William White | Working to Benefit Black Boys

July 25, 2023

A fraternity brother from Virginia State University convinced William to follow his passion for teaching children. He was majoring in political science and planned to be a lawyer at the time. Yet his heart had always been in education. “My mother taught children in kindergarten through second grade, so education was in my blood,” he says, “and I worked as a substitute teacher for a while after finishing college. Then my fraternity brother urged me to stop running away from the field that gave me a sense of purpose. So, I went back to Virginia State and earned a degree in early childhood special education.”

It was also a way to combine his interest in political science with his love for the education field. “When I studied political science,” he says, “a lot of my class work dealt with education issues like the inequities of teacher preparation programs and the overrepresentation of Black boys in special education programs”—problems he now addresses as director of My Brother’s Teacher at the University of Washington College of Education.

The mission of my Brother’s Teacher is to increase the number of Black and brown early childhood teachers through an innovative fellowship program. The program aims to bring diversity to the early childhood field by recruiting male high school students of color and having them complete college coursework in early childhood education. Young men accepted into the program receive 60 service-learning hours and ongoing mentorship for their work. In addition, the program provides fellows, as it calls the students, with continued support to earn college degrees.

Many of the young men who William supports faced challenges in their early years, as William knows. And he attributes it to the teaching representation gap in our schools. “We know that 80 percent of the country’s teachers are white women, but over 50 percent of school-aged kids are children of color, and most are Black and Latinx,” he explains. “Teachers often don’t know how to be culturally responsive to their students of color. And as a result, conscious and unconscious bias is present in classrooms every day. Statistically speaking that means you have more young Black learners being disciplined and put in special education though they don’t really need it,” an issue that’s concerned him as an adult.

Still, in his early years, William had the fortune to escape the bias that Black boys often face. “As a boy in the eighties, I knew what racism was,” he says, “but I was guarded from it because of my mother’s role in the community where we lived. I grew up in Virginia, and she was a teacher in the school I attended from kindergarten to fifth grade. Then when I went to another school, all my teachers there knew who my mother was. So, if I ever had a problem, they would call her, and she would resolve the issue.”

That didn’t stop William from struggling in high school since his teachers often failed to give him the stimulation and encouragement that he needed to reach his promise. “Honestly, I was not a great student at the time,” he admits. “And when I look back on my high school years, I realize what the problem was: I was bored,” he says. At the same time, he was bright, as he went on to show by earning his college degree and ultimately his Ph.D. at the University of Washington College of Education.

Now he teaches early learning courses at North Seattle College in ways that make learning exciting for students. “My goal is to make sure they get a wide range of experiences,” he says, “so my students don’t just sit there and hear me speak. I bring in researchers from across the country and give students the chance to see other people of color who are professors. I bring in people who work on federal policy, so my students can have role models to make them dream big. And I try to make my curriculum relevant to my students, so they see that learning can be fun.”

Some of the students he teaches at North Seattle College are part of My Brother’s Teacher, which he started three years ago while doing his doctoral work in early childhood special education. The program is a collaboration among the University of Washington College of Education, North Seattle College, Seattle Preschool Program and Seattle Public Schools, William explains. “We have cohorts of 30 students who are fully funded to complete their bachelor’s at North Seattle College and then move on to the University of Washington for their master’s in education. We also support the fellows in earning the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™, which allows them to earn college credits while they’re still in high school. And I see my role as breaking down roadblocks for Black male teachers to rise in the education profession.”

So, he strives to give the fellows every type of support they need during college and while they’re applying for jobs. “Besides finding them scholarships, we provide them with laptops and blazers they can wear while interviewing for work,” he says. “And our mentorship extends beyond their professional lives. We also give them mental health support by having a therapist on call 24/7. So, if a fellow has a personal crisis or just needs someone to talk to, I’ll call up the therapist and set up sessions for the fellow to discuss his struggles.”

And all the support the young men receive has made the program a huge success, William is pleased to see. “We have students who have successfully graduated from college. We have students who have earned master’s degrees and are now special education teachers, a field of particular interest to William since he spent 10 years teaching special ed classes for elementary school children. And while doing that, he realized that many of the young students didn’t really belong in his class.

“I remember having fifth-grade children brought to me by teachers who complained that the children caused problems and couldn’t learn,” William says. “Yet after being in my classroom for a while, they passed the state assessment tests for mainstream students. They weren’t even eligible to take the tests. But I lobbied for them to take the tests and gave them extra coaching. As a result, the students exceeded what any of the other teachers ever expected of them.”

Many teachers have especially low expectations for Black boys, William explains. “So, the boys are constantly mislabeled as out of control or having ADHD.” And the solution, as he points out, is to have more Black teachers. “Research shows that Black children who have one Black teacher by third grade are less likely to be suspended and to be put in special education. They’re also more likely to graduate college.” So, William is committed to giving the children a fair shot at success by increasing the pool of Black male teachers. And he has opened doors for young Black men like Elijah who never considered a career in education.

“Elijah,” as William recalls, “had been home babysitting his sister during the pandemic when his mom told him about My Brother’s Teacher. At the time, he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to attend college, but he joined our program and wound up sticking with us. He joined my classes at North Seattle College and now he has a full-time job teaching special needs children at the University of Washington. He finished college without any debt, thanks to our program, and now he’s thinking about getting a master’s degree.”

Watching young men like Elijah succeed makes William feel he has succeeded. So, he takes extra steps to keep them engaged and make them see learning really can be fun. “As part of the internship,” he says, “we go to different preschools across Washington State, where we have the fellows do fun activities like building rocket ships or conducting science experiments with the children. We’ve taken over 500 people to football games. We’ve taken over 200 people to baseball games, the aquarium and the zoo. In addition, we hold monthly meetings, where our mental health counselor has spoken several times on topics that concern our fellows, like the grief some of them felt after losing family members to COVID.”

Filling so many needs for the fellows isn’t easy, William admits, especially since his program has only two full-time staff members. “We meet with potential fellows every day. We find scholarships for them, and we talk with them on the phone at night if they need help signing up for college classes. We find housing for fellows without homes, and we’re always looking for funding to keep the program going. It’s draining because applicants are pouring in and we’re going 24 hours a day,” William says. But he knows the result of his work will make all the effort worthwhile. Helping his Black brothers to become teachers will benefit young Black boys by breaking down the barriers they face.


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