The Minority Male Principal
by Baruti Kafele Very soon after becoming a classroom teacher, I had my eye on the principalship. I was literally obsessed with my pursuit of the principalship. While in my pursuit, however, it was clear that once I became a principal, I was going to join the ranks of a disproportionately small population of educators – the Black male principal. It was quite clear to me that once I became a principal, I was inheriting a responsibility that many of my counterparts didn’t necessarily have. At the time, I was a teacher in a city in New Jersey that was about 98% Black. Throughout the U.S., the majority of Black households are female-dominated, where the father is absent. This leaves young Black males in an ongoing search for male role models that “look like them.” I knew that as a new principal, in addition to all of my other responsibilities of a principal which include the accompanying pressures, demands and challenges, my number one priority as far as I was concerned was to be a role model to the hundreds of boys who were enrolled in my school. In my travels as an education consultant, I am extremely cognizant of the racial, gender identity of the principal. In many cases, I am invited to work with schools that have large Black and/or Latino student populations. It is rare that the racial/ethnic composition of the staff is reflective of these populations. Knowing that so many of the children are going home to fatherless homes, I am left to wonder who the role models for these children are. Of course, the staff populations are quite capable of fulfilling this role. My concern is the extent to which the students see their teachers and leaders as realistic role models for them. In other words, if the children are growing up in environments where they are not seeing a preponderance of individuals who “look like them,” and who have experienced success as a result of education, to what extent are their non-minority teachers and leaders role models that the students can truly relate to and identify with? Asked differently, to what extent do the students see themselves in their teachers and leaders? When I became a principal, I knew and understood my role as the role model of my students. I knew that all eyes were on me. This meant that as I conducted my responsibilities daily, I had to additionally consider that my students were watching me -- particularly my boys. They were watching what I do and listening to what I say. In many cases, they were hanging on to my every word. I had to be that male role model for so many of them who, in the majority of cases, didn’t have a male role model in their homes or a positive one in their communities. School districts across the country must concern themselves with minority male representation at the building leadership levels for the aforementioned reasons. With schools of majority minority populations, this is imperative. So many minority male youth settle for underachievement in part due to a belief that education isn’t necessarily a viable vehicle to success. Minority male representation in leadership provides minority male role models but simultaneously provides minority male perspectives for the young men as well. For example, during my tenure as principal, particularly at the high school level, I launched a Young Men’s Empowerment Program. The purpose of this program was to help my males of all races and ethnicities to make the transition from boys to men. Everything we did centered around the following five strands:
- What does it look like to be a man in relationship to himself?
- What does it look like to be a man in relationship to women?
- What does it look like to be a man in relationship to his children?
- What does it look like to be a man in relationship to other men?
- What does it look like to be a man in relationship to his community?
This program was an overwhelming success throughout the six years that I was principal of Newark Tech High School. We were extremely proud of the more than evident growth and development of our boys into young men by the time of graduation. My point in referencing the Young Men’s Empowerment Program is that I as a Black male principal brought a certain perspective to my practice which went far beyond student achievement. I looked at my boys through the lenses of a Black male who too grew up without a father in my home and the myriad of challenges it brought to my teenage years. For the Young Men’s Empowerment Program to work, I had to go out into the community and literally recruit a large number of men to be a part of our program. These were men from the same communities of my students that they could certainly relate to and identify with. They provided my students with information and inspiration that, in some cases, they may have never received in their lifetimes. This program made a difference and it grew out of my perspective as a Black male principal. It is in my judgment that school districts consider who their school leaders are in relationship to their students, in particular as it relates to the specific challenges of their schools. In so many cases, it’s not the reform models that are going to bring about desired change. It’s the person leading the building. This selection can never be taken for granted. The opinions expressed here are solely those of Baruti Kafele. Read Rod Berger's interview with Principal Kafele. Baruti Kafele is a highly-regarded urban public school educator in New Jersey for over twenty years, Principal Baruti Kafele distinguished himself in the classroom and as a school leader. As an elementary school teacher in East Orange, NJ, he was selected as the East Orange School District and Essex County Public Schools Teacher of the Year. As a principal, he led the transformation of four different schools, including “the mighty” Newark Tech, which went from a low- performing school in need of improvement to recognition by U.S. News and World Report Magazine as one of America's best high schools. Currently, Principal Kafele is one of the most sought-after speakers for transforming the attitudes of at-risk student populations in America. He is the author of seven books on this topic which includes recent released tilte, The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence. He hosts his own YouTube channels, including "Principal Kafele Speaks to Educators." He is also the recipient of over one hundred educational, professional and community awards which include the National Alliance of Black School Educators Hall of Fame Award, the Milken National Educator Award, and the New Jersey Education Association Award for Excellence.