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A Black Male Teacher’s Culturally Responsive Practices (Secondary Math & Science)

The Journal of Negro Education, 85 (4), 417-432

A Black Male Teacher’s Culturally Responsive Practices

H. Richard MilnerUniversity of Pittsburgh

Although scholarly debates about what should be expected of Black male teachers are increasing in a landscape where they represent around 2%, understanding how a Black male teacher talks about his culturally responsive practices and what he actually does in the classroom with his students in an urban context provides potentially transferable features for other educators. This study captures a middle school, Black male math and science teacher’s validation of his students—a tenet of Gay’s culturally responsive pedagogy framework. Drawing from culturally responsive pedagogy as an analytic tool, the purpose of this study is to understand and describe this teacher’s practices, shedding light on them with examples of his discursive insights and interactions that move the theory of culturally responsive pedagogy into the actual practice of it.

Keywords: culturally responsive teaching, culturally relevant pedagogy, culture, teaching, pedagogy, Black males, math teaching, science teaching, learning, urban education, teacher education

According to NCES (Kena et al., 2016), as of fall 2013, it was estimated that there are around a total of 3.1 million public school teachers in the United States of America (U.S.). According to secretary of education, Arne Duncan, of this total, an estimated 2% (60,000) of all public school teachers are Black1 males (Bristol, 2015; Duncan, 2011). Black students comprise about 7.7 million (16% of all) public school students (Kena et al., 2016). While some studies and conceptual arguments regarding Black male teachers focus on increasing the Black male teaching force because of particular contributions these teachers (potentially) make to education (Hayes, Juarez, & Escoffery-Runnels, 2014; Lewis, 2006; Lynn, 2006; Milner, 2010), other discussions critique some of the rationales and expectations for increasing the number of Black males teaching (Brockenbrough, 2014; Brown, 2012; Woodson & Pabon, 2016). For instance, the former argument points to

  • racial and cultural congruence between Black male teachers and Black male students,
  • particular effective disciplinary approaches to their work,
  • assets Black male teachers bring into the classroom such as role modeling for Black and other students, and
  • culturally relevant and responsive pedagogical moves of these teachers.

However, the unfair and unsolicited pressure placed on these Black male teachers to solve systemic and institutional challenges ingrained in school districts has been identified as problematized. For instance, are Black male teachers supposed to be role models for students and somehow miraculously solve systemic challenges of districts and schools that fall far outside of their control or even desires?

Both lines of thinking, analyses, study, and conceptualization are important. We need to increase the Black male teaching force for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. However, we cannot expect these Black male teachers to work overtime without compensation, providing additional dimensions of stress and pressure to their work. Moreover, it is unfair to expect Black male teachers to take on the responsibility of “saving” an educational system that is deeply fractured, flawed, and dysfunctional. Indeed, it can be argued that the educational system was not designed for Black students in general (Singer, 2016) and that, by consequence, I argue it was not necessarily designed

1The terms Black and African American will be used interchangeably throughout this article.

for Black (male) teachers either. However, even in the midst of challenging environments, unrealistic and unsolicited expectations, Black male teachers’ practices in classrooms with students can serve as exemplars from which other educators can learn and develop (Foster, 1997; Milner, 2010, 2012; Milner & Woolfolk Hoy, 2003).

In this article, I focus on culturally responsive practices of a Black male teacher, Mr. Jackson, to make sense of the ways in which he talks about his practices and what he actually does. The purpose of this study is to provide educators, pre-service and in-service, with examples of practices that might be analyzed, understood, and conceptualized as culturally responsive—an imperative that moves the theory of culturally responsive pedagogy into the actual practice of it. I have found in my work as a teacher educator that teachers, especially preservice teachers, struggle to visualize real practices of culturally responsive pedagogy (Milner, 2005; Milner & Smithey, 2003), and I attempt to address this void of examples of strength-based pedagogies in this study as others have (Coffey & Farinde- Wu, 2016; Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009). To be clear I focus on this teacher’s discourse and practices, not structure or systemic aspects of his work, to contribute to the literature based on Black male teachers and their teaching. It is important to note that I am not focusing only on this teacher but the intersections of this teacher’s identity, talk, and practices. My point is to highlight a central tenet of Gay’s (2010) conceptualization of culturally responsive pedagogy, culturally responsive pedagogy as validation.

In other words, what does it mean for a teacher to talk about validating students and student validation, and what do practices of validation exemplify in real classroom practice? Although empirical and conceptual arguments about why the teaching force is better or worse with or without Black male teachers or the problematic nature of how Black male teachers are positioned as saviors are insightful, my concern is more about how to support teacher educators and actual teachers in deepening their understanding in operationalizing, building, and transferring practices that are responsive to students with whom they work. Therefore, rather than focus solely on this teacher, Mr. Jackson, and characteristics of him as an individual, I am particularly interested in understanding, documenting, and constructing a narrative that captures how he thought about his work (what he believed and how he talked about it) and what he actually did—his instructional practices in the middle school classroom—in actualizing culturally responsive pedagogy.

In subsequent sections of this article, I synthesize research and theory on Black teachers, and Black male teachers. Next, I outline the conceptual framework of the study, culturally responsive pedagogy, followed by a detailed discussion of the methods used in this study of Mr. Jackson’s practices. The last sections describe Mr. Jackson’s talk through interviews and practices of validation through a culturally responsive teaching framework. I conclude the study with a brief summary and implications.


