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“He’s More Like a ‘Brother’ Than a Teacher”: Politicized Caring in a Program for African American Males

by Maxine McKinney de Royston, Sepehr Vakil, Na’ilah Suad Nasir, kihana miraya ross, Jarvis Givens & Alea Holman - 2017

Background/Context: The link between care and teaching is well accepted, and positive teacher-student relationships are known to benefit students’ in-school experiences and academic success. Yet, positive teacher-student relationships are not the norm for African American males and African American male students’ experiences and performance in schools remains an issue.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: What characterizes the teacher–student relationships within the all-Black, all-male classes of this district-sponsored program? Moreover, how do the instructors for the program enact these characteristics in their classrooms?

Setting: This study examines a project of the Office of African American Male Achievement in Oakland, CA. The Manhood Development Program was an elective class in the high schools and an after school program at the middle schools that sought to improve Black male students’ academic success and school experiences, and teach students about their cultural and community histories. MDP classes were offered to Black male students and taught by Black male educators.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Based on support from and communication with the MDP facilitators and school administrators, the participants in this study include MDP instructors and their students at three high schools and one middle school within an urban school district where there are persistent, racialized disparities in rates of discipline and in levels of academic success.

Research Design: This article reports on a qualitative case study of the teacher–student relationships within four classrooms that were part of a program for African American male adolescents within an urban school district.

Data Collection and Analysis: During one academic year, four of the MDP classes were observed at least four times and videotaped at least twice. Interviews were completed with three of the class instructors and with 41% of students across the four classes. The observations and videos were analyzed for instances when teacher–student relationships were leveraged towards specific pedagogical ends. Micro-ethnographic analyses were conducted of the video instances to highlight the dimensions of caring exhibited in the teacher–student interactions. From these analyses, one interactional segment was chosen to illustrate the existence and nuances of a politically intentional form of caring.

Findings/Results: The MDP instructors' sociopolitical consciousness impacts and shapes their relationships with their MDP students. MDP instructors articulate and enact specific goals around how to construct caring teacher–student relationships that stem from their intention to positively influence the lives of Black children, push back against the racialized and hegemonic institutional structure of schools. MDP instructors teach in a way that is fundamentally connected to the local community in Oakland and make a concerted effort to know, rather than stereotype, each student and to develop each students’ full potential. These relationships are intentional, political, and visible acts of care by MDP instructors that are interactionally coconstructed within their classrooms.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This case of politicized caring questions the premise that education and schools are, and should be, narrowly focused on developing test preparation, career-readiness, or content-specific practices. Instead, this case illustrates the alternative educational ideologies and practices of four Black educators that allow them to reclaim their social and political responsibilities and create effective, nurturing, antiracist schooling environments for Black students. This microanalysis of one of these classes offers an example of a type of caring and pedagogy that currently exists and that could be more widely available to Black students.

It is time to revisit the United States’ legacy of institutional neglect and lack of care for the lives of Black youth. The killings of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, and countless—but not nameless—more youth, glaringly expose our nation’s inability to conceive Black youth as children. When “civil servants” are repeatedly ruled as “justified” in dehumanizing teenagers and criminalizing the naiveté of youth activity into death sentences, it is time to rethink adult–youth relationships and responsibilities. Yet, this racialized territory of Black childhood isn’t left on the streets; it is contested within spaces we entrust with the development and teaching of “our” young. An open letter from Black university faculty to Black students echoes this paradoxical potential of schools to imperil and empower (Paris, 2014). It calls out to Black students and offers a message of protection, advocacy, and care, “We see you. We hear you. We love you.” This paper unpacks this overture; to articulate how African American educators, in this case a set of male instructors, conceive and enact care with their African American students. We argue that this pedagogical reaching out and reaching back in support of Black youth is a relevant and purposeful form of Black collective action.


Culturally relevant pedagogies rely upon the premise that exposing students to familiar cultural referents has the potential to foster students’ learning (Allen & Boykin, 1992; Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1992). These pedagogies try to influence which knowledges and types of identities are valued, produced, and cultivated within a learning space. Doing so eschews deficit orientations and challenges the status quo. Culturally relevant teaching involves the development of “reciprocal relationship[s] with students where they [teachers] use their professional knowledge and skills to help students academically, socially, and culturally” (Ladson-Billings, 1992, p. 388).

Scholars note that these relationships often hinge not only upon the cultural, but upon the strong communal bonds (Howard, 2001; Morris, 1999) between teachers and the communities they are working with and the political clarity (Beauboeuf-LaFontant, 1999) of educators. This political clarity represents an educator’s deep understanding of racial oppression and a commitment to using education for liberation. To foreground this political motivation, we use Beauboeuf-LaFontant (1999) notion of politically relevant teachers to discuss how certain teachers may bond with students culturally, but arguably more importantly, they bond with them politically in a denouncement of the lack of care and racialized neglect within schools.  

In this paper, we explore the underlying consciousness and pedagogical enactments of the communal and political bonds between a group of African American male teachers and their African American male students. Specifically, we draw on qualitative data from a 3-year study of all Black, all-male Manhood Development Program (MDP) classes for ninth graders in a large urban district to understand: (a) What characterizes the teacher–student relationships within these all-Black, all-male classes? And (b) How are these characteristics enacted in the classroom by teachers?  

The case study we present of teacher–student relationships offers two major contributions. First, we describe a recurring form of pedagogy between African American educators and youth that we call politicized caring. Our framework on politicized caring contributes conceptually to the research literature on teacher–student relationships, caring, and cultural relevance by synthesizing existing themes and distilling the components that characterize politicized care. Some of this existing literature theorizes about the political clarity of African American educators and their deep investments in the success of African American youth inside of schools and beyond. Our framework furthers this theoretical understanding and honors African Americans’ pedagogies as racially aware, risky, and committed beyond the time and space constraints of classrooms and schools.

Second, we use the concept of politicized caring to analyze both the intentionality behind MDP instructors’ cultivation of strong teacher–student relationships and to examine how these relationships were interactionally instantiated within the semiotic ecology of their classrooms. Existing scholarship powerfully represents the interpersonal dimensions of African American educators’ pedagogies (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 1999, 2002, 2005; Foster, 1997; Roberts, 2010; E. Walker, 1996; V. S. Walker, 2000). Using the politicized caring framework, we provide a nuanced understanding of how care is an intentional, political, and even visible act. We do this by analyzing how African American male educators themselves speak about their goals of constructing caring relationships with their students and by analyzing how these relationships of politicized care play out in interaction within a classroom.



Racialized disparities for African American male students are well documented and reflect an unresolved crisis in schools (Advancement Project and Civil Rights Project, Harvard University, 2000; Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010; Hucks, 2011; Noguera, 2003; Toldson, 2008, 2011). Studies reveal how educational inequalities are influenced by interactions that relay a hidden curriculum of racialized and gendered values (Apple, 1982; Thorne, 1993) that undergird the psychosocial realities and environments (Baker, 1999) within schools.

Understanding the social contours of learning environments is especially important during adolescence when children use adult–youth relationships to help make sense of the multiple messages they encounter and to bridge the institutional and interpersonal worlds they inhabit (Chhuon & Wallace, 2012; Noam & Fiore, 2004). We know, for example, that educators can play a critical role in a student’s developmental ecology (Eccles & Roeser, 2010; Libbey, 2004) and that teachers who form strong, caring relationships with their students are particularly effective (Chhuon & Wallace, 2012; Dance, 2002; Howard, 2001; Milner, 2007; Pianta, 1999). Positive teacher–student relationships are associated with higher student social functioning, fewer behavior problems, engagement in learning, and development of positive academic identities and achievement (Hughes, Cavell, & Jackson, 1999; Noam & Fiore, 2004; Roorda, Koomen, Spilt, & Oort, 2011).  

Unfortunately, positive teacher–student relationships are the exception and not the rule for African American male students. The lack of caring in urban schools has long been documented by educational researchers and theorists (e.g., Noddings, 1992; Valenzuela, 1999). Of increasing concern is a failure to protect, nurture, or support African American male students in particular, such that African American male students are actually being harmed by the negative interactions they encounter in schools and the types of attitudes and behavior they may adopt in response (Hucks, 2011; Noguera, 2003). Other scholarship highlights that Black male students are more likely to be labeled with behavioral problems, punished, and have difficulty accessing educational opportunities that might support them (Dance, 2002; Ferguson, 2000; Gordon, Della, Piana, & Keleher, 2000; Gregory et al., 2010; Hucks, 2011; Monroe, 2005; Noguera, 2003; Skiba & Peterson, 2003). This literature suggests that teachers and school authorities may align African American male students’ intentions and actions with racialized and adultified stereotypes about Black men rather than relating to these students as children expectedly situated along a developmental continuum.

