As a young black male, I wish I’d had more teachers who looked like me

ByBilal Walker (op-ed)
KIPP TEAM Academy teacher Bilal Walker wearing a college graduation gown and sash

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Newark, New Jersey, is resilient, powered by hard-working men and women. But unfortunately, in this city and so many others, the notions of both masculinity and identity are complicated.

Men, for instance, aren’t expected to do things like be teachers or work with kids. The truth is, as a young black male, I wish that I’d had more teachers who looked like me. As I have developed as a teacher, I’ve learned firsthand how valuable that can be.

Having teachers who look like you is powerful. A recent study found that when students see themselves in their teachers — both in race and gender — the students felt more cared for, more interested and more confident that their teachers had their backs. What we haven’t spent enough time exploring is how powerful it can be to have a teacher who empowers you to be who you are, in every sense, in other identities, beyond race and gender.

At my school, KIPP TEAM Academy in Newark, I developed a program called “Siwaju,” which is aimed at empowering students and instilling in them a sense of pride in their identities. The program is named after the Yoruba word that means “forward” or “moving ahead.” Growing up in an Afrocentric household — my grandfather was a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, and my father was a Black studies major and activist at Ramapo College in the ’90s — my family was always very open about the importance of black identity.

My thoughts around the importance of blackness were well developed at a very young age. When I was in middle school, I remember yearning to have conversations with my peers like the ones I was having at home. When I entered the classroom as an adult, I promised myself that everything I accomplished, everything I did with and for my students, would center on introducing them to an appreciation for their own blackness.

Siwaju is a seminar-style program that gives students a platform to discuss various topics that influence their own lives. We meet twice a week and focus on developing accountability and perseverance, reinforcing a commitment to community service, and assigning value to education.

At the beginning of the program, I make it clear to my students that their participation is contingent on their academic performance. I’ve found that holding them to this expectation makes it clear that I will not let them accept mediocrity. They are also required to complete 30 hours of community service, because being an active and productive member of your community means giving back. Over the course of the year, my students mentor other students, make sandwiches for the homeless and wrap holiday gifts for the less fortunate.

In this program, the students do most of the teaching, giving them ownership over what they talk about and how they talk about it with one another. They have a hand in curating the topics we cover. They conduct the weekly discussions with other students on topics they care about. In the past, my students have explored and explained code-switching, police brutality, heteronormativity and financial literacy, just to provide a small sense of the enormous topics they’ve grappled with.

Really, at its core, Siwaju was created to serve as a catalyst to motivate and honor our most resilient eighth-graders, and ensure they move on with a strong sense of pride in who they are.

This program helps them take their rightful places in their communities as leaders and stakeholders, teaching them that if there are things they are passionate about or issues they feel need to be addressed, they know they have both the power and agency to get out there and make a difference. We spend the entire year cultivating in them a sense of pride, culminating in their graduation at which they don traditional stoles and are honored as full members of the community.

This course helps students take ownership of who they are, which is ultimately what I believe a teacher’s goal should be. A teacher owns his or her actions, is empathetic and is loving. A teacher helps students question what they know to be true, and encourages them to develop a healthy amount of skepticism about the world they inhabit. A teacher seeks to understand the social, economic and emotional spaces in which their students live.

Teachers need to understand their kids, and if they don’t come from the same communities as their students, they need to make it their business to explore the city, research its roots and immerse themselves in the cultures in which their students live, eat and breathe.

Because, ultimately, a teacher’s job is to make absolutely certain that their kids know they are powerful, important, capable and loved.

Bilal Walker is a teacher and assistant dean at KIPP TEAM Academy, a middle school in Newark, New Jersey.