Filmmaker Spike Lee joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan in issuing a call Monday for more black men to become teachers, making their plea at the country's only all-male historically black college.
The two took part in a town hall meeting at Atlanta's private Morehouse College just a week after President Barack Obama urged more people nationwide to become teachers.
Duncan told an audience that more than 1 million educators are expected to retire in the coming decade and that federal officials are hoping to harness that opportunity to create a more diverse teaching work force, noting that less than 2 percent of the nation's 3 million teachers are black men.
"Everybody can't be a business major," Lee told the auditorium packed with male high school and college students. "We have to educate ourselves. We have to educate our young black men."
Lee, a Morehouse graduate, said he was influenced most — outside of his own family — by two of his Morehouse professors. Both educators attended Monday's gathering and were asked to stand up to be honored.
Duncan used the occasion to promote the federal TEACH campaign. The program was launched in the fall to persuade more minorities — particularly males — to enter education. The federal government has launched the teach.gov website, a one-stop-shop for anyone wanting to enter teaching, including professionals hoping to switch careers.
"If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make a difference in the life of a child, become a teacher," Obama said in a video address taped for Monday's event. "Our country needs you."
The Education Department also recorded TV commercials with Oprah Winfrey, performer John Legend and others to talk about the influence of teachers on their lives. Duncan said he will visit Los Angeles next month, seeking to recruit more Hispanics for teaching.
Duncan said that while many school districts are confronting layoffs and tight budgets, there are many high-need areas such as science, mathematics and special education facing a teacher shortage. School districts nationwide hire between 80,000 and 200,000 new teachers each year, even in tough economic times.
Duncan pointed to 8,500 unfilled teaching jobs listed on the teach.gov website as of Monday.
The government is working to help students obtain more financial aid for college and to create loan-forgiveness programs once they graduate and commit to teaching, Duncan said. He urged private organizations to get involved in recruiting minorities to teaching and supporting them once they're in the classroom.
"The government can't begin to do this alone," he said.
Social activist Jeff Johnson is joining the effort. The MSNBC contributor has launched a task force that aims at putting 80,000 more black male teachers in classrooms across the country in the next four years.
Johnson told the audience that being a teacher isn't considered "cool" in the black community and that perception must change.
"They look at business, engineering and law as professions that will make them better men, but the very profession that determines what the next generation looks like isn't even on their radar," Johnson said.