At the same time, educational spaces exist where there are alternatives to the negative adult-youth relationships Black male students typically encounter in schools (Baldrige, Hill, & Davis, 2011; Dance, 2002; Howard, 2012; Givens, Nasir, ross, & McKinney de Royston, 2016; Nasir, Holman, McKinney de Royston, & ross, 2013; Nasir, ross, McKinney de Royston, Givens, & Bryant, 2013; ross, Nasir, Givens, McKinney de Royston, Vakil, Madkins, & Philoxene, 2016). This article examines one such space to consider how educators’ caring may be guided by a political and racialized agenda to provide Black students with humane schooling experiences. The literature we review below reflects how and why African American teachers and mentors establish caring relationships with their students, the political dimensions of these relationships, and articulates the necessity for empirical work that examines how these relationships are interactionally instantiated within educational spaces.


The notion of caring and teaching has often been associated with women and likened to mothering. Scholars have examined the ways African American women may take on the role of other mother within their immediate families, extended families, and the community at large (P. H. Collins, 1990; Gilkes, 1986; James, 1993). Education scholars have taken up this term to explore how Black women teachers may take on the role of other mother or warm demander with their students (Foster, 1993; Irvine, 2002; Ware, 2002, 2006), particularly within schools where the climate did not support Black children. By serving as other mothers, “Black teachers demonstrated a historic and cultural aspect of what has been described in the moral development literature as an ethic of caring” (Ware, 2002, p. 37). Irvine (2002) makes an important distinction between what researchers often identify as teacher identification or surrogate parenting and the other mothering of African American teachers. Irvine (2002) notes, “These African American teachers were attached both to the individual as well as the race. Their willingness to ‘adopt’ was not solely because of their desire to help a child but also to advance the entire race” (p. 142, emphasis in original). In this sense, the other mothering African American teachers may perform can be understood as a politicized form of resistance that recognizes the racialized experiences of Black youth in a school climate and society that may adultify, stereotype, or otherwise neglect them.  

The other mothering that Black women do is significant to consider in examining the politicization of teaching and to highlight the role of Black women in creating and nurturing spaces for resistance (hooks, 1990). Still, the term other mothering implies that solely Black women teachers perform this role. Walker (1996) and Ware (2002) point out that historically male instructors also took on the role of parent surrogate. Contemporary accounts of African American male mentors in out-of-school contexts have also described them as surrogate fathers to African American male youth (Dance, 2002). Similarly, the present study explores how Black male instructors may assume the role of other father and/or other brother. Examining these roles and forms of caring for African American males is critical in the face of racialized stereotypes about Black males as antidomestic, antisocial, and criminal (ross, Nasir, Givens, McKinney de Royston, Vakil, Madkins, & Philoxene, 2016).



We draw on the body of research on caring in schools and teaching as a political act to articulate a framework for analyzing politicized caring as an important aspect of politically relevant teaching. The literature on African American teachers and teachers of African American students indicates that care and caring are critical aspects of culturally and politically relevant teaching (Ladson-Billings, 1992). Linking care to education means that teachers as individuals, and ideally schools as institutions, attend to the "psychological, sociological, and academic needs of another individual or individuals” (Siddle Walker, 1996, p. 131). This work frequently has cultural dimensions, yet it is inherently political because educators see their work as “humane investments” wherein their social and professional resources serve as the “capital” that funds social change (Dance, 2002, p. 84). In that sense, their teaching, and the care that undergirds it, is essentially an educator’s “revolutionary antidote” (Ginwright, Edley, & Ruiz de Velasco, 2010, p. 84) to racialized oppression.

There is an emerging body of research that explores educators who explicitly view care as a political act and understand youth as individuals existing within a context of racialized discourses and practices that stretch into and beyond school or organizational walls (Ginwright, 2009; Roberts, 2010). These educators envision education as a vehicle for racial justice and view the settings in which they work, such as classrooms and out of school programs, as sites of resistance. Such educators intentionally challenge a colorblind notion of care and see it as their responsibility as African American adults to protect African American children from further racial trauma. Their means of upending an institutional legacy of racial disinvestment and marginalization of African American youth is to develop trusting, profound relationships with them. Caring, in this form, is at once authentic, aesthetic, moral, and political (Noddings, 1984; Roberts, 2010; Valenzuela, 1999; Webb-Dempsey, Wilson, Corbett, & Mordecai-Phillips, 1996).

Scholars of all-Black educational spaces (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 1999, 2002, 2005; Dance, 2002; Ginwright, 2004, 2009; Ginwright et al., 2010; Morris, 1999; Walker, 1996, 2000) point to how this care is enacted interpersonally between African American educators and youth. To recognize the fluid and dynamic nature of how caring becomes political through social interaction, we term such care as politicized. This type of caring is not passive or purely ideological. It is physically enacted in real-time interactions between African American educators and African American youth. Table 1 outlines the dimensions of our framework for politicized caring, drawing on the extant literature. This framework forms the basis for our analysis.

Table 1. Framework for Conceptualizing Politicized Caring

Political Clarity

(Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 1999, 2002, 2005)

Clarity about institutional nature of oppression that shapes how Black educators understand and interact with Black students

Understand students’ connection and experiences of oppression.

Cultivate students’ awareness of racial and social injustices and discrimination or critical examination of American society (its history, institutions, and practices).

Understand students in context (e.g., view violence in classrooms as microcosm of violence in Oakland and connected to systemic oppression or recognize that disciplinary practices in schools are connected to stereotypes and treatment of Black males in United States).

Communal Bonds

(Morris, 1999)

Community in the service of a racialized and politicized agenda, to disrupt systems of inequality

Treat community as an extended family. View teacher–student relationship as more like surrogate family/fictive kin/other mothers or fathers. View students as extensions of themselves and understand how students experience oppression.

Initiate relationships that recognize comembership: building upon a shared racial, gender, class, or local background.

Establish a reciprocal relationship that views responsibility and success as mutual, and recognizes that the teacher’s own future and success, and that of the community, is linked to that of their students.

Potential Affirming

Affirming potential in order to disrupt a pervasive lack of institutional care

Maintain high expectations.

Recognize that all students desire to learn and are capable of learning.

Build on cultural practices, rather than assuming cultural deficits/poverty.

Developmentally Appropriate

Developmentally appropriate spaces provided as a way to counter racist practices and views of Black youth

Appreciate African American students as children situated along a developmental continuum that has a diverse set of domains and experiences: cognitive, emotional, social, cultural, etc.

Understand students’ vulnerability as children living within racist social conditions.

Table 1 details four different aspects of politicized care: political clarity, communal bonds, potential affirming, and developmentally appropriate. Yet, in the hearts, minds, and practices of educators, these boundaries are not precise and components often co-construct one another. The purpose of distilling them here is to identify each component as a set of orientations that revolve around a central goal of politically relevant teachers: to construct humanizing spaces where African American youth’s identities, experiences, and practices are valued as integral resources to their personal development, their academic success, and to the advancement of the “race.” In the following section, we utilize this framework to analyze the practice of the instructors we studied within the Manhood Development Program in the Oakland Unified School District.



The Manhood Development Program (MDP) was a signature program of the Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA). AAMA was created by the Oakland Unified School District because of this population’s high rates of chronic absenteeism (20%) and suspension (23%), and low performance indicators, such as grades and standardized test scores. AAMA’s mission was to increase attendance, lower suspensions and expulsions, promote self-awareness, and help cultivate healthy identities amongst African American male students (17.3% of the district’s student population).

In the fall of 2010, AAMA launched MDP to serve middle and high school African American boys in the district with classes at school sites. Sites were initially chosen based on OUSD schools with the largest numbers of African American boys. The course’s curriculum aimed to encourage students to learn more about themselves, their cultural and racial history, and their communities, with the goal of helping them think differently about their education. The classes brought together African American male students of differing academic proficiency levels. African American male teachers, coaches, and/or community members taught the courses.

At the high schools, the MDP class was an elective during the regular school day. At the middle schools, the class occurred after school and included homework support. In both contexts, before the school year began, the parents of African American male students were contacted and their children were invited to take the class. This included a public event that was hosted by the AAMA in which the program was explained and parents were able to meet AAMA staff and some of the instructors.


This illustrative case study (Yin, 2003) offers the concept of politicized caring as a collective consciousness that many African American educators bring to their work with African American students. The goal of this study design is to clearly illustrate that this form of politicized teaching exists. We do this in two ways: first, the analysis of interviews with MDP instructors demonstrates that politicized caring is a conscious act. Second, the microanalysis of one episode in a MDP class provides an in-depth example of how this kind of care is enacted in real time and what this kind of care can look like in practice. Certainly, the interview data from the instructors does not reflect the only way politicized caring can be articulated nor does the microanalysis illustrate the only way politicized care can be enacted. We are not generalizing our findings to particular populations of teachers or arguing how representative our findings are. For example, each of the MDP educators own instantiations of politicized care was likely influenced by their individual school contexts as well as a myriad of other factors. Our aim here, however, is to distill the conceptual themes that span across this set of African American male educators and provide an in-depth analysis to illustrate that this type of care is already being enacted through politically motivated relationships and interactions between certain teachers and their students. Table 2 describes each of the MDP instructors highlighted in this study.