Much has been written about Black teachers, their experiences, their identities, their curriculum development, and their instructional practices in public school classrooms (Foster, 1990, 1997; Hudson & Holmes, 1994; Irvine & Irvine, 1983; King, 1993; Milner & Howard, 2004; Monroe & Obidah, 2004). This literature is not limited to public schools but also showcases Black teachers’ experiences in higher education, namely in teacher education programs (Baszile, 2003; McGowan, 2000; Milner, & Smithey, 2003). Drawing from an historical analysis of valuable African American teachers during segregation, Siddle-Walker (2000) explained

consistently remembered for their high expectations for student success, for their dedication, and for their demanding teaching style, these [Black] teachers appear to have worked with the assumption that their job was to be certain that children learned the material presented. (pp. 265-266)

These teachers relentlessly worked to help their Black students learn; although these teachers were teaching their students during segregation, they were also preparing them for a world of desegregation (Siddle-Walker, 1996; Tillman, 2004). As Tillman (2004) explained, “these [Black] teachers saw

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potential in their Black students, considered them to be intelligent, and were committed to their success” (p. 282). Indeed, they saw their job and role to exceed far beyond the hallways of the school or classroom, a point that Tate (2008) has stressed as essential in understanding opportunity structures and mechanisms.

Many of the researchers conducting this research about/with Black teachers were Black themselves, and this insider’s/emic’s perspective allowed these researchers to position themselves and their Black teacher participants from positions of authority and strengths (Milner, 2007). For instance, Foster’s (1997) book, Black Teachers on Teaching, showcased the voice and perspectives of Black teachers in ways that allowed readers to learn from and build on the insights and perspectives of teachers that were sometimes not included or marginalized in extant literature. Moreover, building from the voices of Black teachers, Mitchell (1998), in her qualitative study of eight recently retired African American teachers, reminded us of the insight Black teachers can have in helping us understand the important connections between the affective domain and student behavior. Teachers in Mitchell’s study “were critically aware of the experiences of the students, both in and out of school, and of the contexts shaping these experiences” (p. 105). The teachers in the study were able to connect with the students in the urban environments because they understood that the root causes of students’ behaviors. In Mitchell’s words,

. . . [The teachers] recalled situations in which factors outside of the school adversely affected students’ behavior. They described students listless because of hunger and tired because they worked at night and on weekends to help support younger siblings. (1998, p. 109)

Thus, these retired teachers understood the important connections between the students’ home situations and school (Milner, 2015), and they were able to build on and learn from those out of school experiences and situations in their classroom practices.

Coupled with an emphasis on voice and perspective (Gooden & O’ Doherty, 2015; Jackson, Sealey-Ruiz & Watson, 2014; Milner, 2013) of these teachers in the literature is the role, salience and importance of these teachers’ identity in their work of teaching and learning to teach (Milner, 2010). Agee (2004) explained that a Black teacher “brings a desire to construct a unique identity as a teacher . . . she [or he] negotiates and renegotiates that identity” (p. 749) to meet their objectives and to meet the needs and expectations of their students. hooks (1994) stressed that Black female teachers carry with them gendered experiences and perspectives that have been (historically) silenced and marginalized in discourses about teaching and learning.

An important focal area of the identity dimension of this literature concerns the outcomes of ethnic matching (Easton-Brooks, 2014). To explain, of particular interest is the extent to which the racial and ethnic “match” of a teacher with students influences student success. Compelling results of such congruence exist regarding academic achievement especially with Black teachers and Black students (Easton-Brooks, 2014). Black teachers are able to develop curricula and instructional opportunities for Black students that illuminate content in ways that teachers outside may not be able (Lynn, 2006; Milner, 2010; Siddle-Walker, 2000; Tillman, 2004). This point is not to suggest that teachers outside of the racial or ethnic background of their students cannot be successful. To the contrary, for instance, White teachers can be successful teachers of non-White students (Ladson- Billings, 2009) and not all Black teachers are successful with Black students. But the point is they all must build the knowledge, skills, attitudes, dispositions, and orientations to be successful (Banks, 2015).

Thus, because of their experiences, knowledge and skillset they had developed, literature described successful teachers of Black students as those who maintained high expectations for their students (Siddle-Walker, 1996) and those who did not pity their students but empathize with them (McAllister & Irvine, 2002) so that students had the best possible chance of mobilizing themselves and empowering their families and communities to fight against and combat racism and racist policies and practices. Pang and Gibson (2001) maintained “Black educators are far more than physical role models, and they bring diverse family histories, value orientations, and experiences to students in the classroom, attributes often not found in textbooks or viewpoints often omitted” (pp. 260-261).

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Themes that emerge from published literature about Black male teachers include

  • increasing Black male teachers in schools for the benefit of Black (mostly male) students’ academic and social success (ethnic/gender matching),
  • understanding identity constructions (race, gender, sexual orientation) and the broader context of teaching,
  • critiquing of existing empirical and theoretical literature about the expectations, importance, and contributions of Black male teachers,
  • complicating common themes about practices of Black teachers, and
  • disrupting monolithic conceptions of Black male teachers and their potential contributions.

