Oleheads with Content Knowledge

By Akil Parker

It is ironic but still fitting that I am writing this on my penultimate day as a classroom teacher for the School District of Philadelphia. Many of my peers and students alike have questioned my reasons for leaving the public school classroom. There are myriad reasons, but one of the primary reasons would be the difficulty presented when attempting to provide my students what they need in an instructor. The fact of the matter is that my students need more than an instructor – they require “Oleheads with Content Knowledge.” There is a desperate need for an increase in the number of Black male teachers in the public/charter classrooms, but they must also be of a certain ilk or else we risk populating these classrooms with Black male teachers that will not improve the condition of our youth and communities at large. It is not enough to merely increase recruitment efforts of Black male teachers that will only further indoctrinate our youth into the logic of the oppressive western society and help to maintain that society.


Let me clarify the terminology presented. In the Philadelphia vernacular (descended from African cultural patterns), an olehead (or oldhead) is one that takes responsibility for those younger than he or she, one that provides guidance and wisdom that the younger person has been unable to gain on his own up to that point in his/her life. One need not be a senior citizen to be considered an olehead in this context as the relationship is relative – there are 12 year-olds that serve as oleheads to 6 year-olds in our community as they should.


The counterpart to the olehead in the African culturally descended vernacular is the “young bul.” This is also critical to comprehend because the young bul must choose the olehead and not vice versa despite many in the community erroneously believing that just as a mere virtue of age difference or status that they can designate a youth as their yung bul. In these situations the student must choose the teacher and not vice versa.


Throughout my career I have mainly taught African-American youth from low to middle income urban environments so I will comment on what I believe to be most effective for the needs of this demographic. But we must also consider that what I am proscribing for student success transcends race, ethnicity and socioeconomic level. Students will learn most effectively from elders they trust and identify with that respect them and have intimate understanding of them, their background and life experience. I term this type of teacher, “Olehead with Content Knowledge.” One of the major educational barriers for many of my students has been that they were not actually learning the material or weren’t in a classroom headed by their “olehead.” If a young person classifies a teacher as his/her olehead then that means that he/she has chosen that person and identified him as a person he/she wishes to learn from. This is a major key in the classroom due to the vulnerable nature of learning in general.


When we actually leave the students to their devices, we hear them tell elaborate and vivid accounts of what their oleheads have instructed them to do explicitly or have implicitly modeled for them. The tutelage can be applied to all aspects of daily existence. These oleheads may be members of their community and/or upperclassmen within the same school or course section. Oleheads that provide guidance on subjects such as interactions with the opposite sex, economic opportunities, basic etiquette, self-defense and other areas of socialization in the community should also be the individuals in the classroom instructing them in mathematics, history, world languages, sciences, etc. These individuals would have a natural ability to make the content more meaningful and relatable to the students due to their relationship with them. Throughout my tenure, I have been able to capitalize on this reality.


It only makes sense that a school system concerned with providing true education as opposed to miseducation of its constituency would want to populate its classrooms with teachers that embody this olehead “ethos” coupled with specific content knowledge. If all of these individuals with excessive amounts of formal education charged with the maintenance and operation of these schools are not prioritizing the placement of these types of individuals in the schools then it is safe to say that they either do not want them there or they are aggressively prohibited from doing placing them there by those with more power than they possess.


Throughout my 13-year teaching career, I have been classified as the “olehead” of literally hundreds of my students. When you hear the students refer to you in the 3rd person to one of their peers as “my olehead,” then you know you have been certified by the youth as an effective teacher. This is a tacit admission that this student has decided that I was fit to teach them and that he/she was comfortable receiving instruction from me. Learning is generally a very intimate and vulnerable activity that cannot always take place within all teacher-student relationship dynamics regardless of how much content mastery the teacher has. Many have heard the mantra, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” This ideal is manifested here with the idea of the “olehead with content knowledge” or the term “legit olehead” as many Philadelphia youth also utilize.


The concept of the legit olehead is culturally grounded and in regards to a young Black male student specifically, he has a psychosocial need to identify with an elder Black male of a similar cultural grounding as opposed to a male or female of a different cultural grounding in order to manifest this educational relationship. Does this mean that the young Black male is unable to learn from men or women of varying cultural backgrounds? Not necessarily, but it does emphasize the point that the Black male has a proclivity to be taught by an elder Black male that would also be his olehead. Such is why if we as Black people are currently unable to develop our own network of independent schools, then we need to at least have a plethora of legit oleheads in the classrooms wherever our children are present. This is also not meant to devalue and diminish the need for culturally grounded Black women in the classrooms our children occupy – the sistas can be oleheads too.


The Black female students will also benefit from increased quantities of quality Black male teachers as well. Part of the role of the legit olehead is to be a provider for and protector of the community and its inhabitants. Young girls need to be presented with as many models of decent Black men that would embody qualities of a potential mate from a young age. This will serve to counter the amount of images real and media-driven of the shiftless, irresponsible, apathetic, exploitative Black male that may only value her as an object of sexual desire. This is far too prevalent within our community. It is important to highlight the fact that this benefit to young Black females of having positive Black males in the classroom was explicitly expressed to me as a new teacher back in 2005 by one of my olehead veteran teachers, a Ms. Siouda Chestnut. She was a legit olehead at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School to both students and teachers. I have never forgotten these words and even passed them on to others in schools where I have since worked.


Culturally, people of African descent are very relational in terms of their social interaction paradigm. This can explain an elder that has a positive relationship and has provided for the youth may be permitted to speak to that youth in an aggressive tone while an elder that has not established that relationship would very often get cursed out by the youth (The issue of respecting elders regardless of the structure is beyond the scope of this writing). In eurocentric neo-colonial public schools, there is an unwritten curriculum and underlying culture that dictates specific content knowledge is paramount to positive relationships and rapport. What those that manage these schools deny or fail to realize is that when positive relationships are privileged, more learning and student buy-in will take place anyway. Thus, I submit that in order for Black youth to learn more effectively there would have to take place a paradigm shift where quality relationships become paramount or at least tantamount to specific content knowledge. It is the legit oleheads that must promote this different educational paradigm, which returns us to our traditional African cultural forms of education.


The fact of the matter is that overall, our Black children are not effectively learning in the eurocentric neo-colonial public/charter schools. Even students that appear to excel academically and gain college admission often are not experiencing deep learning that prepares them to advance at subsequent educational levels and become responsible handlers of power. I do not believe this condition to be coincidental or accidental at all and in keeping with this belief it would be logical to commit to the revolutionary act of divesting of these schools altogether and augmenting the network of independent Black schools for our children by lending a groundswell of our support to it. The Council of Independent Black Institutions (CIBI) has an existent example. Short of that act of widespread support, we must have a certain type of teacher in the public/charter classroom with our children. If we are going to increase the number of Black male teachers since they are currently grossly underrepresented in these schools, these teachers should be “oleheads with content knowledge” or “legit oleheads.”