07/25/2012 12:11 EDT | Updated 09/24/2012 05:12 EDT

How to Help Black Youth? Expect More of Them


Due to the recent surge in gun violence in Toronto there have been numerous discussions about how best to address this problem. Some support harsher punishments or stricter laws and others support more funding for community organizations. I support social programs, especially those that provide jobs and enhance the employability of youths.

However, I don't think any of that matters if we don't seriously address the languishing and low expectations we have for young black men and women growing up in our society. After all, how important is the number of community organizations we have or the amount of money we throw at these problems if our politicians, educators and general society maintain low expectations for these youths? It's of little to no importance. I use my own story to say why.

I grew up in a single parent home with a mother struggling to make ends meet. I even remember at one point having to sleep in my aunt's living room floor with my mother and brother when my family suddenly found itself homeless.

As a child I came to understand that my mother could not afford to get me everything I wanted. I was a little black girl whose family did not have much and I learned to accept that as my reality. However, it was not until I was in high school that I began to see how that reality influenced the expectations that other people held for me.

One day at the end of my tenth grade school year, I became eager to share a part of my life with one of my favourite teachers. I pulled a family picture out of my bag to show her. To my surprise, as my teacher looked at my proud family photo, tears began to well in her eyes. At first I did not understand her tears, and then she said something that I would never forget. "W-w-where's your Dad?" Seeing in my eyes the answer to her question, she looked back down at the photo and trailed off, asking, " have you been so successful in school?"

What my teacher saw in that family photo was my mother, a young black single mother with three children -- three fatherless children. Now, this was a most kind, dedicated and hard-working teacher. Yet, she had difficulty squaring what she saw in the picture and the student that was standing before her.

I was an a student and received my school's highest mark in Grade 10 History that year. Because of that, my teacher did not expect me to come from a single parent home. How could I?

My experience is indicative of the expectations that most people have for black youths growing up in single-parent and/or economically disadvantaged homes. In fact, I firmly believe that low and negative expectations are at the heart of what leads many black youth down paths that are lined with little more than underachievement, impoverishment and predatory violence.

Having recently completed a Bachelor of Education at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, I came to learn that as a teacher your students will only live up to the expectations that you have of them. My experience at OISE allowed me to be taught by passionate educators who convinced me that even though some students may come from single parent homes or low income households, teachers should still demand and expect the very best from them.

I saw the practical value of this during my placement in an inner-city school in Toronto where my associate teacher (AT) created an environment of high expectations and understanding. The students I worked with would barely pass in other classes. They complained of teachers disregarding them and failing to include them in their discussions, often leading them to choose to react by acting out in class.

But in our classroom it was a different story. Many of these same students excelled because my AT fostered the development of learning space with high expectations. In result, our students applied themselves and demonstrated an increased and active interest in their academic success. No, they didn't become angels once in our class, but once with us they definitely took themselves more seriously as students.

I recall all of this to say the following: whether it is the politician funding anti-gang strategies, the social- worker in a youth program, or a teacher within our schools, our expectations of young black men and women are in desperate need of fundamental change for the better.

It was American inventor Charles F. Kettinger who aptly stated, "High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation." In other words, to see better we need to expect better.

This is a lesson we all need to learn to restore and sustain our city, "Toronto the Good."