Connected to Easton-Brooks’ (2014) conceptualization of ethnic matching, Lewis (2006) rationalized demographic disconnections between Black male students in public schools and those teaching. At the time of the study, Black male teachers represented only 1% of the teaching force. After surveying 147 Black male teachers in three urban school districts in Louisiana, several strategies were identified that school districts could adopt and implement to increase the number of Black male teachers in PreK-12 schools. Based on his research, Lewis (2006) recommended the following strategies to increase the Black male teacher representation in schools:

  • Recruit teachers from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
  • Provide better benefits, higher salaries, and better working conditions.
  • Allow African American male teachers [who] are currently employed by school districts to be recruiters at job fairs.
  • Use the media (i.e., television, radio, and Internet) to better recruit African American males.
  • Provide equal opportunity based on true qualifications and not ‘who you know’ (p. 237).

Lewis’s research was mostly concerned with learning from Black male teachers themselves about why they teach, what brought them into teaching, and what mechanisms were in place to support their retention. The study also focused on how other institutions might learn from these Black teachers’ experiences to more broadly recruit Black male teachers. In another study that relied on the rich lived experiences of Black male teachers, Lynn (2006) provided portraits of three Black male teachers from the West Coast, highlighting their entrance into teaching and their culturally relevant pedagogical practices. Documenting the powerful life experiences and worldviews of these educators, Lynn determined that Black male educators “must be partners in our struggle to transform our world, one classroom at a time” (pp. 2519-2520). Hayes, Juarez, and Escoffery-Runnels (2014) continued this line of research showcasing the influence and effectiveness of Black male teachers and their practices. Building from hip-hop culture, Bridges (2011) identified three principles that shaped Black male teachers’ identities and practices in his study: (a) Call to Service, (b) Commitment to Self-Awareness, and (c) Resistance to Social Injustice. The guiding principles provided a conceptual framing from which others might learn in that it demonstrated how environments— sociopolitical contexts—can be constructed in ways that are “supportive for Black male teachers and increase the capacity of all teachers to effectively teach diverse student populations” (p. 325).

Building on the theme of the salience and importance of environment, Brockenbrough’s (2012) research focused on links between identity, race, sexuality, and gender as his study described how five Black queer male educators “negotiated pressures to keep their queerness in the closet” (p. 741). In this sense, this study extended the general body of research on Black teachers by looking systematically at how institutional and structures barriers can either propel or hinder teachers’ comfort and ability to display their queer identity. Woodson and Pabon (2016) build on the Black feminist tenet, heteropatriarchy, in their study of two Black male teacher candidates and one Black male teacher to make sense of these teachers’ experiences. The study demonstrated a “problematic relationship” between expected norms and interactions, making it difficult for them to practice diverse expressions of their race, sexual orientation and gender.

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Rezai-Rashti and Martino’s (2010) case study challenged and critiqued discourses about role modeling as a rationale to increase the Black male teaching force. The case study draws particular attention to limitations of conceptualizations of role modeling that Black male teachers supposedly provide for Black male students. Continuing this line of critique and complication of pervasive discourses about the role and status of Black teachers, Brown (2012) problematized the notion that Black male teachers are, or should be, central agents of social change for Black male students. He rationalized that “schools pay close attention to the varied knowledge and capacities of their Black male teachers beyond their assigned identity as role models, and allow them to play any number of roles in the life of the school” (p. 312).

Pabon (2016) disrupted and critiqued a “prevalent discourse among educational stakeholders [that] has suggested that Black male teachers are the key to helping students in urban schools develop skills to succeed in school by acting as role models” (p. 1). Rather than expecting Black male teachers to solve all of the problems in urban education, this study documented “historical and contemporary contexts that complicate their roles in schools” (p. 1). Established literature about Black teachers in general also highlighted disciplinary styles of Black teachers that often situate these teachers as stern and strict. Brockenbrough’s (2014) study

offers new insights into how Black male teachers negotiate their roles as disciplinarians, and it raises several questions that could drive future efforts to understand and support Black male teachers’ disciplinary practices in today’s urban schools. (p. 499)


As an analytic tool, culturally responsive pedagogy insists that teachers think carefully and deliberately about what they are teaching and why they are teaching it in a sociopolitical context. It provides researchers with an analytic space to build on the cultural assets and vantage points of students, families, and communities in the development and implementation of curriculum opportunities. Culturally responsive pedagogy stresses that teachers study their students (Ladson- Billings, 2009) and using students’ experiences as cultural data sets (Lee, 2007) to maximize students’ opportunities to learn. Gay (2010) stressed that culturally responsive teaching is the practice of pedagogy that centers classroom instruction through “multiethnic cultural frames of reference” (p. xxiii). In her words, Gay conceptualized culturally responsive teaching as

Using cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them. It teaches to and through the strengths of these students . . . [it] is the behavioral expressions of knowledge, beliefs, and values that recognize the importance of racial and cultural diversity in learning. (p. 31)

In fact, culturally responsive teaching situates culture as central, not tangential, to the teaching and learning exchange (Howard, 2010; Irvine, 2003; Milner, 2010).

