Sunday, December 1, 2019

What Would You Say If a Former Student Came Back as an Adult and Told You That You Let Him or Her Down as a Child?


This title that I chose for my December blog post is a potent one and one that I would think that anyone who works with children in any capacity would feel compelled to stop, pause and reflect upon deeply. I actually think about this daily because I know definitively that I am guilty; particularly with students from my first year of teaching. In full transparency, it is normal for me to share with my audiences that it is always a joy to run into former students or for them to find me on social media and share with me how they are doing in this journey called life. But that one class…my very first class of 5th graders in 1988 in Brooklyn, NY…I didn’t know what I was doing yet….I didn’t know good pedagogy, I didn’t know good lesson planning, I didn’t know classroom management and I definitely didn’t know classroom climate and culture. As I say to my audiences frequently, if I ever run into any of those students who are all in their 40’s now, all I can say is, “I’m sorry.” The truth of that matter is that one did reach out to me about a year ago on social media. I recognized her name as soon as I saw it. She said she had been following me for years on social media and that she is a Columbia University professor now. She gave me a tremendous amount of credit for her trajectory. I was in disbelief but she told me in detail why I mattered to here. My point is that when I reflect back over my years of teaching and leading, that first year was a disaster because I admittedly didn’t know what I was doing and I therefore in my mind, let that class down. When I saw her name, I was emotionally prepared to say, “I’m sorry” which I did despite all of her praise.

How about you? What would you say if a former student came back as an adult and told you that you let him or her down as a child? Would you be able to embrace it? Would you dispute it? Would you resist it? Would you become defensive? Or would you use it as a vehicle to grow? How would you handle it? Most of us as teachers will have our students for one school year and then we become a memory for the rest of their lives (if we left a lasting impression). How will you be remembered by your students? What will they say about you 10, 20, 30, 40 years from the time they are with you as your students? What will be the impression that you leave? Will any of them harbor anger as a result of an incident we simply got wrong….but didn’t realize we got wrong at the time? I had this experience a little over twenty years ago which is what inspired me to write this blog post. In other words, in my first year as an administrator (assistant principal), I suspended a student for an incident that I investigated thoroughly and felt at the time was the best possible decision. The student, a young man, vehemently denied any wrongdoing. I looked into it further because he was so adamant, not to mention that he was my student when he was a fifth grader, so I really knew this young man. He was now an 8th grader. After another full investigation, I concluded that a suspension was in order. Again, I was a first year assistant principal with much to learn. The year was 1998.

About twelve years later, a seasoned principal and now in a different school district, I was working late one night and security came to my office and said I had a late night visitor. He said it was a man and he told me his name. Wow…it was the young man I suspended in 8th grade, but that suspension was erased from my mind. I was excited to see the young man and told security to send him in. As he walked into my office, we embraced and I told him to relax his coat and have a seat. After we got through all of the pleasantries, he said, “Mr. Kafele, do you remember when you suspended me back in 8th grade?” At that juncture, the incident came back to me and I said yes. He said, “I didn’t do it…you didn’t believe in me and I never forgot that. Not only were you my 5th grade teacher, you were my favorite teacher and you suspended me your first year as an administrator for something I never did.” In other words, he essentially told me that I failed…that I let him down. As I indicated with my class of 1988 above, all I could say to this young man is that “I’m sorry and I apologize.” He accepted. We talked for about another hour. We embraced and I haven’t seen him since. I changed that night…not only as a principal but as a human being. I changed forever that night. That hurt. It stung! But I grew!

Hey somebody out there, what would you (or will you) say if a former student comes back as an adult and tells you that you let him or her down as a child? I failed when I made that decision. It was like I failed again when he came back twelve years later and told me he was essentially harboring anger from my decision. It hurts as I am writing and sharing this account with you which is about ten years since I last saw this young man. I therefore wrote this blog post just to say to you to think through thorough EVERYTHING you say and do when with your students at whatever capacity you work. We just never know the implications of our words and our actions. I regret that decision to suspend and can only pray there are no more lurking out there.

For further Principal Kafele writings and recordings, visit principalkafele.com.

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.

What Would You Say If a Former Student Came Back as an Adult and Told You That You Let Him or Her Down as a Child?

This title that I chose for my December blog post is a potent one and one that I would think that anyone who works with childre...