STAY WOKE. DON’T BLINK: THE NATIONAL BLACK MALE EDUCATORS CONVENING

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time. -Angela Davis

How many Black male teachers did you have in your pre-K to 12th-grade experience?

Black men are the most underrepresented demographic in the teaching ranks, representing only two percent of teachers nationwide. In Philadelphia, that number is four percent, but we still lag far behind what’s needed to help our students, 50.49 percent of whom are African American. My colleagues and I at The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice have set for ourselves a bold agenda of tripling the number of Black male educators—to 1,000—by 2025.

But this goes beyond Philadelphia. It’s  a national problem that demands a national response. Increasing the number of black male educators in our nation’s teacher corps will improve education for all students, especially for African American boys.

That’s why The Fellowship held its first national convening (8th overall Black Male Educators Convening) this weekend, “Stay Woke—The Inaugural National Black Male Educators Convening.” The event, which was open to everyone, aimed to advance collaboration, networking, policy solutions, and professional development among Black male educators to ensure we grow and continue the legacy of Black male educators as fierce and relentless advocates of their children and communities.

Though our name speaks of Black male educators, we welcomed everyone to the convening, and to join us in our mission. I have a White principal friend who, after confiding in me that he wasn’t initially sure if he was invited, told me he had never heard a collection of black male educator voices until he attended our convenings; now he consistently attends and seeks out diverse voices. The event, as all of our events, is for anyone interested in social justice, education justice, diversity, and student achievement. Whoever serves children and support those who serve children, we welcome them.

My colleagues and I at The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice have set for ourselves a bold agenda of tripling the number of Black male educators—to 1,000—by 2025

Black communities have always known that having more highly-effective Black men leading classrooms and schools can have a direct and tangible impact on our students’ achievement. And, now there is a growing body of research that continues to confirm what we have always known: Having more black teachers can have a tremendous impact on black students.

It isn’t just Black children who are impacted by having a Black male teacher. Even White students say they prefer having teachers of color. Bias and racism aren’t just reinforced by institutions. Often, these mindsets are reinforced at kitchen tables and living rooms. Many of the White students who benefit from having a Black male teacher will grow up to influence policy, police neighborhoods, and raise a new generation.

By seeing Black men in positions of power and influence in close proximity, a cognitive dissonance can occur that challenges negative notions of black men honed by the media and bias-forming conversations.

A couple of years ago when I had the  unique opportunity to serve as a U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow (PAF), I heard a common lamentation from principals: “We have a lot of trouble recruiting and retaining black male teachers.”

But, I also knew that there were clear things that could be done differently in our nation’s schools—starting with the messages that talented Black and Brown boys receive in school. I recognized from my own experience that often, Black men just aren’t asked to teach until they graduate, or are about to graduate from college. Conversely, when members of The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice informally polled their White colleagues, they often heard from white female teachers’ that their earliest recollection of being encouraged to teach happened in primary grades.

And, while people often assume pay scales are what undermine retention and recruitment of talented Black educators, we know with certainty that working conditions, relationship with direct supervisors, lack of respect, and the dreaded “invisible tax” all play a much larger role in creating a “hole in the bucket.”

Don’t get me wrong, highly-effective teachers should be paid handsomely. Their current importance to society is not commensurate with most teachers’ pay scales. Teachers should be paid like the nation builders they are. But there are other issues that play into why Black men are less inclined to become teachers.

To The Fellowship, just having more Black men leading our classrooms and schools isn’t enough. A calculus of content expertise, community building capabilities, and critical consciousness are the foundations that Black men (and all teachers) must bring to the classroom. Those who don’t approach teaching as a political act seeped in the tradition of direct action in a pursuit of social justice, will undoubtedly leave much on the table—often the intellectual and personal development, and positive self-worth of their students.

We acknowledge this each year by giving highly-effective Black male educators the Du Bois award.  Last year, we honored Ismael Jimenez (Kensington CAPA), Brandon Cooper (Clymer Elementary), and Lloyd Koonce (The Caring Center).

Scholar, educator, activist, W.E.B. Du Bois recognized the equal importance of both the mindset and actions of educators. “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach,” he said. Through his writings and practice, he demonstrated to all that education is integral to the development of society.

Our awards seek to support and advocate for outstanding Black male educators across Greater Philadelphia and our nation’s public schools—those whose revolutionary teachings emulate the life’s work of W.E.B. Du Bois. We know that tremendous levers for uplifting our communities are exemplary achievement in the classroom and commitment to social justice.

At this weekend’s convening, over 500 educators from around the country gathered to discuss these issues, and to brainstorm ways to increase the number of black teachers in our schools. The three-day conference covered topics ranging from a guide to white women on teaching black boys, to education policy, to our relationship to white supremacy, to restorative justice.

Among the presenters were our superintendent, Dr. Hite; PA Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera; former Education Secretary John B. King, Jr.; civil rights activist and former Baltimore schools administrator Deray McKesson; Kaya Henderson, former chancellor of D.C. schools; Brittany Packnett, vice president of national community alliances for Teach For America; and Roland Martin, author and TV Show host, as well as several others.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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