Table 2. MDP Instructor Demographics

Name and School Site


K–12 Teaching Experience


Employee at School?

Brother Jay (high school)

early 30s

3+ yrs.



Brother Jelani (middle school)

early 40s

10+ yrs.



Brother Phil (high school)

 late 20s

> 1 yr.



Brother Tonio (high school)

early 40s

10+ yrs.




The instructor and student interview data for this article draws upon four of the MDP sites, including three high schools and one middle school. These four sites were chosen for videotaping based on ongoing support from and communication with the MDP facilitators and school administrators. The data we draw upon is from the first full 2 years of implementation of the MDP classes at these schools and from a two-day training session for the MDP instructors that occurred before the classes began. We analyze excerpts from instructors’ interviews and a classroom video that are explicit demonstrations of politicized caring, and augment these analyses with select quotes from student interviews.

Observations and Video Recording

Observations and videotaping of the MDP classes were conducted across the academic year. Given the potentially sensitive nature of the course content and concerns for students’ privacy, observations and video recording relied upon the consent of the instructors. At times instructors requested that a researcher not video record a given class or portion of a class. Nonetheless, each class was observed at least four times and videotaped at least twice resulting in 36 class observations and videos across the focal sites. Fieldnotes were taken during observations and captured the interactions, activities, and artifacts of the class. The video camera was stationary and captured whole class interactions, including the instructors’ pedagogical choices and discourse with students and other persons that participated in the class.


Following the end of the semester, semistructured interviews were conducted with all but one of the instructors (n = 3 or 75% of instructors). These focused on: the instructors’ preparation and professional history; their understanding of the MDP program; their goals as instructors; and their reflections on their MDP class. Instructors were asked questions like, “What do you think the district or AAMA was trying to create with this class?,” “What were you trying to create with this class?” and, “Are there any moments that stand out to you as really successful or really unsuccessful?”

Students from MDP classes at the various school sites were interviewed during the last two weeks of the semester (n = 26 or 41% of students). Ninth grade students were interviewed one-on-one and a focus group was conducted at the middle school site. These interviews focused on understanding students’ experiences in their schools, their experiences and understanding of the MDP class, and their experiences and interactions with their teachers including the MDP instructors. Students were asked questions such as, “Why do you think this [the MDP class] was created?,” “Who is the person you feel closest to at your school?,” “What do you feel like you learned in your MDP class?,” and “How do you feel about Brother_______ [MDP instructor]?”


After each researcher (our full group was five researchers) independently read through the instructor and student interview transcripts and open coded the data, the following themes emerged: Academics, Discipline, Race, Racism or Discrimination, and Relationships. The relationships code had the highest number of occurrences as compared to the other codes. The research team divided up into small groups based on each of the emerging themes, with each group exploring all instances of a given code in order to define the code and explore possible subcodes. The three members of the relationships group narrowed their focus on student-teacher relationships using the following subcodes: (a) bidirectional relationships; (b) teacher reveals themselves (e.g., shares their lives, acknowledges shared experiences); (c) teacher listens to students; (d) socio-emotional conversations; (e) protective/got their back/advocate; and (f) unconditional caring/nonjudgmental. Once these codes were settled upon, the student and instructor interview responses were iteratively coded and analyzed using HyperRESEARCH.1

The videos were first content logged, then in order to triangulate the data they were qualitatively analyzed using the same subcodes as used for the textual data. In looking across the video data, we became intrigued by moments when teacher–student relationships were leveraged towards specific pedagogical ends. To gain a granular understanding of these moments, we conducted micro-ethnographic video analyses (Erickson, 2004), of moment-to-moment interactions of classroom activity. Drawing from perspectives that view classroom activity as a complex semiotic ecology (McDermott, 1976), we focused on verbal as well as nonverbal forms of communication.

Enactments of politicized care were numerous and widespread across the MDP classes. For this paper we zoom in and present a microanalysis of one classroom segment as a way to make more widely visible the conceptual intentionality and interactional complexity of politicized caring. This segment was chosen because it is a rich, concise illustration of the nuanced ways that politicized care manifests in real time.

The video segment we focus on was viewed multiple times with each viewing revealing various features of the classroom that later became important for our analysis. We viewed the video in slow and fast motion, as well as without audio, focusing our attention on movements and gestures in addition to verbal exchanges. After identifying what appeared to be consequential moments of interaction, an overall chart, representing a real-time sequence of classroom activity, was hand drawn. For every 2 seconds of video, the chart represented the following features of classroom activity: the classroom participation structure including the spatial positioning of students and teacher (simple drawings), verbal communication (direct quote transcriptions), and nonverbal communication (descriptions of what participants were doing with their bodies). The chart provided a visual representation of the simultaneous and sequential verbal and nonverbal actions of various participants in the classroom, aiding our team’s analysis of how politicized caring manifested in teacher–student relationships.

The process of triangulating our data highlighted those teacher–student relationships were a central feature of MDP instructors’ pedagogy across interviews and video analyses. Deeper analysis of data coded under teacher–student relationships indicated that caring, rather than being a subcode was a superordinate code that typified instructor’s explicit concerns about students and their actual practice of developing relationships with students. It became clear that care and caring relationships were important for MDP instructors, and that existing conceptualizations of care did not adequately capture the intentionality and political awareness of instructors and their related enactments. Out of this iterative analysis, four pedagogical themes emerged: political clarity, communal bonds, potential affirming, and developmentally appropriate. These pedagogical themes reflect both the caring and sociopolitical tenor of MDP instructors’ desire to create strong teacher–student relationships and the ways in which they created such relationships.


The findings are presented in two subsections. The first section examines how the MDP instructors’ goals for developing relationships with the African American male students in their classes align with the tenets of politicized caring from our framework. We augment our analyses with quotes from student interviews that reflect their perceptions of politicized caring within the MDP teacher–student relationships. The second section is a microanalysis of a teacher–student interaction that occurred on one of the days that we were videotaping. This interaction is an example of politicized caring in action.


The components of a politicized caring framework were articulated in interviews, in informal conversations with MDP instructors during observations, and embedded within the MDP instructor trainings. Demonstrating the interconnected nature of the politicized caring components, the data points we draw upon may speak primarily to one of the components while simultaneously invoking the others. They all illustrate instructors’ politicized understanding of the needs of African American male youth and a commitment to ensuring that such an understanding be reflected in relationships of adult-youth care.

Political Clarity

The political impetus of the MDP instructors reflects the design of the MDP program and the instructors’ orientations. The AAMA administrators, primarily African American males themselves, viewed the racialized disparities in academic outcomes for African American males as an “alarming picture of systemic and societal failure."2 This view of failure eschews a deficit perspective of students, families, or communities and locates disparities as a byproduct of inequitable, and often racist, social conditions facing African American male youth.

AAMA’s charge of systemic failure is, in part, directed at a pervasive lack of care within schools for African American male students. To counter these oppressive physical and ideological circumstances, the MDP program was developed as an intervention that would create an alternative, positive educational experience for African American male students within schools. The program was founded upon the assumption that the socioemotional well-being of African American male youth is an utmost priority and precondition for academic success. For example, during an interview one student shared how his MDP class helped him emotionally: “Yeah. I think I'm more interested in controlling how many deaths I've seen instead of taking it as if the world- as if God’s mad at me and just taking my friends away. The thing is, I'm handling it better and like living they legacy. I'm they living legacy, that's how I take it.” For this student, his MDP class provided the space for him to deal with his grief and to manage his experiences with structural violence. Through MDP he was able to transform his anger into a desire to push forward and be successful to honor his slain friends’ lives. Echoing this point about the pivotal importance of students’ emotional well-being, the AAMA director argued during his introductory remarks at a MDP instructor training session that, “when they [students] know where they’ve been . . . they have a sense of where they’re at, and are excited about their future . . . it fundamentally changes how they see school—as now an asset to help them manifest and actualize their dreams.”