In framing the principles of culturally responsive pedagogy, Gay outlines five conventions: (a) culture counts—in this way, the idea that culture should be viewed as an asset and complementary to the educational process is essential; (b) conventional reform is inadequate—Gay maintained that current efforts to reform schools have been underwhelming in terms of improvements for some of our most vulnerable students in schools. Thus, radical instructional reform (Milner, 2013) is necessary; (c) intention without action is insufficient—there is a strong practice and implementation aspect to the ways in which Gay frames culturally responsiveness; (d) strength and vitality of cultural diversity—the idea is that there is important value in diversity: “cultural diversity is a strength—a persistent, vitalizing force in our personal and civic lives” (Gay, 2010, p. 15); and (e) test scores and grades are symptoms, not causes, of achievement problems—centralizing the reality that culturally responsive pedagogical approaches pose the kinds of questions that address underlying reasons for challenges students face and not look at test scores and grades as the only, nor the main, data-point in understanding and responding to student challenges (Milner, 2013).

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Moreover, six tenets or principles shape culturally responsive teaching, according to Gay:

  • Culturally responsive teaching is validating: These pedagogical moves affirm and acknowledge the cultural backgrounds, experiences, worldviews, ideas, ideals, and values of students and their families. Validation also means that teachers understand and merge outside of school realities with those inside of school and work with not against student preferences and interests (Milner, 2013).
  • Culturally responsive teaching is comprehensive: This approach and practice to teaching takes a holistic view of student learning and development. Teachers understand and attempt to build on and respond to students “social, emotional, and political learning by using cultural resources to teach knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes” (p. 32). The idea here is that it is difficult to maximize student-learning opportunities when we are not attentive to other aspects of their humanity.
  • Culturally responsive teaching is multidimensional: Teachers understand that a range of their work has to be designed and redirected to address multiple modalities of student learning. Teachers understand that cultural responsiveness not only involves a rethinking and reformation of instructional practices but also shifts in cultural-centered “curriculum content, learning context, classroom climate, student-teacher relationships, instructional techniques, classroom management, and performance assessments” (p. 33).
  • Culturally responsive teaching is empowering: This approach and stance of teaching enables students to maximize their potential and to work towards excellence personally and with community. It pushes students to excel. In many ways, this approach “grants” students permission to success (Ladson-Billings, 2009) and to reach their full capacity.
  • Culturally responsive teaching is transformative: Instructional practices that are culturally responsive help students see themselves as community contributors—as change agents—capable of helping to improve the ethos of their experience. For example, students are taught to “analyze the effects of inequities on different ethnic individuals and groups, have zero tolerance for these, and become change agents committed to promoting greater equality, justice, and power balances” (Gay, 2010, p. 37).
  • Culturally responsive teaching is emancipatory: This stance of teaching facilitates a liberatory process of learning and development of students where they recognize the power of education and learning beyond satisfying predetermined sets of requirements in a classroom or school. In other words, students develop an emancipatory worldview of their experiences that reject too much schooling (Shujaa, 1998) in favor of education. Indeed, in the journey to work for emancipation in their communities, students come to understand that it is difficult to press toward freedom for others until one is liberated himself or herself (West, 1993). Freedom is an outcome of education, not schooling.

For the purposes of this analysis of Mr. Jackson’s talk and practices, I build on Gay’s first tenet: culturally responsive teaching is validating. I demonstrate the ways in which Mr. Jackson talks about his decisions and what he actually does to affirm his students. Such an emphasis is essential because for many students’ schools are designed to tear down, marginalize, and disrupt the very core of their beings; their language, cultural practices (Gutierrez & Rogoff, 2003), preferences, vantage points, and overall humanity. In essence, I make sense of the culturally responsive practices of this teacher, Mr. Jackson, drawing from the tenet of validation to elucidate Mr. Jackson’s talk and actions so that other teachers might learn from his practices and potentially transfer validation of students in other environments.


I conducted research at Bridge Middle School as I aspired to contribute to the important and developing literature on successful practices of teachers who teach students of color, those whose first language is not English, and those who live below the poverty line (Gay, 2010; Howard, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009). The focus on this single teacher is intentional and is, in fact, a design strength, not shortcoming (Milner, 2010; Milner & Woolfolk Hoy, 2003). The single case study allows researchers to examine a deeply rich level of nuance, idiosyncrasy, standpoint, and worldview that can be challenging with larger number of participants. For this study, the idea is not to generalize or compare across context. This deliberate research design allows for a level of insight that can result in a pedagogical space for those reading it to learn from and potentially transfer, not generalize, practices to their own realities and experiences—different from research designs examining larger

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numbers of people. Horava and Curran (2012) declared, “The interactive nature of case study analysis lends itself very well to the importance of active learning” (p. 2).

I wanted to learn about, study, and hear the stories of this teacher, Mr. Jackson, at Bridge Middle School to understand and describe how and why he succeeded there. Rather than focus solely on this teacher and characteristics of him, I was particularly interested in understanding, documenting and constructing a narrative that captures how he thought about his work (what he believed and how he talked about it) and what he actually did—his instructional practices in school. Also, I was interested in his struggles; what issues did this teacher experience that can shed light on the complexities of teaching and learning in an urban school and ultimately how did he work through those challenging situations? I conducted context observations in the teacher’s classroom as well as other contexts (Guba & Lincoln, 1994), analyzed documents and artifacts (Milner, 2007), and conducted interviews with him (Maxwell, 2013).

