Relational Teaching With Black Boys: Strategies for Learning at a Single-Sex Middle School for Boys of Color
by Joseph Derrick Nelson — 2016
Background/Context: Positive teacher-student relationships are critical for Black boys’ learning across single-sex and coeducational environments. Limited attention to these relationships by school professionals is rooted in deficit-oriented conceptions of boyhood and Black masculinity. The popular message of deficiency and pathology is clear: Black boys and men are either dangerous or at-risk and need to be saved. Such narrow conceptions are destructive, operate unconsciously, skew teachers’ perceptions of who boys are, and distort teachers’ efforts to meet boys’ distinct learning needs. A “boy crisis” in U.S. education has been characterized by a set of distressing school outcomes in specific learning categories. Racial marginalization and poverty only serve to exacerbate these negative academic outcomes, whereby low-income Black boys remain in the bottom quartile across all achievement measures. Scholars have recently begun to partly attribute boys’ underachievement to a lack of emphasis on the relational dimension of schools.
Purpose/Focus of the Study: (1) Illustrate how a set of relational teaching strategies supported Black boys’ engagement and learning, and (2) further contribute boys’ “voice” to a counternarrative, which strives to complicate and dispel negative race and gender stereotypes associated with Black males in the United States.
Setting/Population/Participants: This study employs a relational teaching framework to examine the learning relationships among teachers and a full cohort of eighth-grade Black boys (N = 27) at a single-sex middle school for boys of color in New York City.
Research Design/Data Collection: In-depth interviews from a critical ethnography conducted at the school-site (2011–2012) culled boys’ narratives of their teacher-student relationships.
Findings/Discussion: Boys particularly expressed how teachers must foremost convey mastery of course content, with a lucid set of humane behavioral expectations. Narratives from the boys revealed how relationally effective teachers consistently enacted the following gestures: reaching out and go beyond; personal advocacy; establishing common ground; and accommodating opposition. Teachers demonstrated the capacity to acquire and refine relational gestures, but relationship struggles among the boys and their teachers were commonplace. Core findings include: (a) Boys illuminated how specific aspects of the school context facilitated successful enactment of the relational teaching strategies by teachers; (b) teachers’ use of the relational strategies was also facilitated by the social categories of race, gender, and class the boys embodied; (c) boys’ engagement and learning benefitted from positive teacher–student relationships, which ensued after effective use of the relational teaching strategies; and (d) relational teaching with Black boys is not limited to either single-sex or coeducational learning environments.
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