Train the Janitor: An Out-of-the-Box Approach for Black Male Success

10/02/2015 03:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This post is co-authored with Frank Harris III - Associate Professor, Postsecondary Education at San Diego State University.

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Let's be honest, the current interventions and strategies focused on Black boys and men in education are not working. From elementary school to doctoral study, Black males in school settings are often marginalized, typically alienated, and repeatedly treated with hostility. The tangible byproduct of the emotional violence endured by these boys and men is seen in disparate standardized test scores, graduation rates, and learning outcomes. Changing the disastrous schooling experiences of Black males in education will require significantly different approaches to advance their success. Yes, out-of-the-box strategies must emerge to advance the protracted battle for Black male success. In hope of spurring a greater dialogue on new approaches to old problems, we offer one seemingly simple approach for enhancing Black male success in education - we call it 'train the janitor'. More specifically, we recommend that schools and colleges consider training janitors, custodians, maintenance staff, groundskeepers, and food service workers to provide educational guidance and emotional support to boys and men of color.

Black males in school settings are often marginalized, typically alienated, and repeatedly treated with hostility

This recommendation emerges from our research on Black men in community colleges, where we found that many men noted having little to no interactions with their faculty members, especially outside of class. Men reported that faculty avoided having interactions with them on campus. Instead of engaging men in conversations or acknowledging their presence with a smile or nod; students noted that some faculty walked the other direction, put their heads down to avoid eye contact, or 'pretended' to be on their phones. In the study, Black men noted that while they had few interactions with faculty, they had routine and meaningful relationships with janitors, custodians, maintenance staff, groundskeepers, and food service workers. They noted that these individuals were more likely than their faculty to interact with them and encourage them with messages such as "you can do it", "I'm proud of you", "keep your head in the books", or to ask them "how are you doing"? Through observations on campus, we quickly learned one key fact about these staff members, they were more likely to share a common racial heritage with Black males than their faculty.

Leverage proven relationships rather than waiting for unproven ones to magically transform

Given the ubiquitous research which demonstrates the importance of validating messages and checking in on student performance, we believe it is imperative to provide development opportunities to these 'change agents' to better empower them to continue supporting males of color who may not receive similar support from their faculty. This approach effectively does one thing- leverages proven relationships rather than waiting for unproven ones to magically transform. This point is not to disparage or disregard the admirable work of some teachers and professors who already work well with males of color but to expand the pool of educators that do so by radically transforming our perceptions of who is an educator. Leveraging proven relationships means making change now and facing the stark truth that some faculty are unwilling to support Black males. Others who are may need years of proficiency training to gain the necessary fluidity to do so.

The scope of the development could range and can be context specific, but it could certainly include training on the importance of validation, belonging, mattering, healthy identity development, and strategies for creating welcoming school and college climates. Moreover, such training for high school and college staff could also include information on key support services on campus that address challenges they may face, the location of these services and an understanding of how to access these resources. Professional development activities that enable these 'change agents' to provide academic guidance could also be useful. In certain situations, 'train the janitor' could mean wholly new professional development structures or simply the integration of janitors, custodians, maintenance staff, groundskeepers, and food service workers into existing professional development activities normally reserved for instructional and counseling personnel. Of course, expanded expectations should be coupled with greater pay. By expanding the cadre of allies and proven advocates to include these 'change agents', educational institutions could make strides in building more healthy climates and cultures that foster success for our Black boys and men.