'This Is Us' Young Randall's New Teacher Highlights the Importance of Black Mentors
When Randall drags Jack out of bed at 6 in the morning to take him to school we all know something’s up. Sure, Randall loves school, but no 12-year old kid loves it that much. When Jack brings him to his new English teacher, Mr. Lawrence’s classroom, it is evident that Randall spends most of his free time with this new mentor. Randall and his teacher have clearly formed a connection and a sense of trust in the short amount of time they’ve known each other, a bond that can be common between young black students and their teachers.
We are first introduced to Mr. Lawrence when he gives Randall a yellow slip for a dress code violation. Randall is wearing the new Air Jordan’s instead of the school issued dress shoes and his new black teacher’s reprimand leaves Randall feeling somewhat shocked, especially since it’s their first encounter. Randall assumed (wrongly) that because his new teacher was a black man, he would understand that his choice to wear one of the most famous black athlete’s popular shoes to school was cool. But Mr. Lawrence doesn’t take the bait.
From this singular encounter, it might seem like Mr. Lawrence is just hating on young Randall, but in reality he’s holding him accountable. Rocking the new Air Jordan’s doesn’t impress Mr. Lawrence and he makes it clear early on that he holds Randall to a high standard. Just because they are both black males does not mean he will let Randall get away with breaking the rules. But for Randall, Mr. Lawrence isn’t just someone who has great expectations for him–he’s become a role model outside of the black athletes and entertainers Randall sees on television all the time. He’s a real life example of who Randall could grow up to be.
The role model effect is most apparent in the relationships between black students and their black teachers. Seeing relatable mentors whose success seems attainable inspires kids to want to achieve more in their lives. In the case for black students and their teachers, seeing someone who looks like them in a professional setting has been shown to be positive for our academic ambitions, like their desire to go to college, as well as their overall well-being.
There’s most likely no question of Randall’s desire to go to college, whether Mr. Lawrence will be along for the ride or not. I mean, long before this new character was even introduced, a young, innocent Randall once decided to sneak out of a school dance to go study in the school library. If that’s not a sure sign for a bright academic future, I’m not sure what is. Still, having Mr. Lawrence as a mentor very well might have had an influence on which colleges Randall eventually becomes interested in, such as the top HBCU, Howard University.
Mr. Lawrence’s influence on Randall in the context of the show is most akin to a sort of awakening for Randall, giving him a sense of who he might grow up to be like, a validation he’s unable to find at home with his white father. Jack is clearly threatened by Mr. Lawrence’s influence on Randall, and honestly those feelings are valid. For the first time, Randall has a relationship with someone who shares the same physical traits and intellectual interests as him. Unlike with Jack or Tiger Woods, Mr. Lawrence provides Randall with a clear picture of the man he could become.
Even though Randall needs no assistance in the academic department, the effects of having a black teacher is more than likely only adding to Randall’s academic success. By introducing him to books by black intellectuals, Mr. Lawrence is broadening Randall’s intellectual horizons. His impact as a black teacher on Randall is both academic and personal as is the impact of black teachers for many young black boys in the U.S. education system.
Despite their undeniable influence on black students, however, black teachers still only make up seven percent of the teaching population and that number falls at a strikingly low two percent for male black teachers. It would be safe to say that Mr. Lawrence is extremely rare, and considering the fact that many black teachers are more likely to teach in schools that serve black students, his presence at Randall’s school is nothing short of an anomaly.
The positive influence on young black students with black teachers can be seen right away in things like improved test scores, but the long-term effects are even more telling. Exposure to just one black teacher between grades 3 and 5 significantly reduces the drop-out rate among black boys, and black students in general are simply much more likely to describe themselves as happy and cared for in school when their teacher is black. Having a black role model in a professional setting is about more than just the optics for black students– it’s about having someone to relate to and easily communicate with.
The benefit of black teachers reaches even further than the students, though. They are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white teachers as well. Unfortunately, as we all know, both explicit and implicit racial bias is a constant hurdle for black people, even in school.
Multiple studies suggest that white teachers have lower expectations of black students than white students, which stifles black student’s academic confidence and limits the potential for their achievements. Furthermore, black students, especially black boys, are way more likely to get in trouble at school when they have a white teacher. Black teachers naturally hold their black students to a higher standard, and having higher expectations is crucial to how young people in general behave. Disappointing the same people who believe in you isn’t a fun feeling for anyone, regardless of race.
It is clear that black teachers are of significant benefit to black students, particularly black boys. That is why it is so amazing to see Randall’s relationship with perhaps his first black male teacher blossom in front of our eyes. This moment represents more than his father’s fear of Mr. Lawrence becoming more of an influence on Randall than he is. It’s a depiction of the kind of impact black teachers can and do have on their students, illuminating the truth and validity behind the role model effect.