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May 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 8

Learning from Black Male Teachers Who Thrive

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School Culture
Much has been said about the need for more diversity in our teaching force. Former U.S. secretaries of education, presidents of historically black colleges, teachers, students, and others have pushed for a more diverse teaching force, particularly noting the need for more black male teachers. Currently, only two percent of America's public school teachers are black men (U.S. Department of Education, 2016), whereas students of color make up an increasing share of students. In Philadelphia, where I am a principal, just under 5 percent of teachers are black men (Graham, 2017). Even when black men are hired to teach, they often leave the profession at a faster pace than their counterparts (Hanford, 2017).
We know a black teacher can serve as a powerful mentor for black students. The lack of equity in schooling is a disadvantage that our students must, and will, overcome—and they shouldn't have to fight this battle alone. But white students also need to encounter in school the diversity they'll see in the world. Too often, students go from pre-K to 12th grade without having had a diverse group of educators leading their classrooms and schools. This limits their perspective and world view.

A Fellowship of Black Male Teachers

Recruitment, retention, and support of black male teachers undergird the work of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, a group I founded to advance the recruitment and development of such educators throughout Philadelphia. We invite current or prospective black male educators to join our Membership Alliance (655 strong), with the requirement that each member has to mentor at least one other black man through the student-to-teacher pathway. Our efforts include a high school chapter for young men interested in teaching, a summer program that gives black male college students experience in instruction, and annual convenings of black male educators.
The tasks of bringing and keeping black men into teaching and supporting their development as educators are interlocked. Black men face many obstacles to entering and staying in the profession, as evidenced in an Education Trust report that captured the voices of black teachers discussing their occupational challenges (Griffin & Tackie, 2016). The educators interviewed spoke of the "invisible tax" on black educators, including getting less support and being typecast into nonacademic roles. Many of them spoke of feeling isolated. When administrators and colleagues did engage them, they only wanted to discuss disciplinary enforcement. Colleagues assumed they would lead any conversation about race and equity, and they were expected to serve as the unofficial case manager for any struggling black male students, even if they didn't teach them. These black men wanted instructional support and opportunities to share their strategies for building relationships with black children—not just to serve as disciplinarians and counselors. I hear these same themes from members of The Fellowship.
On the first day of school in 2017, hundreds of black male educators met at schools in Philadelphia to welcome students. Shown above: Educators at Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus. Photos courtesy of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice.

Four Who Stayed

But many black educators do stay. I share here words from four members of The Fellowship that show why some black teachers choose to join (and stay in) the ranks of what should be the most vaunted profession. The presence of these men in schools represents more than the change we've been waiting for; it represents the change our communities are demanding. Each of their stories provides ideas about what spurs black men to become educators.

"You Should Be a Teacher"

Raymond Roy-Pace, former teacher and now a recruiter for the School District of Philadelphia.
Many men of color work in proximity to schools and classrooms but don't teach. With encouragement, more of these mentors, coaches, and personnel who play a mainly disciplinary role could serve communities from within the classrooms, leading through content expertise and social justice lenses, as the following two vignettes reflect.
If I had been asked what I wanted to be when I was young, I would have said a doctor. Ultimately, wanting to provide for my future and extended family, I saw football as a more tangible career choice. Having earned an athletic scholarship to attend Lock Haven University only fueled my desire to make it to the NFL. A career-ending injury forced me to make some serious decisions about my future. Having developed a passion for service, I studied community health and began teaching in a gang prevention program in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Hoping to continue doing this type of preventive work after graduation, I found myself doing truancy case management … and later managing special education data for the Philadelphia school district.
I was still trying to create a transformative impact in the lives of young people. A mentor challenged me to go teach—and even provided me with a scholarship opportunity by pointing me to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund's Teacher Quality Retention Program. But I was still reluctant to teach. Later, when I worked with Birney Preparatory Academy as assistant to the chief academic officer/director of operations, I was also encouraged to enter the classroom.
Five years ago, I completed my master's in elementary education and entered the classroom. What I glean from my experience is that it's not enough to ask black men to become teachers; you have to provide opportunities for mentorship and support to develop their craft. You also may have to ask more than once.

James Brooks, 5th grade English language arts teacher.
When I graduated college in 2007, the job market was extremely bad. I opted to volunteer with students from the Pathways PA program who were in foster care placement. One Saturday afternoon, I was speaking to the students about the importance of higher education; little did I know that my future employer (the principal of the school) was sitting in the audience. She pulled me to the side and told me, "You should be a teacher."
Two weeks later, I was a GED instructor for Pathways PA, working with mothers who received state assistance. While maintaining this role, I picked up part-time work as an after-school teacher with the Watoto program at Russell Byers Charter School … and was placed at a school in southwest Philadelphia. While I was there, the principal at the time asked me if I wanted to be a 3rd grade teacher. I was honored and shocked by the offer—and overjoyed to accept. I began teaching in 2010 and remained in the 3rd grade role for two years. During that time, I enrolled at St. Joseph's University, where I graduated with my master's in elementary and special education.

