Early teaching experiences inspire study on black males’ perception of high school success

Like most new teachers, Melissa Singleton entered her first classroom 17 years ago with high expectations for her students’ success. What she didn’t expect were cultural barriers that would shape the topic of her doctoral dissertation study at UF’s College of Education.

Singleton, who graduated recently with her Ph.D. in educational leadership, said she had trouble communicating with most of her students as a novice teacher because she wasn’t in tune with their ethnic backgrounds.

Melissa Singleton

Her students, mostly African American, used words like “flawjin’” and other slang that Singleton had never heard before. She reached out to one of her students to teach her current slang and help her understand their music, hairstyles and fashion. Turns out “flawjin’” means to put on a front. Singleton learned more teen pop-culture lingo, listened to her students’ music and allowed them to pick her nail polish if they did well on their tests. She even learned the crochet method of hair braiding that was popular among black girls.

“You talk about teaching moments, but you have learning moments as teachers, too,” Singleton said.

She always took the time to connect with her students—whom she affectionately refers to as “my kids”– because she knew that was the only way she could gain the credibility and trust needed to motivate them.  The relationship-forming didn’t take too much time, either. She’d eat lunch with her students or talk with them in the classroom, hallway or during planning periods.

Singleton taught subjects from math to reading in regular and special education classrooms at several schools before her promotion in 2010 to assistant principal at Kanapaha Middle School in Gainesville, where she continued to work while pursuing her doctorate at UF.

It was her early, challenging teaching experiences that inspired her dissertation research on black males’ perception of their high school success. She wanted to know why some African-American male students were responsive and successful in her class and not in other subjects.

She interviewed and held focus groups with seven randomly selected, black male students from a North Central Florida high school, all with different backgrounds: some came from stable families and others came from living situations that would make graduating high school seem like an insurmountable feat.

The seven black males in her study agreed that academic success, to them, meant having a 2.5 grade point average, which amounts to As and Bs with a few Cs, and being able to play sports, which requires at least a 2.0 GPA. Even though none of the students averaged at least 2.5, they all said it is something they’d like to achieve.

From her research, Singleton concluded that family, educational and peer relationships all play a part in a student’s success. All seven students agreed that the relationship with their teachers profoundly influences their academic success.

“Students work for teachers who make them feel good about themselves,” said Linda Behar-Horenstein, a  UF distinguished teaching scholar and professor in higher education administration and Singleton’s doctoral chair. She said Singleton’s research reinforces the importance of relationships between teachers and students and cultural awareness.

One student in Singleton’s study, referring to a teacher he didn’t get along with, said, “I was failing her class because I couldn’t stand her. I don’t like English, and she wasn’t patient and always had an attitude; it was like somebody stomped on her foot or something every time I saw her.”

That same student–the son of a single mother in jail, being raised by his 21-year-old sister with two young children of her own, said school was the only place he could get away from the drama and chaos in his home life. Yet he was failing some of his favorite courses because he was taken out of school so often to take care of his sister’s kids.

Behar-Horenstein said teachers should realize that when students are rude, it’s cause for a conversation to understand why the student is behaving that way. She said it doesn’t take time or money to do that, it just takes an “I want to” from the teacher.

After her study, Singleton concludes that teaching is about relationships and trust; she incorporates her findings into her job as assistant principal. She suggests school administrators should provide group training to prepare teachers to be better relationship builders with all students.

“There has to be a way to teach relationship building and cultural awareness,” Singleton said. “Everyone can grow – from the top down.”

She said that while her study focused on black males, the findings transcend race, culture and ethnic background.

“Educators must be able to understand students as individuals,” she said. “We have to be able to meet them where they are– academically, personally and emotionally. Only then can we help them reach their greatest potential.”

Jessica Bradley, student intern, news & communications, UF College of Education, 273-4449
Larry Lansford, director, news & communications, UF College of Education, 352-273-4137; llansford@coe.ufl.edu