At that same training session, AAMA administrators stated that the instructors present were selected because they “could really do this [the teaching of African American males] work.” Making apparent the political and relational valence of this “work,” it was explained that AAMA believed in these instructors’ ability to manage classrooms with “high expectations,” “unconditional love and patience,” and “Black male competency”— an understanding of the complexities of being a Black male in American society. In commenting on his relationship with his MDP instructor, one student noted, “It was actually pretty cool, because he actually cared about the same stuff that we cared about. He wasn't—he's not just here for a paycheck.” This latter element was connected to AAMA’s belief that by building relationships with the Black male instructors, Black male youth would have the opportunity “to see themselves through the men that come into their lives versus the television, media, etc.” Implied is that the race and gender messages about African American males in the media were often problematic and that the embodied presence of the MDP instructors could debunk and provide alternative depictions of Black manhood (Givens, Nasir, ross, McKinney de Royston, 2016).

Several instructors at this training articulated this embodied connection between the instructors’ lives and those of their students as presenting them with the responsibility and tools to be able to support student well-being. One instructor expressed that MDP instructors needed to attend to this connection so that their students “wouldn’t have to go through what I went through.” Students also expressed how significant it was to have teachers who could have a deeper understanding of their racialized and gendered experiences and who reached out to build strong relationships with them. One student remarked, “It’s like, it’s like, cause Brother Jay know where we’re coming from ‘cause he grew up out here and he’s an African-American male and he like know where we coming from so he takes the time and talk to us. Like other teachers they don’t really know so they’ll just go with their first mind and most of the time just send us out without really trying to talk to us.” The type of relationship this student indicates having with his MDP instructor, as opposed to other teachers, reflects the connection and responsibility that AAMA administrators expressed at the training, “That’s our [the MDP instructors’] job, that’s our task, is to make the next generation what? Better than the one before, and you [the instructors] are the one before. When you look at a young individual . . . [gestures ‘think’] . . .How can I assist this individual in being better than me?” In this way, AAMA and MDP instructors expressed the racial and political appreciation they have for their students’ experiences in society and in schools, and their related responsibilities as adult mentors.

Brother Jelani was an MDP instructor whose approach was clearly guided by a political clarity. In describing why he was an MDP instructor, he indicated that he wanted to be involved in his neighborhood and to provide Black male youth with alternative role models because “the only Black adults they see in schools are the security guards or the black assistants working for the white administrators, roles you see all the time.” His middle school students frequently told Brother Jelani that “you be acting like my dad,” an apt perception given his age (mid-forties) and his admission that he did see his students as his children and that he brought his fatherly expertise to bear on his teaching.

Brother Jelani frequently expressed his understanding about the social realities of African American male youth in and out of school. Below he explains why his approach to teaching is relational, loving, and why “love works”:

Young Black youth need it. They need it. They need to know that if I’m saying to you, you know what, that’s not a cool thing for you to do, to speak in that language, to talk to people that way, that’s loving because if you love yourself you transfer that to others and then it becomes infectious. Because I believe that if you love yourself, you don’t want to harm yourself. So that love can transfer that you don’t want to harm others. So, OK, [someone] might have said something wrong to you, did you wrong, but out of love you can handle that. When there’s no love then there could be scrapping3 or even worse, but when there is love there is an understanding that can come out of that. That’s just my personal philosophy. Everything I [do], I . . .work with youth, is based on love.

Brother Jelani evidences his political clarity in how he understands student behaviors—language, fighting—as possibly occurring because of the ways that African American males are treated. He explained how his approach was to use love in how he talked to and treated students, with the belief that a caring approach cultivates student’s love of self, which extends to how students also treat others. In saying that Black youth “need” love and need to know that he is acting out of love for them, Brother Jelani also suggests that he is developmentally aware of the needs of Black male children. He is responding to a lack of care for Black male children, in and out of schools, and to the likelihood that these past experiences may make African American male youth distrustful of others’ intentions and actions. Embedded within Brother Jelani’s explanation is a developmentally appropriate, political awareness about trying to cultivate his students’ agency to resist the negative, biased attitudes and behaviors they may encounter and to instead do things differently.

Communal Bonds

Brother Jelani’s deep investment in his students and to acting in a fatherly like way lends important insight into how the MDP instructors’ think about creating communal bonds with their students. In addition to seeing the students as younger extensions of themselves, the MDP instructors frequently demonstrated how they were intimately connected with the lives, families, and communities of their students. Brother Jelani often called parents, had students call their parents, and held meetings with parents as a way to bond with them and to demonstrate that he was in partnership with them. In one such meeting, Brother Jelani humorously pointed out an idiosyncrasy of each student, from how one sat in a chair to how another always asked for extra snacks, using the latter point to encourage parents to give their children bigger lunches and recognize how their physical well-being impacted their child’s participation in his class and in school. These actions by Brother Jelani reflect how the MDP instructors saw their African American male students as children whose development was a communal responsibility and, as instructors, they were part of that community.

The instructors also saw their communal bonds as an obligation to serve as the in-school advocates and protectors of their students. As Brother Jelani recounts,

I’ve had some battles up at Baker this year, right. I can’t front. It’s been some… high points and there’s been some intersections and partnership and then there’s been some straight up knuckle up; let’s go. Like no. No! You NOT going to do that. No, you NOT going to treat that child that way. No, I’m going to send him back to class. No, you not going to give him 14 referrals. No, no, no, and not call the mama. No, it’s not happening . . . we not going to conform to that.

Here, Brother Jelani relays his varied experiences with advocating for his students in this school site, including pointing out racially disproportionate or extreme rates of disciplinary action that he frequently felt he had to mediate. He likened his advocacy to a “knuckle up” or fight, where he sometimes had to confront school officials on behalf of his students and their families. He allies himself with the families by saying “we not going to conform to that.” Brother Jelani also indicates how he calls to task other teachers or the school to bring the parents, in this case the mother, into the conversation around what is happening with their child in school.

Brother Tonio was another instructor whose approach explicitly highlighted the communal bonds between instructors, students, and their families. An African American school administrator in his early 40s, Brother Tonio lived most of his life in the same city where he worked. He was the only instructor who was currently working in the district and that taught an MDP class at a school where he was employed. Brother Tonio had a stern, affable approach and emphasized college readiness in his class. Like Brother Jelani, his students saw him as a father figure. In an interview, one student said, “I kind of see him as a fatherly object . . . because he's, you know, he cares about us and he's also on our backs sometimes, you know, making sure we get our work done.”

Reflecting on this fictive kinship, Brother Tonio stated, “Ahh man, that's just what I do. You know, I found it easier going to the home, making home visits. I'm even dropping the kids off . . .I shoot them to the house. So, long as they parents know, like, ‘Hey, Imma bring your child home, so, that's just part of my job.’” Brother Tonio’s statements indicated that he viewed it as both a personal and professional responsibility to take care of his students and make sure their families knew that they were safe in his charge. Students consistently mentioned how MDP instructors went out of their way to meet their needs. Specifically speaking about Brother Tonio, one student stated, “He cares about us . . . like other teachers they probably just ride in they car, just keep by, he’d probably stop and ask me something or do I need to go somewhere.”

Similar statements of cultural affinity and communal bonds were made by all of the MDP instructors that revealed an orientation to teaching as built upon relationships of connectedness and care. This included the younger instructors like Brother Phil. Brother Phil was a well-traveled poet and writer who ran a popular open mic night in the area, but he also had experience working for local academic enrichment programs for African American students. It was commonplace to see him interacting with his students during lunch breaks and passing periods or engage in other actions that reflected his personal investment in his students. During one class, Brother Phil recounted an incident when he and his son were driving and passed by one of his students. Rather than driving past the student, Brother Phil and his family offered the student a ride and drove him across town. He frames this experience as one of being concerned for the student’s well-being and wanting to ensure that he got safely to his destination.

True to his artistic roots, Brother Phil’s approach to teaching the MDP class was very expressive and filled with thoughtful spontaneity. He stressed the importance of being transparent with his students and recognizing that his students were dealing with real life situations—including traumatic events. Invoking a shared racialized and gendered experience with students, he openly expressed his political clarity about the violence his students experienced in their neighborhoods and connected this to larger histories of oppression facing African Americans and Black men in particular. He expressed that he was teaching the MDP class in order to counter, with love, the terror experienced by these young Black men. For Brother Phil, this often meant being vulnerable with and in front of his students because he believed that his personal anecdotes of struggle could serve as teachable and relatable moments. Students recognized these connections between their own lives and Brother Phil’s, with one student stating, “He talks about things that have to do with my life. Things that have happened.” Another student, when asked how he feels when Brother Phil talks to him or the class about their feelings or experiences, shares, “I think it means a lot. He actually cares about my life.”