In general, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the context of the school to provide rich and deep details about the nature of the school and Mr. Jackson’s practices. I wanted to know what life was like for teachers and students not only in the classroom but also in other locations in the school. For instance, in terms of observations throughout the study, I attended and observed his math and science classes, attended other school-related activities, events, and spaces such as the Honor Roll Assembly, the library, and the cafeteria. In terms of document analyses, I reviewed his lesson plans, examined his goals for the academic year, and studied the science projects of his students. In addition to intense context observations and document analyses, I also conducted interviews with this Black male teacher. Interviews in qualitative research allow researchers and consumers of the research to listen “to the . . . voices of . . . others—hearing them as constructors, agents, and disseminators of knowledge” (Gallagher, 2007, p. 8). Some interviews are structured while others are semi-structured (Maxwell, 2013). I conducted two (one- to two-hour) interviews with this teacher, which were tape-recorded and transcribed. I conducted at least one-half dozen informal, semi- structured interviews with him where I recorded notes in my field notebook.

Typically, I was in the school for one-half day once per week. There were days when I was in the school for an entire day but I was usually there for half of a day. On some weeks, I was in the school two days. My visits were fairly consistent although there were a few weeks when I did not visit the school; for instance, there were weeks when I was out of town at professional conferences. At one point during the research process, I had an ankle injury that prevented my visitation for several weeks. The teacher shared his lesson plans, worksheets, and other materials to help me gain a deep understanding and knowledgebase relative to his work and thinking in the context during my absence. Although I participated in some of the classroom tasks, I was more of an observer than a participant. I observed and recorded notes in my field notebook.

Data were hand coded. Essentially, analysis followed a recursive, thematic process (Guba & Lincoln, 1994); as interviews and observations progressed, I used analytic induction and reasoning to develop thematic categories. Because findings were based largely on both observations and interviews, the patterns of thematic findings emerged from multiple data sources, resulting in triangulation. For instance, when this Black male teacher repeated a point several times throughout the study, this became what I called a ‘pattern.’ When what the teacher articulated during interviews also became evident in his actions or in their students’ actions, this resulted in what I called a ‘triangulational pattern.’

Bridge Middle School

Constructed in 1954, Bridge Middle School is an urban school in a relatively large city in the southeastern region of the United States. According to a Bridge County estate agent, houses in the community sell between $120,000 and $175,000. There is also a considerable number of rental houses zoned to the school. Many of the neighborhood students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and who are zoned to Bridge attend private and independent schools in the city rather than attend the public, Bridge Middle School. A larger number of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds attend the school. Bridge Middle School is considered a Title I school, which means

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that the school receives additional federal funding to assist students with instructional and related resources. During the time of the study, Bridge Middle School accommodated approximately 354 students: 59.8% of the students were African American, 5.6% Hispanic American, 31.6% White, .3% American Indian, and 2.8% Asian American. The free and reduced lunch rate was around 79%. There were 27 teachers at the school with 45% of the faculty being African American and 55% were White. Seven of the teachers were male and twenty were female.

I selected Bridge Middle School because it was known in the district as one of the ‘better’ middle schools in the urban area. For instance, I asked practicing teachers enrolled in my classes at the university to nominate (Ladson-Billings, 2009) ‘strong’ and some of the ‘better’ urban schools, and Bridge Middle School was consistently nominated. People in the supermarket would also mention Bridge as one of the better schools in the district. When I met with a school official at the district office in order to gain entry into a school, he also suggested Bridge as a place to work given my interest in documenting and describing effective practices of students in urban environments.

Bridge Middle School was known for competitive basketball, wrestling, track, and football teams. The school building was brick, and windows at the school were usually open during the summer and spring seasons. There is a buzzer at the main entrance of the school. Visitors ring the bell, are identified by a camera, and allowed in by one of the administrative staff in the main office. When I visited the school, I signed a logbook located in the main office and would proceed to classroom space, the library, auditorium or cafeteria. The floors in the hallways were spotless. There was no writing or graffiti on the walls. Especially during the month of February, Black history/heritage/celebration posters and bulletin boards occupied nearly all the wall space in the hallways.

The Participant

Mr. Jackson is an African American male mathematics and science teacher who had been teaching for seven years as a certified teacher but had been in the district for ten years as an assistant or substitute teacher. In his late 20s during the study, Mr. Jackson always wore a shirt, tie, and most of the time a suit jacket. He wore glasses and could be found standing in front of his classroom door between classes. He often reminded students (students whom he had taught as well as others) to “be mindful of the time” as he warned them not to be late for class. He had a deep love and appreciation for music, and this love and appreciation filtered into his teaching. In short, Mr. Jackson enjoyed jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, classical, and hip-hop music; music was almost always playing softly during his mathematics and science classes. A proud product of the hip-hop generation, Mr. Jackson thought deeply about his students’ interests and tried to make connections in his classroom with them. Mr. Jackson was consistently validating his students as those who were expert of their experience, those who mattered, and those from whom he could learn and respond to base on what they taught him.


