Mike S. Browne | Thoughts on Community, Creativity and Culture

June 21, 2023

Mike wants to cultivate learning by advancing equity for young Black boys. And he’s not just working to get them kindergarten ready, a much-discussed goal in the early learning field. “My goal is to prepare them for lifelong success and allow them to reach their dreams,” Mike explains. And as he works to guide them into the future, he’s inspired by his own past. “The dreams I had as a young Black boy,” he says, “are still informing me today.”  

Mike now serves as senior director of Cultivate Learning, a research and training program based at the University of Washington education department in Seattle. He provides direction to help the early learning field shift its culture to meet equity goals. He develops and provides training that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion. He assists staff at Cultivate Learning in communicating with the public. And he is co-host of Parallel Play, a podcast funded by the Office of Head Start. “In each episode,” he says, “I discuss the ways adults can support young children in their physical, social and emotional growth.” 

So, Mike has come a long way from the young boy who posed a challenge to his teachers. “I was a terror in school,” as he admits. “I fidgeted in class and was always getting in trouble. I often missed playtime because my teachers couldn’t deal with me and sent me to detention,” punitive treatment that’s inflicted on too many young Black boys. And the way teachers deal with them ignores the challenges that the boys often face outside of school, as Mike knows from his early years. “I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I often came to school hungry, so it was hard to sit still.” 

In addition, Mike’s parents were rarely available for the teachers to talk to them about their son’s challenging behavior. “It wasn’t because they were bad parents or caregivers,” he explains. “The problem was that my parents were immigrants from the island of Antigua who had to work two or three jobs to provide for me, so it was hard for them to come to school. Instead, it was almost always my godmother or my barber who took me back and forth to school and came to parent-teacher meetings.” 

The barber was willing to fill in for young Mike’s mom and dad because the Black community has a sense of family that goes beyond blood relatives, grownup Mike explains. “When we talk about family in the Black community,” he says, “we should include people like my barber or a person at the corner store who gives you a honey bun because they can see you’re hungry. They’re all willing to help you get to school and lend you the support you need.” 

So, the community gave Mike a lot of help, and his parents also left an imprint, despite being so busy making ends meet. “When I was growing up,” he says, “my mother was a family child care provider, and I served as her assistant while my friends were outside playing on the street.” As a result, Mike always had an affinity for the early learning field, though he didn’t pursue it as his first profession. “As a child of immigrants, who struggled to give you a better life, you’re under pressure to go to become a doctor, lawyer or some other lucrative profession. So, after college and getting my MBA, I worked in international marketing and communications. Yet my heart was never really in it,” Mike says. And while in school or between jobs, he sometimes returned to his first love by serving as a nanny and doing other work that involved young children.  

That gave him joy, and after a few years, he made a leap of faith by pivoting in his career. “I realized that making money for a CEO I had never met wasn’t what made me happy. What fills my cup is serving my community by serving its children”—a key way to advance equity and social justice. “If you want to know how a community is doing, you need to ask how its children are doing,” Mike points out. It follows that the Black community suffers when many of its boys can’t fulfill their dreams. 

So, Mike made a commitment to guide them through the challenges that he faced in his early years. “And one of the role models who has inspired me in this work,” he says, “is Miss Cortina, my pre-K and kindergarten teacher. She understood the issues that outside Mike struggled with when he stepped inside the classroom, so she didn’t simply view me as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. She crafted a classroom environment that encompassed the values and ideas I had picked up from the community where I lived. She allowed her classes a great deal of freedom to select the projects they worked on and learn in ways that are familiar to young Black and brown boys”—something teachers need to do more of, Mike pleads, instead of obsessing over test scores and getting the kids kindergarten ready. 

He also believes teachers need to bring in knowledge from the communities where children live. “For example, we talked about light in Miss Cortina’s class,” Mike recalls, “and she brought in a Black electrician to talk to us about light. He discussed things that aren’t taught in books and that got our attention. Then we connected light to other aspects of life that were related to our identity as members of the Black community.” And Mike has also used this flexible, free-ranging approach in his practice as an early childhood teacher. “Teachers don’t have to follow a straight path out to get their agenda right,” he learned from his lived experience in the classroom. 

“I gave the children opportunities to talk about subjects that mattered to them,” he says, “and one day I planned to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., but they wanted to talk about the water shortage in Flint, Michigan, a mainly Black city. So, I changed the day’s activities to have them focus on Flint. I also managed to find ways to connect the conversation we were having about Flint to Martin Luther King, Jr. and our Black and brown identities. So, I was able to let the children be creative while giving them lessons in history and social justice.” 

Teachers also need lessons in social justice, so Mike’s current focus at Cultivate Learning is to show teachers how racism shows itself in our early childhood setting. It’s there in the hypervigilance that young Black boys often come under and in the constant discipline that he personally endured as a young boy. “If you’re making children feel like they don’t belong in the classroom, that’s an exclusionary practice,” he says. 

And teachers need a better understanding of what racism looks like so they can change their practice. Teachers unwittingly act in a racist way when they let white children off the hook for acting out while punishing Black children for the same behavior, Mike explains. “They also do it by ignoring Black boys when they raise their hands in class and by yelling at them repeatedly instead of gently saying, ‘Let’s have a conversation.’” 

Teachers sometimes make these mistakes with young Black boys, as Mike sees when observing early childhood classrooms. He videotapes what takes place in the classes as part of his work training teachers. “Then the teachers watch the videotapes,” he says, “and this gives them a fresh perspective on how they might be treating a child poorly and fix what they’re doing wrong.”  

Doing it right begins by understanding where the child is coming from, as Mike explains. “You can’t just come into the classroom and plop down a curriculum without knowing the social context of the children who you serve. Children can’t always tell us what they need in words. Instead, they tell us through their behavior, and no behavior is random. When a young boy can’t control his body, like I couldn’t as a boy, a teacher should ask whether he’s hungry and try to find out what’s going on at home. We need to learn more about children than what’s on their enrollment application. We need to find out about what happens to children when they’re not in your classroom.” And that matters, as Mike knows from thinking back to his early years. “I was a child of poverty, but few of my teachers took the time to understand my situation.” 

So, Mike urges teachers to shift their mindset when they think about so-called “challenging behavior” in a classroom. “As teachers, we need to realize how a situation might not only be difficult for us,” he says. “It might also be difficult for a child.” And having this sense of empathy requires us to acknowledge the impact of their outside lives on their actions inside school. “This might give teachers a new take on what they consider challenging behavior.” So, the challenge for teachers is to acknowledge children’s lived experiences and their community’s culture in the classroom, he says. “We must “teach through the culture and not to the culture” if we are to give Black boys a chance to reach their dreams.  

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