A poignant example comes from a video of the class session when Brother Phil4 shared with students an incident that led to him being shot. He was careful not to divulge this experience as a banner of street credibility; rather, he leveraged it as an opportunity to show his students the importance of dealing with their emotions and trauma as Black men so that hopefully they do not live this trauma first-hand. Later in the semester, during a class session Brother Phil learned that his father had died. Continuing to build on the transparency in his relationship with his students, Brother Phil shared with them his complex emotional reaction to the passing of a man he loved—but who was also abusive to his mother. In exposing this sorrow and confusion with his class, he presented an authentic moment where he modeled healthy ways of dealing with their own emotional stress. Brother Phil demonstrated how it was okay for students to let down their guard when in the class and to be seen as vulnerable, thereby strengthening the communal bonds between Brother Phil and his students. This interaction reflects the truest sense of brotherhood—the giving up of oneself to the community—and was also emblematic of his political clarity and desire to disrupt oppressive histories of Black men being taught to disregard their emotions for the sake of maintaining a hypermasculine persona (Givens et al, 2016).

Building on communal bonds that they shared with students, MDP instructors were able to encourage their students to open up and be vulnerable in ways that the students felt to be out of the ordinary. Speaking to this point, one student stated, “I can communicate with Bro. Tonio, I know how to communicate with him, other teachers I don’t know how to communicate with or they don’t know how to communicate with me.” Overall, MDP instructors sought to connect with their students and students interpreted these connections as a form of care.

Potential Affirming

Consistent with AAMA’s belief in the importance of care and high expectations to support Black male students’ success, the MDP instructors uniformly recognized African American male students’ willingness and ability to learn as being intertwined with, and or obscured by, the oppressive social conditions that might make this endeavor difficult. Brother Jay, was particularly articulate about the need to affirm African American male students because of their experiences in schools. He explicitly linked the need to have a curriculum based on academic as well as non-academic content, given the institutionalized nature of stigmas facing his students. Similar to the other instructors, Brother Jay’s approach was informed by how he felt African American male youth were stereotyped and treated in society and within schools:  

In the school specifically, there's no relevant curriculum and I think our boys, whether you want to believe it or not, are ostracized, marginalized. You know, they're seen as criminals...I wonder what's the percentage of teachers that come in looking at our Black boys and say, “Wow, goodness” . . . and our boys feel it too. You ain’t gotta say it. They see how people looking at them. . . . Because your perception already is that we criminals. . . . How you going to really get to know me? You already, that’s what prejudice is. You have already prejudged who I am. . . . That’s not knowing someone . . . I think I’m working on changing that culture because that’s what they do to us. That’s what they do to black boys. And then we internalize it. We keep thinking we a problem. Then we don’t want to come to class. Then we don’t want to show up. We don’t want to participate and they flunk you. Then they just fail you. That’s what happens. And then they say, well, you wasn’t participating. And it’s because of him and his ability and him not, it’s always the child. But you don’t realize how you facilitated the child to check out.

Like other instructors, Brother Jay demonstrates a political clarity about the oppression that his students encounter in schools relative to stereotypes and racial microaggressions, and how African American male youth internalize and respond to this hostility. Brother Jay also explicitly connects his critique with the types of teacher–student interactions that traditionally happen in schools where the cause of failure is located with the African American male “child.” Brother Jay points out how many teachers fall prey to the social misconceptions about who these students are because, “They [teachers] haven't built relationships with these kids.” Brother Jay points out that students are aware of how they are being positioned and respond to that positioning (Harre & Langenhove, 1991). In MDP classes, they were positioned as students with vast intellectual and personal potential.

Brother Jay’s interview revealed that he associated students’ lack of respect for many teachers to these same teachers’ failure to get to know Black male students and show enough care to build relationships with them. He viewed this disconnect, between teachers and students, as reflective of a distrust on the part of the students about their teachers’ intentions and a disinterest on the part of the teachers. Consistent with his political clarity and potential-affirming approach, Brother Jay remarks that if you get to know your students and express a level of care and expectation for them, students will meet those high standards. The notion that high academic expectations are linked to an ethos of care was reflected not only across MPP instructors, but also in student interviews.

Speaking to differences between MDP instructors and their other teachers, students often used the word “caring,” sometimes followed by specific experiences highlighting differences in approaches to discipline, MDP instructors’ abilities to relate to students’ lived experiences, but also ways that teachers do or don’t hold high academic expectations for them. For instance, we asked a student to elaborate after he explicitly stated that Brother Tonio cares for him more than other teachers. He responded, “It’s like . . . Tonio like he’ll really be on you about your grades and stuff like that. And teachers, like some teachers don’t be on you like that. They just give you the work and if you don’t do it, then you just don’t do it.”

As the student quote in the last paragraph indicates, caring was also expressed through firm expectations for students’ academic performance. Although MDP instructors recognized that this approach required them to sacrifice additional personal time and energy, e.g., to drop students off or make house visits, for the instructors these aspects of their pedagogy that were nonnegotiable. MDP instructors explicitly designated these acts of caring that transcend the scope of “just being a teacher” as critical to the development of their relationships with their students and as critical to their students’ success.

Developmentally Appropriate

In responding to questions about his goals for the MDP class, Brother Tonio connected his politicized care approach with the goals he had for student success. In fact, he predicates their success and ability to perform in schools upon instructors’ abilities to care for and understand their students’ non-academic needs,

Well, I think one of the things, just in general, kids want to talk. Kids have a lot on their mind, probably have nobody to talk to at home or in the neighborhood. So, I think that, you know, it's [important]to hit on the curriculum piece of things but we need to know what's on the kids’ minds. Like, "What your day looking like"? You know, so a kid gonna tell you man like, "I'm not eating" or "I can't sleep" or you know, so, I mean, and then we can hit on that . . . we need to take care of that before we can take care of anything else.

Brother Tonio believed that his students’ experiences with varying social traumas specific to their racialized, gendered and socioeconomic positioning, spoke to his students’ human needs that needed to be addressed in order to help them academically. This requires understanding both the context from which the students are coming, and the challenges they face that might hinder their academic success. Thus, having an understanding of his students’ nonacademic needs facilitated his knowledge of what is developmentally appropriate within the classroom and beyond.

Brother Tonio was thoughtful about the level and types of care he felt that his students needed and that he tried to infuse into his interactions with students. In the following excerpt, he described his goals for his classroom and his work with the MDP students:

So, it's to kind of really show them, this is what your life is going to be. You know, knock out your task and then you'll have time to kind of relax. So, that was my whole of just trying to create a classroom where it's safe, we're able to talk on like different things about life as being-. especially as becoming into a young man and being an African American male in society. So, I just kind of just took, how I lived my life, you know, and just put it into the classroom.

In the above excerpt, Brother Tonio recognizes that he is working with children who are on the crux of becoming adults and are dealing with social stereotypes about what that means because of their race and gender. In recognizing this vulnerability, Brother Tonio sought to develop a safe, nurturing, and respectful classroom space that could support students in navigating and resisting negative societal notions of Black manhood. A developmentally appropriate approach, therefore, recognizes the importance of providing space for Black youth to share, express, and heal as a community. As one student highlights, “He lets us express how we feel, like like anything, like if we have to say anything to like express how we feel, he will let us say it.” When asked to explain why he feels his teacher creates this sort of space, the same student elaborates, “I think like, cause it’s, it’s better to hold, like he taught us, like it’s better to let out stuff then hold in stuff . . . like it’s better to cry to let out your feelings.”

It is important to recognize that the ability to engage a developmentally appropriate pedagogy was deeply intertwined with the other aspects of the politicized caring framework. Instructors’ communal bonds with students, along with their political clarity around specific social toxins students face, facilitated their understanding of what students may have needed to successfully navigate school and prepare for entering adulthood. Instructors saw their role as one of being a model for Black male students and relied upon their own life experiences as Black males to bond with them and share with them their own evolution and developmental trajectory.

As the selection criteria outlined by the AAMA staff and the interview and observational data with the MDP instructors suggests, the framework of politicized care undergirds how the instructors conceptualized the needs of Black male youth and their intentions for developing relationships with their MDP students. Central to these relationships is a politicized and caring pedagogy that is reflective of Black pedagogies that fundamentally link the development and success of each individual with that of every other community member. The MDP instructors’ goals and explanation of their orientation to working with Black male youth demonstrate an interpersonal care (Walker, 1996) that at its core seeks to disrupt the dehumanizing schooling experiences of Black youth. This ethic of care is an element of the culturally relevant pedagogy that has characterized Black schooling environments of the pre-desegregation era (e.g., DuBois, 1935; Fairclough, 2007; Walker, 1996, 2000) and is ongoing in many contemporary all-Black schools (e.g., M. Collins & Tamarkin, 1990; Lee, 2008). This includes creating a race conscious learning space that recognizes Black students as children, rather than small versions of their adult counterparts (Ferguson, 2000). The MDP instructors recognize that their students need, in addition to academic support, developmental and socialization supports that are consistent with how they are positioned in and experience society and schools.