In this section, I describe two interrelated ways in which Mr. Jackson talks about his practices that were indeed culturally responsive to his students and their contexts. I especially describe the ways in which he validates and affirms his students’ cultural experiences, interests, worldviews, and outside of school realities. In essence, what I learned as a researcher from this teacher’s practices was that affirmation for his students meant Mr. Jackson was learning about himself, as he was intentional about learning about and with his students. Thus, in a sense, student validation and his willingness to demonstrate that validation to them was a function of this teacher’s ability to understand himself, and validate his own thinking and actions that were sometimes inconsistent with others.

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Learning about and Immersion in Students’ Worlds as Validation in Culturally Responsive Teaching

Mr. Jackson did not attempt to devalue or take away his students’ culture or cultural practices. He practiced culturally responsiveness with his students by developing a deep framework for learning from them, and he did not assume that because they shared similarities they he automatically understood or would connect with them. Mr. Jackson acted as if his students actually mattered (Howard, 2010)—he saw them as assets with limitless potential, and he constructed learning opportunities for his students based on what they taught him. In this way, his learning from them was a form of validation. He validated that they were the experts of their own experiences and he listened to them, which was another form of validation. Mr. Jackson was intentional about learning about his students, their families, and communities as he responded to their needs. He realized that his students were “the best experts of their experiences.” His students seemed to willingly share and open up to him because Mr. Jackson did not develop an oppositional or in his words “judgmental” view of his students. What I learned was that Mr. Jackson had a deep level of interest in, knowledge about, and connections to the life experiences of his students. He was conscious of “what was going on in the students’ lives both inside and outside of the classroom,” and he worked very hard to make sure he “remained current” in what was happening in the students’ worlds, based on what they shared.

Mr. Jackson’s willingness to learn from students was tantamount to the learning from students that Gay (2010), Ladson-Billings (2009) and Lee (2007) stressed as essential to effective teaching and learning. In this sense, validation meant that Mr. Jackson found value in his students’ outside of school experiences and allowed them to “teach” him about them through their interactions. His willingness to learn from his students was also a form of validation of and for them—he realized he was not the only, nor the main, arbiter of knowledge and knowing (McCutcheon, 2002). In his words,

. . . Implement things from their world into their academic setting. So, if I am doing math problems, I am going to have problems with stuff that comes out of the rap world or the video game world . . . Just recently, our basketball team was doing really well, and I used the players in the math assignments, and that gets them engaged.

And Mr. Jackson was not talking about incorporating “their world” experiences from time to time in the learning that took place. Rather, he was referring to teachers’ actually “keeping their worlds” in the curriculum and teaching—consistently. From my observations, the students looked forward to word problems or examples with “real world” relevance. They would often correct what I would have classified as minor errors made about the number of points a player made, for instance, as Mr. Jackson attempted to reconstruct life situations at Bridge Middle School in the math instruction.

Although Mr. Jackson was immersed in the school community of Bridge Middle School, he was careful to allow his students to shepherd him through interests, values, and involvement that mattered most to them. He tried not to make assumptions—again, another example of his validation for the humanity of his students. His allowing students to dictate the direction of his practices in terms of what was most important simultaneously demonstrated culturally responsiveness and validation. Moreover, another form of validation that Mr. Jackson demonstrated was manifest in his deep immersion into the context of the school. Mr. Jackson did not see himself as a “spectator” in the context but as a “community member.” The basketball team’s success was “our” success, not only the students’ but as Mr. Jackson described it the “success of our entire community.” The success of the basketball team was a shared set of information that Mr. Jackson possessed along with his students, and there seemed to be a genuine level of connection as he and his students talked about who scored how many points, the next competitors “our team” would play, and whether a particular play was indeed a foul. This collective move of thinking and talking about his community could be seen as another form of validation.

In correcting Mr. Jackson during mistakes he made with math word problems, his students’ corrections of points scored in games or who scored the points may have seemed to be insignificant or trivial at best to others, but were a big deal to the students because it was their reality—a reality that was important to them: they wanted and expected the examples to tell the truth about their life

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worlds (from a phenomenological perspective). Mr. Jackson was responsive to their corrections and “got it right,” which again was a form of validation that I believe played a huge bearing on their decision to engage in the ethos of classroom. It is also logical that this validation allowed them to develop the kinds of relationships with Mr. Jackson essential to teaching and learning.

As mentioned in the previous extended passage, Mr. Jackson referenced the “rap world” and the “videogame world” of his students as essential to incorporate in the “lessons.” I wondered how Mr. Jackson was able to stay so current with what was happening with the middle school students with whom he worked. He was able to quote verses of hip-hop songs, lists of names of the most popular professional athletes, and had an idea of the latest movies that were out—he was, in a sense, immersed in pop culture. Hip-hop culture, some would argue, is a culture that allows youth to live and engage in customs and experiences that allow them to express themselves through music, film, art and other entities that can run counter to more mainstream and dominant forms of living and being in society. Hill (2009) explained that educators have successfully incorporated features of hip-hop culture in the PreK–12 classroom to make teaching and learning more relevant, responsive, and accessible to youth. From Hill’s perspective, hip-hop can be used to “improve student motivation, teach critical media literacy, foster critical consciousness, and transmit disciplinary knowledge” (p. 2).

