are going to achieve “the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, yet attainable.”

Deficit speech and deficit thinking have no place in a school. The opposite of deficit is surplus. Children need to be able to enter schools everyday where there is a surplus of positive energy coming from all of the adults in the building….a surplus of optimism, a surplus of enthusiasm, a surplus of excitement, a surplus of compassion, a surplus of equity. Toward getting to this place, I challenge everyone who will read this article to examine your own thinking. Do you bring deficit thinking to your school? Do you bring a “deficit mindset” to your students? Do you realize that deficit thinking translates into a deficit culture that puts children at a deficit. Be sure to bring “surplus thinking” and a “surplus mindset” to your students on a daily basis…because they deserve nothing less from any of us.

For more of Principal Kafele's writings, videos and podcast interviews, visit principalkafele.com.

“HAVE YOU EVER SPOKEN TO AN AUDIENCE AS WHITE AS THIS ONE?” (Let’s Talk About Unconscious Bias in the Classroom)

As an education speaker, I speak to a wide array of audiences regularly. Because I have spoken to such a variety of audiences a...