The central message is that the political commitments undergirding these teachers’ work and their commitment to enacting these political goals occur through building relationships with students. Both the commitment and the relationships are necessary components of politicized care. Further, these concepts cannot reside solely in a teacher’s mind or conception of their work or vision as teachers. To have impact, it must be enacted in classroom practice.


Interviews with the MDP instructors indicated that at the crux of their politicized caring approach was the development of strong relationships with students. In constructing these relationships, MDP instructors were mindful of how they positioned themselves vis à vis students. This approach included their overt demonstrations of care for students, but also was instantiated by encouraging students to develop productive relationships with other teachers and school administrators to support students’ successful navigation of school. The politicized care approach meant that MDP instructors saw themselves as, and were perceived by students as, trusted mentors, protectors, and advocates for their African American male students. Here, we focus on a micro-analysis of a teacher–student interaction to take a practice-level look at how MDP teachers positioned themselves in relation to their students, and how this positioning reshaped teacher–student relationships, and students’ perceptions of those relationships.

We argue that a teacher’s caring for his students becomes politicized—that is, a politics is enacted—through social interaction. We draw on a perspective of human interaction as a “social accomplishment” constituted by speakers and listeners through verbal as well as non-verbal communication (Erickson, 1976, 2004). Researchers viewing human interaction as a semiotic ecology focus on how meaning is produced through the cultural and social organization of locally situated interaction (Erickson & Mohatt, 1982). Politicized care as production demonstrates how the components of this pedagogy manifest behaviorally in the interactional life of a classroom. The following microanalysis helps us see politicized caring in action, namely how the aspects of the framework are enacted and interact in the midst of classroom activity.

We focus on a segment with Brother Phil to illustrate how politicized caring is accomplished as a situated activity of a classroom community. The chosen segment exemplifies in practice each aspect of politicized caring pedagogy; namely, Brother Phil’s political clarity, the communal bonds he shares with the students, and the potential-affirming and developmentally appropriate pedagogy he employs. Our analyses here demonstrate how the communal bonds between teacher and students facilitate a classroom culture characterized by high behavioral expectations. The teacher speaks to the students in direct yet potential-affirming ways, and in turn, the students respond in ways that underscore the trust and bond they share with their teacher.

The video begins with students filing into the MDP classroom, a room furnished with an assortment of chairs and tables of varying sizes—giving the impression that the class was left with whatever extra furniture remained from other classes in the school. The participation structure, established in the first few moments of the class, is such that students are scattered around the room with the teacher standing in the front facing the students. Brother Phil engages the class in a call-and-response routine, requesting students to reflect on the purpose and usefulness of the MDP program as the year winds down: “Can somebody tell me the purpose of this class?” Barry, a student with a checkered shirt and a baseball cap, is the first student to quickly raise his hand. Though inaudible from the recording, Brother Phil’s response reveals Barry’s comment as playful, perhaps even mischievous in nature. Brother Phil lightly admonishes Barry while keeping the tempo of instruction moving, exhorting students to take the question seriously.

Representative of the high behavioral expectations of MDP instructors, this is the first of many directives Brother Phil issues—a verbal or nonverbal method for the teacher to exert social control by motivating a change in student behavior (Erickson & Mohatt, 1982). As Brother Phil continues to scan the room looking for volunteers to respond to his inquiry, a latecomer straggles into the class wearing a black hoodie. Gesturing with his hand towards his head, Brother Phil gently but assertively directs the student, “Pull it off brotha, come on, pull it off.” The student complies, moves quickly to his seat, and then immediately raises his hand to offer up a response to the teacher’s inquiries.

From an interaction analysis standpoint (Jordan & Henderson, 1995), we observe that despite being chided by the teacher, the student with the hoodie settled and engaged right away in the collective activity of the class. Though Brother Phil’s directive spotlighted the student and momentarily interrupted the flow of activity, the participation structure of the class repaired as quickly as it was damaged. Interaction analysis theorists talk about these moments as “trouble” in the activity structure, where the normal stream of activity is broken in some way (Jordan & Henderson, 1995). Analytically, the seamless transition of the class from “damage” to “repair” is an example of what Erickson and Mohatt (1982) call interactional smoothness. This smoothness reflects students’ uptake of the instructor’s expectations, or at least their lack of resistance to it. The class seemed to share a sense of pacing along with a common set of behavioral expectations that remained stable even during moments of “trouble” in the activity. The resilience and fluid nature of social interaction embodied within this short strip of interaction are reflective of the communal bonds that undergird teacher–student relationships in the MDP classroom.

Central to these communal bonds is the co-membership between teacher and students as African-American males. Brother Phil’s use of “brotha” as a cultural referent signaling African-American male co-membership and a bidirectional relationship is later made explicit when he prompts the class, “Knowing that I’m here for you as African-American boys, what are your expectations from me?” Here the teacher couches a message of caring, “I’m here for you,” in a language of solidarity by explicitly invoking the gendered and racial characteristics of the classroom. In making the communal bonds explicit, Brother Phil effectively politicized the interaction, signaling a shared understanding of African American boys’ positionality in urban schools and cities. This is the first of several pedagogical moments in which the political clarity of the teacher is expressed in ways that are seamless and integral to interactions within the classroom.

Politicized caring is also conveyed through pedagogical acts that are developmentally appropriate for an adolescent population whose social and emotional needs are often misunderstood and neglected because they are housed within racialized and gendered bodies. The political clarity of the MDP teachers is born out of an intellectual and an experiential understanding of such oppression. In the encounter represented in Chart 1 (Part 1) below, several disruptions in the classroom interrupt the flow of activity more so than the previous segment from the same day. The way Brother Phil repairs the activity structure of the class reflects the communal bonds that undergird his relationships with students. His unconventional use of physical touch also exemplifies a developmentally appropriate response to a scene of conflict between two adolescents that .

The video shows Amare turned away from the teacher and facing Barry, the student with the checkered shirt who had raised his hand to respond to Brother’s Phil’s initial question. The two students were bickering about an object that Amare had playfully confiscated from Barry. Though both students were off-task, Amare’s physical orientation was visibly out of sync from the participation structure of the class. This, along with his physical proximity towards the front, made him the target of Brother Phil’s reprimand, which triggered a chain of events represented in Chart 1 (Part 1) below. Shaded and clear rows show verbal and nonverbal communication, respectively.

Chart 1. Politicized Caring in Action5


Teacher (T)

Amare (A)

Barry (B)

Chris (C)





Reaching towards and gently touches A on shoulder. Momentarily looks away from A towards class.

Body positioned away from front of class towards B. Appears to be teasing B.

Leaning towards and engaged in dialogue with A.

Hunched over in his seat.


 . . . so what I need you to do . . . Amare . . . I need you to sit right here..”



Notices A still talking with B, reaches again and touches A on shoulder directing him to relocate.

Complies with teacher’s directive. Backpack in hand, slowly stands up and begins walking towards new seat.

Head tilted up towards A as he walks away, appears to say a few taunting words to A.

While T is talking to A, tries to sneak-throw a crumpled paper into garbage bin across room.


“Chris . . . if I see you throw one more thing in . . . I’mma have to ask you to leave my class . . . and I don’t want you leave.


14:23: (says something to provoke A)

14:27: (responds positively to teacher’s admonishment)


Attention shifts from Student B to Student C. After above remark, waits for a response. Gaze focused on C.

Reacting to B’s words, turns around sharply to face B, backpack dangling from his right hand.

Still seated, shoulders broaden, head tilted up. Eyes lock with A.

Seated with hands firmly on arms of his chair. Body leaning forward towards T.

As before, Brother Phil liberally employs directives, insisting on students’ adherence to behavioral expectations of the participation structure. He doesn’t hesitate to draw close to students and use physical contact to reinforce his directives. The reduced spatial distance between teacher and student in concert with the verbal directive mitigates what may be perceived by the student as the sting of being singled out in front of peers (Erickson & Mohatt, 1982). The effect of Brother Phil’s touch is at once firm and gentle, communicating the uncompromising expectations from the teacher as well as the intimacy of their relationship. This pedagogical moment represents the confluence of several dimensions of politicized care. Brother Phil’s high behavioral expectations are potential-affirming in that they send a message to students that they are capable of, and will be held responsible for, positive engagement in classroom activity. The communal bonds he shares with his students, in turn, expand Brother Phil’s pedagogical range, allowing him to intervene in developmentally appropriate ways—in this case expressed through physical touch.

What is critical to the repair of the now damaged participation structure is the student’s response. Despite being spotlighted by the teacher, Amare appears relaxed and unsurprised by Brother Phil’s touch, which suggests that he perceives the touch as non-threatening and potentially as an act of care. He readily complies with Brother Phil’s directive to relocate seats, signaling his own endorsement of the communal bonds that undergird teacher–student relationships in this space. In this way, Amare plays an active role in repairing the interactional smoothness of the social ecology of the classroom.