In an interview, Mr. Jackson explained why he believed he was so connected to the world of his students:

The reason I know what is happening in their world is that I live in their world. I have a fourteen year old; I have an eleven year old; I have an eight year old. I know the world they came from with my eight year old, and I know where they are with my eleven year old . . . I know where they are going with my fourteen year old. Because I teach in middle school, I am right around eleven and twelve year old range [students]…And I am a D.J.—I like the rap music myself. I play rap music. I feel like a kid at heart sometimes, so I kind of stay in touch with them in that way too . . .

The validation and connections he seemed to possess with his own biological children were evident in the ways in which his students participated in class and the kinds of relationships he had with them. Students appeared confident to share their multiple and varied identities in the classroom with Mr. Jackson---even when others in the math classroom did not understand their response. They not only talked with Mr. Jackson about math and science, they would talk with him about the NFL game that was on the previous evening. They would ask him if he had seen the latest episode of a particular television show. Again, these discursive interactions where Mr. Jackson engaged in conversations with them about sports, television shows, and so forth, demonstrated that their cultural practices were legitimate. [Some] “Other teachers in the school,” according to Mr. Jackson were not “vibing with the kids like that”—where they could talk about sports and such. It is important to note that Mr. Jackson did not believe that it was impossible for other teachers to build this validation for students through immersing themselves in students’ worlds—even if they did not have children around the same age as the students at Bridge Middle School. To the contrary, he believed that teachers “could learn about” the world of “our students” and use what they learn to enhance the learning that would take place in the classroom:

You have to immerse yourself in their world in some form or fashion. I am just lucky to come from the world that I teach in. I came from that world. I truly live in that world, so I am immersed already in my natural life. So if I were in a system [a different school] where the students came from a different world, I would just have to immerse myself in their world.

In other words, he did not believe that teachers should make “excuses” for why they did not learn about and engross themselves in the worlds of their students. He asserted: “You have to understand their desires, wants, and needs and dislikes . . . You have to implement that in your academics because if they are not interested, then they are not going to learn.”

In addition to immersing himself in his students’ world, Mr. Jackson had a genuine interest in and affection for music, and he used this love and appreciation in his work as a teacher. Mr. Jackson

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believed that teachers should use what they have (themselves) as assets just as he believed teachers should allow students to use what they have in the classroom as assets. One asset that Mr. Jackson brought into the classroom was knowledge of and an interest in (hip-hop) music. This love of hip- hop, according to Mr. Jackson, was shared by many of the students and him.

Music Interests as Validation in Culturally Responsive Teaching

Mr. Jackson was almost always playing some type of music in the classroom, and students from other classes would stop by and look in his classroom—just to see what was being played on any particular day. In many situations, Mr. Jackson was playing instrumental music, but at other times he would play R & B and on fewer occasions hip-hop. In many ways, Mr. Jackson was validating the interests of his students in that he recognized “the art” and value of music that his students listened to and preferred. Rather than frowning upon what students enjoyed, in this sense, he affirmed it, and this allowed him to develop some powerful relationships with his students. An important point here is that this reality—that Mr. Jackson listened to rap and hip hop—does not mean all other teachers should. The point is that there appeared to be a powerful level of validation and connectedness when this teacher did not ridicule or dismiss what the students chose to listen to. When asked about the relevance and reasoning behind his implementation of music in the classroom, Mr. Jackson said:

Well, it’s nothing new. It was actually used in ancient Egypt [Africa] where they used drums and instruments in the classroom. I do it for a couple reasons. Number one reason is kind of selfish—I like it .

. . its like people like to go take smoke breaks or eat chocolate—I like to listen to music. And, it soothes me.

An important dimension of Mr. Jackson’s validation for his students was the fact that he enjoyed the music and was drawn to it himself as well. Therefore, the fact that students were able to see themselves in him could serve as an important validation aspect for students. Moreover, Mr. Jackson’s self-validation likely was advantageous for students in that they, again, could see themselves in their teacher who was Black, male, and enjoyed hip-hop.

Recognizing that some would be critical of the music implementation in his classes, he was overt in sharing that he was not only playing hip-hop or R & B in his classes:

It’s usually jazz, sometimes some soft rock, [or] some soft R & B, but it’s usually jazz, occasionally classical. The research states that when you play soft music, it calms students down and if you continue to play it, it kind of works as association—when students take tests, and you play the same songs [as what was played when covering the knowledge in class] they can remember something about the assignment [or content/knowledge] through the sound of the song—through association.

The students enjoyed the class perhaps because the teacher offered something different than what typically happened in other classrooms where students come in, sit down, listen to a lecture, do worksheets, and are dismissed (Haberman, 1991). I would hear students in the hallway or in the cafeteria report that they were ready to “get to Jackson’s class.” They were eager to find out what was going to happen on any given day.

There was a relationship component to the ways in which Mr. Jackson incorporated music in the classroom. He and his students would talk about the latest Jay Z music that had been released or who/which artists were coming to the city for concerts. But he also attempted to bridge learning opportunities with music. For instance, one learning opportunity through a game that the students really enjoyed was what Mr. Jackson called Science Feud. During these “feuds,” Mr. Jackson would not play soft music or even the instrumentals for R & B or rap; he would play music that students could dance to—music that was relevant and responsive to student interests. And the students loved it. As an observer, it was on these days that students tended to be most present—cognitively, emotionally, and physically there—and participate in the context of the environment in productive ways.

