There has been a much needed focus on why only 2 percent of our nation’s classroom teachers are Black males. The U.S. Department of Education recently held a very important National Summit on Teacher Diversity and released a report on the State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce.
WHY ARE OVER 70% OF OUR COUNTRY’S TEACHERS WHITE FEMALES?
I contend that a major part of the question isn’t why 2% of the country’s classroom teachers are Black males. The real question may be, why are over 70% of teachers White females? The reasons are varying, complex, and disturbing.
There is no question that, often, it is challenging for people to imagine themselves working in environments where they see few people who share visual elements of their identity, such as race and gender.
With very few Black males in the classrooms and very little direct conversations with Black male students about the benefits of teaching, few will take that leap. As educators, we must ensure that we are speaking to our best and brightest youth about their leadership and how it could impact generations to come. When we have students who excel in content, we must be sure to recognize them and broach a conversation that inspires them to think about teaching hundreds of students to develop those same skills.
SHAMEFULLY, SOME EDUCATORS ARE DISCOURAGING OUR STUDENTS FROM ENTERING THE PROFESSION
Tamir Harper is a student at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. He and other youth participated in the National Summit on Teacher Diversity that the U.S. Department of Education hosted. Tamir drove home the idea that youth are not being engaged and encouraged to teach. Quite often, he said, society, families, and even educators themselves, are discouraging our talented and motivated youth to become teachers. That must change, and several “Grow Your Own” networks are doing just that.
Dr. Margarita Bianco (University of Colorado) brought two students to participate in the Diversity Summit. Her research centers on recruiting high school students of color into the teaching profession. “We’ve had great success with our young men (close to 45% of our students are young men).”
Dan Brown, Educators Rising, is developing an elective course that high school students can take to expose them to the joy, skills, and wonders of teaching. These and other programs can influence the pipeline and provide a counter narrative to negative messages that some of our youth receive, and internalize, about teaching.
Mastery Charter Schools has a strong partnership with Relay GSE to support teacher diversity. Our alumni (and others) are recruited to participate in a year long teacher residency under the guidance and tutelage of a master teacher. They take coursework at the same time that they experience practical methodologies in the classroom.
We also know that not enough Black males graduate from high school and, subsequently, from post-secondary institutions. The pipeline is already constricted. With integration, came far more opportunities for would-be-teachers to try and leverage their skills to benefit their communities in other ways.
POOR WORKING CONDITIONS, LOW SALARIES, AND LACK OF SUPPORT CONSTRICT PIPELINES
There is also the instance of poor retention because of burnout and poor working conditions. By addressing persistently failing schools and lack of supports, we will not only support the potential pipeline, but we will also inspire more Black males who may now be justifiably disinterested in teaching as a profession because of what they see their teachers experiencing.
There are incentives that can increase the Black men who turn to teaching as their first choice. School and district leaders can make policy and programmatic decisions that would elevate and further professionalize the teaching profession. Examples of this could include: ensuring support beyond the first year, establishing cohort models and teacher-in-residence programming, and offering loan forgiveness and higher pay rates.
If school and district leaders address the horrendous working conditions that far too many Black male educators – and teachers in general, for that matter, – endure, we will attract more talent to our nation’s classrooms. We also need to change the narrative – something that practitioners can begin owning tomorrow. We know that having a more diverse teaching force isnt just good for diverse children-it is good for all students and all schools.
COMMUNICATE THE IMPACT THAT TEACHING HAS ON SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUES
By naming it for what it really is – nation building, freedom fighting, and righting the scales of justice – we will tap into Black men who aspire to change the world, yet are looking elsewhere to do so. In his 2017 budget, which is an extension of the 2012 launch of the RESPECT initiative, Best Job in the World grant opportunities, President Obama proposed to uplift the profession, increase teacher leadership, and significantly improve working conditions of teachers.
ANTI-RACIST POLICIES CAN IMPACT THE RECRUITMENT OF MEN OF COLOR
Some of the issues addressed above are clear and relatively easy. A far bigger challenge that I want to call out is the bias-whether a conscious or implicit act- in the hiring process that rejects many potential Bmes. On one hand, there is the stance of tolerance: We will tolerate you. On the other hand, there is the diversity and multiculturalism perspective: We have more of you, but we aren’t working to make you feel comfortable.
Instead, there must be training for all staff, especially district leaders, recruiters, and human resource personnel. Without this training, hiring managers and supervisors can damage the efforts to increase the number of Black male teachers and other educators of color.
Too often, districts are passive about ensuring staff are culturally competent and fall short in taking a comprehensive stance to become anti-racist systems. Also, we should not only rely on school-facing professional development. Anti-racist efforts must include district leaders who, through central office policies, will have a macro impact that either helps or undermines a school’s efforts to recruit more diversity. Anti-racist policies are not just seeking a diverse teaching force. It is actively dismantling the institutional racism, including racist attitudes, messages, policies, and systems that persist, despite many well-meaning educators trying to change it.
Another way that hiring managers block Black men from entering the profession is through implicit and explicit messaging. As Black men, often, the messages that we get are nuanced, yet pervasive and clear. We all recognize that children are our most precious resources and investments. This belief spans across states, demographics, and cultures. Regardless of our backgrounds, we collectively envision that our very hope for our collective future is captured in the students we serve.
DO WE TELL OUR BLACK BOYS THAT WE WOULD LOVE FOR THEM TO LEAD A CLASSROOM?
It is no coincidence that, as a society, we want to entrust our hopes to only those who we believe are trustworthy and deserving. It is with this mindset that I believe that, for some, unconsciously, for others, not so much, we recruit and work to retain one demographic to be our nation’s teachers.
We send them conspicuous messages from early on, “You are great. You are trustworthy and valued. You should be a teacher.” I am sure there are plenty of students who hear these messages as early as kindergarten.
However, there are significant students of color, especially, Black and Brown boys, who also hear those words of encouragement to young white female students and keenly understand that they are being told something else: “Stay away. You are not wanted in our nation’s classrooms.”
By peeling back the pervasive biases in society that constrict the diverse teacher pipeline from very early on, both through failing schools and through messaging, we can begin to address the issues in a more comprehensive and thoughtful way – beginning with the staunch anti-racist stance that all educators, schools, and districts must embrace.
Oakland school district has begun to provide feedback to its leaders about equity. Teach for America has taken a stronger stance in recognizing biases in their hiring and support systems. Erin Trent at Mastery Charter Schools began leading the central office and our network of schools in a better understanding of anti-racism, biases, and white privilege.
In Philadelphia, there was a White Privilege conference in which my students and many others participated. These are all great. And we need many, many more leaders to make the commitments that will lead to wholesale changes to the messages that students receive and to the lessons that communicate that they are not wanted as teachers and leaders in our nation’s schools. As Black men, we know those messages well. Some of us even internalize them.
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.