Taking advantage of the momentary interruption caused by Amare, Chris launches a piece of crumpled paper across the room, hoping to escape the teacher’s notice. However, he does not succeed. Disappointed with Chris’s opportunistic move, Brother Phil shifts his attention away from Amare towards Chris, sternly warning, “Chris . . . if I see you throw one more thing . . . Imma have to ask you to leave my class . . .and I don’t want you leave.” Though there was no explicit verbal request for a response, his gaze remained focused on Chris long enough to convey the social expectation of a reply. Chris complied, and though his response was inaudible, it was apparently genuine enough to warrant a positive reaction from the teacher.

This moment is significant in two ways. First, Brother Phil is again exhibiting a skillful balance between firm yet caring orientations towards students that students positively acknowledge. Next, in the few seconds that Chris’s infraction distracts Brother Phil, there is a significant escalation in the conflict between Amare and Barry. Barry’s provocations cause a sharp turn and stare from Amare. The chain of events also illustrates the interconnectedness of the social actors in the space: Amare and Barry’s chatting causes Brother Phil to interject, leading Chris to make his move, which in turn pulls the teacher’s attention, creating the unfortunate opportunity for Amare and Barry to escalate their conflict. Thus far, this moment represents the most severe rupture in the flow of activity. As we’ll see in Chart 1 (Part II), it is a moment that gets worse before it gets better.

Chart 1 (Part II): Politicized Caring in Action


Teacher (T)

Amare (A)

Barry (B)

Chris (C)


“Okay . . . Thank you... . . .I appreciate that . . .thank you..”



Using hands gestures expressively to C showing gratefulness for his compliance.

Allows his backpack to drop to the floor, signaling preparation for physical confrontation.

Reluctantly, slowly, hikes up his jeans and stands up to face Student A who is also standing.

14:29 Momentarily relaxes in his seat upon reconciliation with teacher.

14:32 Noticing escalation between A and B, tenses up in his seat, body in vigilant half seated, half standing position.


“So what’s not gonna happen . . . what’s...what’s not gonna happen . . . so what I need you to do... . . .I need you to have a seat.”



Upon noticing A and B standing, swiftly reaches in to grab A’s arm, and pulls him away from scene. Puts his arm around A while directing B to sit back down in his seat.

Doesn’t resist teacher. Allows him to grab his arm and pull him back. Leans into teacher’s arm as it’s placed around his shoulder.

Concurrent in time to teacher’s move, takes a few steps back signaling a willingness to diffuse conflict.

Sits back down in his seat, signaling an acknowledgment that the prospect of A and B fighting has been temporarily diffused.

As the teacher finishes his exchange with Chris and begins turning his attention back to the class, he finds Barry and Amare both standing facing one another, exchanging provocative stares. Chris, who had just scooted back in his seat after reconciling with the teacher, is back on the edge of his seat. In a vigilant half-seated, half-standing position, he is a proxy for the other students through the physical embodiment of the tension engulfing the entire class. Quickly reading the situation, Brother Phil swiftly advances towards Amare, firmly grabs his arm and pulls him back away from the scene of conflict. Releasing his grasp, he puts his arm around Amare in a brotherly fashion signaling care and protection. Brother Phil’s decisive action effectively eliminates the potential for a physical confrontation in the classroom. The firm and swift grab of the arm represents a bold move many teachers may not make. Yet, the communal bonds established within the class allow for a collective understanding of the intentionality of Brother Phil’s physical intervention—to diffuse the situation with care. His ability to properly read and act in this high-stakes moment also speaks to the critical role Brother Phil plays in preserving the integrity of the interactional space. His tenacious and developmentally appropriate mode of intervention de-escalated the impending confrontation, while allowing both students to “save face” and walk away without feeling like they “backed down.”

A proper analysis of this complex interactional moment must also account for the active role of students as coparticipants in the activity. Amare not only allowed the teacher’s physical initiation, but also leaned into his embrace. Similarly, Barry took several steps back signaling agreeability to the teacher’s intervention. Meanwhile Chris, the social barometer of the class, sat back in his chair expressing through his body a feeling of safeness and ease that permeated the entire room after the conflict was de-escalated. The students’ response to their teacher’s intervention is a prime example of their affirmation of the strong communal bonds and the ways in which the politicized care approach becomes bidirectional; just as MDP instructors see themselves as advocates for their Black male students, their students, in turn, recognize the way their instructors position themselves as their allies, mentors, and protectors.

The decision-sequence above demonstrates Brother Phil’s concern for the immediate safety of his students, which when considered in isolation, may not constitute a political act. Still, when we consider his mode of intervention, in combination with the larger communal context, the actualization of his concern makes this act particularly political. In this brief moment, Brother Phil demonstrates the political clarity with which he approaches his work in two important ways. First, Brother Phil’s decision to physically intervene sends a significant message to his Black male students whose actions or persons may be adultified or feared by others teachers (Ferguson, 2000). His touch signals that he is not afraid of them; their acceptance of his touch affirms his non-verbal assertion that they are not dangerous and that he will not harm them. Second, Brother Phil understands the larger context of physical and symbolic violence in which he and his students live. Allowing a physical confrontation to ensue may have detrimental short-term and long-term consequences inside and outside of school walls. Hence, while his concern for his students may be simply a noble attribute one expects of all teachers, his actions reflect a political clarity that renders this moment anything but ordinary.

This moment becomes further politicized in the pedagogical choices that followed. With his hand still around Amare’s shoulder, he orchestrates a complete overhaul of the physical and social structure of classroom activity. He directs the class to stand, push back all the tables, and move their seats towards the front of class, forming a semicircle around the two students with the teacher positioned between them. After briefly introducing the purpose of the new activity, Brother Phil involves the entire class in mediating the conflict between Amare and Barry. He begins by stating, “My main thing in this conversation with y’all . . . all we have is each other . . . that’s all we have as Black men.” Here, Brother Phil makes explicit the racialized and gendered dimensions of the communal bonds that he shares with the students and that the students share with one another. The statement “all we have is each other,” and the way it was received by the students, signals a shared clarity that the conflict between Amare and Barry is problematic within the confines of the classroom, but also in relation to how Black males are marginalized within society. In framing the conflict in this way, Brother Phil is challenging the students to see themselves as members of a racialized community extending beyond the walls of the classroom. The intensive spotlighting of the conflict, and his insistence on resolving it, demonstrates Brother Phil’s commitment to affirming the potential of his students even in the midst of “damaged” classroom activity.

Before the class bell rang, the two students publicly agreed to put the situation behind them. It is clear that the teacher’s self-defined role was to keep students safe from the prospect of physical conflict in class, but also from the too often exercised disciplinary system of the school, and from the prospect of physical harm outside of school walls. Research documenting the disproportionate disciplining of African American boys in public schools (e.g., Advancement Project and Civil Rights Project, Harvard University, 2000; Gregory et al., 2010; Noguera, 2003) suggests that the sequence of events described above represents a significant departure from the norm. Rather than treating the conflict between Amare and Barry punitively, the teacher treated it politically by situating it in a broader social context.

The teacher’s care for his students is evident in his commitment to their safety, to keeping them safe, adherence to rigorous behavioral expectations, and most importantly, positive well-being as Black males in America. Through a complex social ecology that includes classroom discourse as well as nonverbal communication, the nature of the teacher–student relationships reveals itself as one very much influenced by Black male comembership. This racialized and gendered aspect of student–teacher relationships is given political meaning through the ways in which the teacher connects students’ local classroom experiences to broader social patterns negatively affecting Black males, namely the proliferation of violence in urban communities. Ultimately, the political commitments at the root of teacher–student interactions manifest behaviorally through a delicate social ecology involving teachers as well as students.


The findings presented here, while not prescriptive, do challenge what we consider possible within schools and can inform how we analyze the relational resources that can support African American male student achievement. Specifically, we argue that the nature of the teacher–student relationships in the Manhood Development Program (MDP) were characterized by a type of care that is rooted in a political and cultural agenda and enacted interpersonally in moment-by-moment interactions. Focusing on politicized caring allows us to recognize that certain teachers acknowledge the ways schools reproduce racialized and gendered stereotypes, and seek to cultivate relationships with marginalized students that acknowledges their oppression and their developmental needs as children and learners. We offer the term politicized caring to recognize the fluid and dynamic nature of this form of caring and the ways that the production of care becomes central in politicizing Black students and (re)politicizing Black educators. Politicized caring is only possible through human interaction. The production of politicized care within classrooms may begin with the teacher, but the point at which students welcome and re-instantiate this care, politicized caring becomes bidirectional and circular. The enactment of caring and the politicization of this care ultimately becomes reciprocal, and enables the active (re)production of politicized care between Black male educators and their Black male students.

