America’s K-12 students have never been more diverse, with students of color now outnumbering white students. But that diversity ends at the front of the classroom.
As a group, U.S. teachers are still overwhelmingly white and female—and black men are among those most underrepresented in the teaching ranks. To remedy that situation, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan set a 2015 goal to add thousands more black male teachers in U.S. schools. But while some progress has been made in support of programs working to recruit and place young black male teachers in classrooms, Duncan says there is still more work to be done.
“We want to have world class teachers in every classroom, there is nothing more important, but for me, it’s also important that those teachers reflect the diversity of our nation,” Secretary Duncan told NBC News. “You can go to far too many elementary schools around the nation and still not see a teacher of color.”
In January 2011, Duncan paired up with film director Spike Lee to host a town hall meeting at Morehouse College, where, as part of the national TEACH campaign, they persuaded students to pursue careers in education.
“There is a tremendous need here, when you look at black male and Hispanic male teachers, particularly in elementary schools, the number is basically less than 2 percent,” Duncan said.
The problem, Duncan pointed out, is not self-correcting, and solving it depends on schools and districts creating pipelines of support for black men interested in becoming educators.
In South Carolina, Dr. Roy Jones, the director of the Eugene T. Moore School of Education's Call Me MISTER Program at Clemson University, is taking on the secretary’s call to action. Call Me MISTER, an acronym for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models, is an initiative to increase the number of black male teachers available to South Carolina’s lowest performing elementary schools.
“You can go to far too many elementary schools around the nation and still not see a teacher of color.”
“We are more than just a scholarship program. When we accept a student, we’re committed to them from that day forward until they finish the program—test prep, personal or academic counseling, and one on one programs. The goal is to create life long career educators,” Jones said.
The Call Me MISTER program largely selects students from socio-economically disadvantaged communities and provides tuition assistance and academic support until the student graduates.
His view is that if a teacher is going to succeed, they must be culturally as well as academically prepared. Students in the program have to put in more than the time they spend in an education 101 class or student teaching; they have to be committed to their own personal development and understand the value of relationships inside and outside the classroom.
“Most programs don’t work because they can’t offer the kinds of opportunity for development Call Me MISTER has been able to not only offer but sustain,” Dr. Jones said. “That’s why people have looked to us to answer the questions of what do to get and keep black men in the classroom, and how to do it. Every day, every semester, every opportunity counts as teachable moments, some are structured and some are social.”
Since Call Me MISTER started in 2000 the program has seen the number of black males they found working in South Carolina schools double. MISTERs have mostly graduated with degrees in elementary education and are all fully certified teachers. “All 150 graduates have found jobs and were hired in positions. There is a 100 percent retention rate among graduates that have remained in the field as educators, as teachers, or as principals,” Jones said.
But not many young black men entering teaching are going through specialized programs like Call Me MISTER. According to Dr. Travis Bristol, who studies the intersection of race and gender within organizations and is a research and policy fellow at Stanford University, most recently focusing on black male educators, there are many difficulties that black men must overcome to have successful teaching careers.
Dr. Bristol’s research found that many black male teachers faced at least one of three main issues: feeling disconnected from the mission of their schools if they were one of the only teachers of color at an all-white institution; poor working conditions in “turnaround” schools—those that were deemed failing and restructured with new teachers and administration—or schools in socio-economically underdeveloped areas; and feeling as though they were only respected by their colleagues as disciplinarians rather than as educators. However, Bristol is confident there are solutions.
“I think that we can’t cluster black male teachers in the worst performing schools. Districts need to look at the lowest-performing schools and look at the proportion of black male teachers in those schools,” Bristol said. “Schools also need to work with principals to have organizational approaches to understanding the dynamics happening in their schools, and how those dynamics might influence one group of teachers as opposed to another.”
Bristol also suggests working with teachers in professional development programs to address their social and cultural needs.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, Bristol pointed out, is taking a good look at discriminatory practices that lead to black men feeling pushed out of teaching. Duncan acknowledges this challenge.
“Too often you find a reluctance of folks to talk about things,” Duncan said. “It’s challenging for people to have honest conversations, to be frank about this, but the only way to get better is to be transparent with the truth, which can be good, bad, ugly, and sometimes brutal. But if we’re not willing to deal with it, it’s impossible for us to make things better. Honesty is a starting point for action.”
"We need [black male teachers] because the world is diverse, and diversity brings new ideas, it brings the ability to look at things in various ways,”
Dr. Laruth Gray, a Scholar in Residence at NYU's Steinhardt School of Education's Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, suggests that part of this honesty is confronting an unequal past.
“The shortage of black male teachers is rooted historically,” Gray said. “It has to do with both the vulnerability of black males and what I like to call the victimization of black males.”
Gray points to the Jim Crow South where many black men had to depend on a less lucrative “black labor pool” for jobs.
“It’s only really been 60 years,” Dr. Gray said. “Things haven’t changed in terms of education as a desire for a way out for African Americans, but what has changed is there’s been better access for more of us.”
According to Gray, education has always been very important in African American communities, but professions such as law and medicine, not teaching, are now valued as higher signs of success.
“The teaching profession is not valued in society, we don’t pay them enough, and you get what you pay for,” she said. “If I’m a black male, why am I going to go into teaching? The American dream is for me to become part of capitalism, that means what I need to do in order to do better is not become a teacher—that’s all I used to be able to do—now I want to be President, I want to be Vice President, I want to be Governor, the head of Walmart, or the head of American Express.”
For Gray, this needs to be addressed “because having black men in our classrooms is good for all kids. We need them because the world is diverse, and diversity brings new ideas, it brings the ability to look at things in various ways,” she said.
Having black male teachers in classrooms is also beneficial for the men themselves.
“My mom’s a lawyer and my dad’s a doctor. I don’t know what it’s like to not do my homework because I’m scared and there are gunshots outside of my house,” teacher Andrew Rayner said.
Upon graduating from Dartmouth, Rayner, 25, participated in a teaching program in the Marshall Islands. The experience of teaching kids who “looked like him” charged him to come back to the United States and work with other young black students. He is now a teacher at KIPP Academy Boston Middle School.
“Even if we look the same [my students] can teach me things about the black experience as a whole that I haven’t personally experienced.”
Duncan said that it’s his mission to draw attention to the importance of recruiting more black male teachers and hopes that national programs such as the new public service student debt release program—which erases all student loans after completing 10 years of public service—will help rectify some of the barriers black men face when pursuing a teaching career.
Addressing the issue takes a combination of seriousness, purpose, and exposure, coupled with the reality of financially being able to pursue teaching careers, Duncan said.
“We are seeing places working through this issue with seriousness in ways we haven’t seen before,” he said, pointing to programs like Call Me MISTER, Teach for America, and the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools. “But, is this solved? Absolutely not. There is still a long way to go, let’s be clear.”