"I Prep Kids to Take on the World"

Sterling Grimes, 12th grade teacher and teacher leader.
Many black men have found teaching gives them a sense of purpose and rewards their commitment to our youth—as well as providing intellectual stimulation.
I studied political science and Spanish in college, with every intention of working for the federal government. After a stint with the Department of Homeland Security working with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, I knew my passion wasn't there. I had been approached by Teach for America but didn't give it much thought until the fall of my senior year. I'd spent the last four summers doing leadership training for middle and high school students, so I had experience with facilitation, planning learning units, and being in front of kids. A two-year stint in teaching seemed like a path I could at least consider. I completed the TFA application and moved through the process until I was looking at a screen asking me to rank the cities I would consider as my placement site.
My two-year commitment was spent teaching at a middle school in Philadelphia …. I realized there existed within me a passion for giving my kids more than what was in front of them. Exposure, opportunity, challenge—the same things that helped me determine a path for myself. I'm currently in my sixth year at my placement school. The one thing that keeps me in the classroom is the fact that I get to directly impact the things that my school (in the abstract sense) can accomplish. Teaching content aside, I spend my days problem solving, challenging my kids, and prepping them to take on the world. Doesn't get much better than that for me.

"This Is Why I Chose the Classroom"

Kevin Gold, former elementary school teacher, now a program director for 21st Century Programs at Building 21 High School in Philadelphia.
Black men tend to view themselves as mentors for their communities and look for ways to be more effective. Some find the mentoring opportunities inherent in teaching give them better channels for reaching young people.
Moving to Philadelphia was a culture shock for me, having come from a small, predominantly white town in North Carolina. I was always passionate about education, even as a student, but never found my place in it until college, when I served as a Big Brother for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in North Philadelphia. The experience in the urban school in which I was placed showed me how necessary it was for students who looked like me to see more teachers who look like them. This made the difference for me. It gave me the opportunity to really see what challenges our students of color faced within their schools. I saw their learning conditions, and in conversations with students during my visit, I learned how they weren't always "happy" or "excited" about their education because of those challenges. That meant that I was now aware of a flaw that I could at least try to do something about—by taking my rightful place in the system and doing my part in making it better for these black and brown children. I began to seek experience in schools that would show me how my passion for education could empower urban school students to be their better selves, to use mentorship to push academic expectations in the classroom.
I'm considered an "unconventional" teacher of sorts because I deem it more important to push students to see themselves as successful learners than just to enforce upon them the idea of learning to pass a test. At times, our students lack motivation and direction—even from their teachers—not only to succeed in academics, but to apply their learning to real-life experiences. This is why I chose the classroom—to show students that the more you try to invest in yourself as a person (using life skills and real-world experiences), the more you'll be able to find your "place" in the world.

Race Matters

People, including educators, sometimes tell me, "it shouldn't matter what color teachers are" (read: we don't need diverse teachers). Too often, I hear complaints about the fact that we're trying to increase the number of black men leading classrooms and schools. People claim that the race of educators isn't important; some even claim our focus is "reverse racism."
But, race does matter. The IZA Institute of Labor Economics (2017) recently released a study highlighting the impact of having black teachers lead in classrooms, especially for younger students. The researchers studied 100,000 black students enrolled in North Carolina's public schools between 2001 and 2005 and found that the risk of dropping out decreased by 29 percent for black students who had at least one black teacher in 3rd through 5th grades. This risk decreased by 39 percent for low-income black males, and black students' likelihood of pursuing higher education increased.
Some people question the notion of hiring more black men as an intervention to address issues of inequity and opportunity gaps in schools that affect students of color. They argue that increasing the number of black teachers is a cop-out to avoid solving other entrenched problems. I believe the argument presents a false dichotomy. The solutions are not mutually exclusive.

Where There's a Will …

Without a deliberate plan, there's a real chance that many students won't have the opportunity to have a black teacher at any time in their K–12 schools. Christopher McFadden, a member of The Fellowship, recently asked on Twitter, "How many black male teachers did you have in school?" Too many people said "zero."
The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice will continue to support and retain black male teachers so they can affect the changes we desire in our schools and classrooms. There is an urgency to this issue—and a need for long-term solutions. As a first step, communities must ask their districts and schools to be transparent about their data on black teachers and their plans to address the need for more diversity. Schools and districts should note that many black men are adjacent to classrooms already; they are coaches, mentors, or father figures for countless young boys and girls. We must tap into this commitment to community. It should also be noted that social justice is an important aspect of teaching that resonates with black men. By showing how social justice and education are linked, schools and districts can make teaching even more appealing to these potential candidates.
Where there's a will, there's a way. Considering the telling research on the impact of having more black males in schools, working for this change isn't a nicety. It's an imperative.

Gershenson, S., Hart, C., Lindsay, C., & Papageorge, V. (2017). The long-run impacts of same-race teachers. Bonn, Germany: IZA Institute of Labor Economics.

Graham, K. (October 12, 2017). Why having more black male teachers matters. Philadelphia Inquirer.

Griffin, A., & Tackie, H. (2016). Through our eyes: Perspectives and reflections from black teachers. Washington, DC: Education Trust.

Hanford, E. (August 28, 2017). A fellowship of the few: Black male teachers in America's classrooms are in short supply. American Public Media reports.

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). The state of racial diversity in the educator workforce. Washington, DC: Author.

End Notes

1 The Thurgood Marshall College Fund's Teacher Quality Retention Program aims to provide high-caliber training and mentoring to aspiring, pre-service and new teachers from publicly supported historically black colleges and universities.

Sharif El-Mekki is founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice. A former teacher and principal, he is a national educator-activist, blogger, and podcaster. 

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