For the Manhood Development instructors, the political clarity with which they approach their work reinforces their attempts to teach for social transformation within a school structure that continually reproduces the dominant ideology and to work with students that are in active struggle with this ideology. Still, through their self-affirming resistance these teachers are choosing education for personal and social emancipation for their students. They position themselves—symbolically and physically—on the "front lines" (King, 1991, pp. 260–261), thus shielding their students from being on the front lines within schools. In doing so, they appreciate the developmental needs and limitations of their students as children who are likely unable to fully comprehend and navigate the racialized circumstances in schools. Shielding their students creates the time and space for instructors to enact a politicized caring that may politicize students and better prepare them to serve on the front lines themselves.

Various articulations of the work facilitated by MDP instructors highlight a relationship built on a strong sense of caring, only describable in familial (brother, father, family) terms. When a student comments, “He’s more like a brother than a teacher,” his words are indicative of the reciprocal care enacted between students and their instructors. This statement is also indicative of the shared political reality that this intergenerational group of Black males are “brothers” in the struggle against systemic oppression more broadly and against racialized inequalities within schools more immediately. Whilst MDP instructors’ politicized care is rooted in this political clarity, MDP students take up this clarity through accepting their instructors’ care.

By demonstrating to students an understanding of their experiences of oppression and cultivating students’ awareness of racialized injustices, instructors experience their students as extensions of themselves and their communities. Where African American educators may serve as other fathers or other brothers to their students, the community is also understood as extended family. This family is based upon comembership and reciprocity and seeks to disrupt systems of inequality. Potential affirming acts, such as building and maintaining personal relationships with students and utilizing a culturally relevant curriculum, serve to reposition Black students in ways that counter stereotypes of normative Black male dysfunction, pathology, and criminality (Givens et al, 2016). When MDP instructors affirm Black students via high expectations and recognition of students’ capacity to learn, they serve to disrupt a pervasive lack of institutional care. Finally, MDP instructors’ explicit recognition of their students as boys—as children—allows them to cultivate and nurture developmentally appropriate spaces as a way to counter the destructive experiences that typically characterize Black male schooling experiences.


There are three limitations to this study that are important to note. The first is that it is an analysis of only one (small) program within a school district that serves a small percentage of the target population. Thus, the findings do characterize all teaching and relationships between African American teachers and students generally, but speak to the interactions that occurred within this specialized program context. Further, the number of instructors that this study is based on is quite small, and the findings may not generalize to other programs of this type.

A second limitation of this study is the absence of measures of the degree to which students internalized the instruction. We document the nature of instruction, the teachers’ intentions behind the pedagogy, and how a set of students responded in one instance to an instructor’s enactment of politicized caring. This data, however, does not fully speak to the extent to which students took up the concepts and ideas in the classes, nor was there systematic data on students’ interpretations and responses to the MDP teachers. Such analyses would require additional data and longer term data collection than we were afforded. However, students were asked about their relationships with MDP teachers, and often spontaneously mentioned the caring nature of these relationships during interviews.

A third limitation is that this paper presents the analysis of only one segment of interaction from one MDP class. While there were numerous instantiations of politicized caring—some more “visible” than others—across all of the MDP classrooms, there are some methodological and physical limitations that come with textual presentations of interactional microanalyses. Methodologically, these video segments of politicized caring have to be rich enough to illustrate all tenets of politicized caring and to have aspects of interaction that are able to be interpreted into written form. Logistically, these segments have to be concise enough to allow for a sufficient depth of presentation and analysis within the constraints of an article. For example, some segments unfold over longer periods of time or are more diffuse in enactment. The segment analyzed in this paper met these methodological and physical criteria and is presented to demonstrate that the politicized caring approach that we outline exists.


The findings of this study have important implications for teaching and suggest that teachers should, at their best, attend to the relational and the interpersonal aspect of teaching and learning. While this paper doesn’t focus on the direct impact that politicized caring has on student achievement, it is clear that teacher’s establishment of powerful and relationships with students directly impact students’ willingness to be physically present in school, their attitudes towards school, and their interactional behaviors that shape how they will engage in and navigate school. These actions are prerequisite to and set the stage for learning, and are often points of crises that proliferate the literature around African American male students. Attention to the socialization aspect of teaching is critical in order to support students’ learning, especially those students who are socially vulnerable in large part due to their racialized and gendered experiences in and out of school.

One question this study raises has to do with whether or not only Black male teachers can teach Black male students. We argue that while the students and instructors in our study were all Black, non-Black teachers can create relationships of politicized caring with their Black male students as well. Teachers should be scaffolded, via pre-service or in-service training, to develop their own consciousness about the sociopolitical realities of their students in ways that authentically engage students rather than essentialize, pity, or fear them. We recommend that teachers be supported in developing strong adult–youth relationships and that schools institutionalize the development and promotion of a relational and reciprocal school climate. Schools that are serious about the success of African American male students should provide resources for teachers to develop their political clarity about the students they serve in order to scaffold their ability to create supportive teacher student relationships and classroom environments. Teacher training institutions and K–12 schools must ensure that teachers receive adequate preservice training or professional development on how to develop strong interpersonal connections with all of their students in ways that make reciprocal growth and learning possible.


1. Hyperresearch © is a qualitative data analysis software. It allowed us to examine and code within and across different types of data, including text, audio, and video.

2. The analyses here do not include the pilot year of the program. Although all four of the instructors were invited to participate in interviews, only three of them could be interviewed during the data collection time frame

3.  OUSD African American Male Achievement Initiative Goal Area Data Update, Urban Strategies Council, April 4, 2012.

4.  Scrapping refers to two or more people engaging in a physical fight.

5.  This scene is described rather than presented in original form because of the lengthy and diffuse nature of the conversation, and to preserve the confidentiality of the students involved.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 4, 2017, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21748, Date Accessed: 7/14/2020 6:48:27 AM

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About the Author
  • Maxine McKinney de Royston
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    E-mail Author
    MAXINE MCKINNEY de ROYSTON, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her research focuses on race, identity, and pedagogy, with a focus on STEM learning environments. Her work has been published in journals such as the Harvard Educational Review, Journal of the Learning Sciences, and the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. Her forthcoming work examines how mathematics classrooms operate as racialized learning environments and the need for teachers’ political clarity about what they teach, who they teach, and to what ends they teach.
  • Sepehr Vakil
    University of Texas, Austin
    E-mail Author
    SEPEHR VAKIL is an Assistant Professor in STEM Education at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also Associate Director for Equity & Inclusion in the Center for STEM Education. His research interests include the cultural and political dimensions of STEM teaching and learning, critical approaches to computer science and engineering education, and participatory design research. Recent publications include: "Rethinking race and power in design-based research: Reflections from the field" published in Cognition and Instruction, and “A Critical Pedagogy Approach for Engaging Urban Youth in Mobile App Development in an After-School Program” published in Equity & Excellence in Education.
  • Na’ilah Suad Nasir
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    NA'ILAH SUAD NASIR is the Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and Professor in the Graduate School of Education and African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her program of research focuses on issues of race, culture, and schooling. She is the author of Racialized Identities: Race and Achievement for African-American Youth, published by Stanford University Press. She has also published over 40 articles in scholarly journals.
  • kihana miraya ross
    University of Texas, Austin
    E-mail Author
    kihana miraya ross is a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at UT Austin. Her program of research explores the multiplicity of ways that antiblackness is lived by Black students, and critically, the potential for transformative resistance in educational spaces that confront racialization and antiblackness directly. Her most recent publication, “'Be Real Black For Me': Imagining BlackCrit in Education," co-authored with Michael Dumas, theorizes the usefulness of a Black critical theory, or BlackCrit in education. Her forthcoming work examines the ways Black girls experience antiblackness in education, and the ways that Black girl space is imagined, politicized, and embodied by Black students and educators in the construction of what she calls, Black educational sovereign spaces.
  • Jarvis Givens
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    JARVIS GIVENS is a Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and earned his Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. His research spans the following areas: 19th and 20th Century History of African American Education, Education and the African Diaspora, and Race and Urban Schooling. Givens is currently working on a book that analyzes the educational philosophy of Carter G. Woodson and his influence on Black schools during the Jim Crow period.
  • Alea Holman
    California School for the Blind, John F. Kennedy University
    E-mail Author
    ALEA HOLMAN, PhD., MPH, is a school psychologist at the California School for the Blind and an adjunct faculty member in the Doctor of Psychology Program at John F. Kennedy University. She is a graduate of the School Psychology Program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include familial racial and gender socialization, including the experiences of parents raising Black children within a racially hostile society. Her recent publications include “Pedagogies of race: Teaching Black male youth to navigate racism in schools” (Nasir, Holman, McKinney de Royston, & ross, 2013).
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