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Mr. Jackson explained the structure and relevance of the game, which perhaps, was not that innovative. Similar to the popular TV game show Family Feud, students would essentially answer questions that he would pose about some aspect of science that had already been covered previously in the class. The game served as a form of review for upcoming in-class examinations. The ‘hook’ was not necessarily that Mr. Jackson was playing music during the game as this was the case on the game show on television, too where they played square-dance music. The hook was the particular type of music being played which made the students feel validated and affirmed because finally they were experiencing a classroom situation that was consistent with their interests. It was the kind of music that the students wanted to hear; it was consistent with what they listened to during their free time at school and also what they listened to outside of school. It was the kind of music that made the students want to be in the teacher’s class.

As each student walked up to the front of the room to answer the ‘survey’ question during Science Feud, Mr. Jackson played some music that the students enjoyed, typically R & B or hip-hop. In Mr. Jackson’s words,

I’ll stop the music, and I’ll ask a question and they [the students] have to hit the table. The first one to hit the table and get the answer correct gets a point. And the team that wins, I’ll let them leave class early or get to leave first or whatever. The sixth graders I had who are now in seventh or eighth grade—they’ll still come by when I have it going on and they say “I wanna play, I wanna play.” They like it.

So, while the students enjoyed playing the game because they wanted to listen to the music, Mr. Jackson told me that they actually studied. The “hook” was the incorporation of the genre of music in the activity that the students appreciated and found relevant and responsive. In essence—finally— from my view, the students felt validated; like they could relax a bit, while still working hard to build knowledge and learn the content that had been covered.


In this article, I develop Gay’s (2010) first tenet: culturally responsive teaching as validating through a culturally responsive pedagogical lens. I attempt to show practices of this tenant as I demonstrate the ways in which Mr. Jackson talks about his practice and what he actually does to affirm and validate his students. In essence, I make sense of the culturally responsive practices of this teacher, drawing mostly from the tenet of validation to provide an illustrative snapshot of Mr. Jackson’s talk and actions so that other educators might learn from his practices and potentially transfer dimensions of their own practices. Because teachers in particular may struggle to understand what culturally responsive teaching looks like in practice, I attempt to provide an example of a real teacher—a Black male, middle school math and science teacher—in an urban environment. But my point is not that other teachers should attempt to be Mr. Jackson or to do exactly what he does. Teachers should examine and make connections to the particulars of this case and their realities. The case study method allows for such connections because it shepherds readers into storylines that allows them to see themselves in the particulars and make adjustments in ways that make sense for their own work lives. In reference to culturally responsiveness and student validation, this study demonstrates several important features:

  • Student validation for Mr. Jackson was a function of his own learning, development and personal affirmation. In other words, Mr. Jackson had to deepen his own self-knowledge in the midst of respecting and learning from his students. It may be difficult for teachers to develop validating discursive and classroom practices when they are not comfortable with their own identities and worldviews which may be consistent (or inconsistent) with those of their students.
  • Mr. Jackson did not make assumptions about what his students needed and who his students were in his pursuit of constructing culturally responsive practices with them. He learned from them and with them as he demonstrated affirmation for and affinity toward them.
  • Affirmation demonstration for his students manifested in what Mr. Jackson did, not only what he said to and about them. Mr. Jackson recognized the necessity to connect with his students in building

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relationships with them, and he used these connections as a foundation for teaching the math and science curriculum.

  • Finally, Mr. Jackson’s validation was manifest in his willingness to learn from his students, to learn with them, and to immerse himself in the broader school community. He did not see himself as a “spectator” but community member in the broader ethos of the school. Moreover, he allowed his students to correct him when he got it wrong and validated their existence through situations that may have seemed trivial.

Three principles are essential as they have emerged from this study: (a) teachers must remember the importance of identity in education—their own as well as their students (Irvine, 2003; Milner, 2008); (b) teachers must deeply understand and remember the social context of their work—the ethos of a school, district, and community influence validation and affirmation of students (Milner, 2010); and (c) teachers must remember the interrelated nature of the mind and heart in education—teaching and learning are connected to the affective and cognitive domains of students’ experiences.

Teachers are racial and cultural beings just as their students are. In the midst of discourses and scholarship that question unrealistic expectations of Black male teachers, studies are still needed that capture the nature of their practices in classroom settings as other teachers may learn from them. Moreover, examining the practices of Black male teachers and engaging them practices of deep self- reflection (Milner, 2010), can help them improve their personal practices. We know that who teachers are, what they experience, and the stories they tell often find themselves in the fabric of their work with students (Foster, 1997; Lewis, 2006; Lynn, 2006). In this way, teaching is almost always a personal and political endeavor (Freire, 1998). And teaching is political work. In this sense, more studies of Black male teachers’ work and experiences are needed as such examinations can complement and enhance our knowledge about the intersection(s) of teacher racial and ethnic identity, curriculum, and the social context of teaching and learning. We need to know more about how Black male teachers negotiate, develop, implement and perceive the curriculum, as well as persevere, in different contexts. In addition to focusing on the socially constructed categories of race and gender, studies need to also consider social class and their interrelationship of these identity characteristics to advance the field (Milner, 2015).


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H. RICHARD MILNER is Helen Faison Professor of Urban Education, Professor of Sociology, Social Work, and Africana Studies, and Director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh.

All comments and queries regarding this article should be addressed to [email protected]

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