Black Men, White Boards

Much has been said about the need for more diversity in our teaching force. I have written about it here, here and here. The US Secretary of Education, HBCU presidents and others have also pushed our country to diversify. Also more readily acknowledged is the need for more Black men in particular. However, even when more Black men are hired, they often leave the profession at a faster pace than their counterparts.

Some, however, question the notion of even hiring more Black men as an intervention. They argue; increasing the number of Black men in our schools is a cop out to solving other entrenched problems. We believe the argument is a false dichotomy and the ideas are not mutually exclusive. Recruitment, retention, and support undergird our work at The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice. They are interlocked, just as our collective success is inter-dependent.

Education Trust recently published a report capturing the voices of 150 Black teachers discussing the challenges of choosing to stay and the reasons so many Black teachers leave the profession. They speak of the “invisible tax”: less support and being typecast into non-academic roles. Recurring themes we also hear from our members.

We want to share why some Black teachers choose to join (and stay in) the ranks of what should be the most vaunted profession. Four short vignettes of founding members of The Fellowship follow. All four men are teacher leaders and represent more than a change we have been waiting for; they represent the change our communities are demanding. The lack of equity is one additional disadvantage that our students must and will overcome, but they shouldn’t have to fight this battle alone.

Many men of color are in close proximity to our schools and classrooms, yet with a few more deliberate steps, more of these mentors, coaches, and disciplinarians can serve communities from within the classrooms, leading through content expertise and social justice and equity lenses.

A mentor challenged me to teach

If I had been asked what I wanted to be when I was young, I would have said a doctor. Ultimately, wanting to become a provider for my future and extended family, football became a more tangible career choice. Having earned an athletic scholarship to attend Lock Haven University, and starting as a defensive back, only fueled my desire to make the NFL.  A career ending injury sustained in my 5th collegiate game forced me to make some serious decisions about my future. Having developed a passion for service, I studied community health and began teaching gang prevention in the Williamsport, PA.  In a search to continue doing this type of preventive work, after graduation I found myself doing truancy case management. Quickly growing frustrated with the judicial system, I accepted a position managing Special Education data for the School District of Philadelphia. Still trying to create a transformative impact in the lives of young people, a mentor challenged me to go teach. Having ignored that call, I was eventually laid off, but quickly hired to work with Birney Preparatory Academy.  Even as the Assistant to the Chief Academic Officer/Director of Operations, I was also encouraged to enter the classroom. Five years ago, I completed my Master of Arts and Teaching in Elementary Education and entered the classroom, where I have been teaching ever since. Raymond Roy-Pace, Teacher Leader

Black men tend to view themselves as mentors for their communities and look for ways to be more effective as mentors. Some may find mentoring as teachers gives them more access and higher levels of efficacy.

this is why i chose the classroom

Moving to Philadelphia was a huge culture shock for me, having come from a small, country, predominately white town in North Carolina. I was always passionate about education, even as a student, but never found my place in it until I served as a Big Brother for BBBS program in North Philadelphia as a college student. 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. My major had nothing to do with education, however, at that moment, I began to seek experience in schools that would show me how my passion for education could be utilized to empower urban school students to be their better selves, using mentorship to push the academic expectation in the classroom. I’m considered an “unconventional” teacher of sorts as I deem it more important to push students to see themselves as successful than it is to enforce upon them the idea of learning to pass a test. At times, our students lack motivation and direction, even from some of their teachers, to not only succeed in their academics but to apply their learnings to real life experiences. THIS is why I chose the classroom…to show them that the more you apply yourself 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 classroom. Kevin Gold, Teacher Leader

Teachers found a  sense of purpose, and their commitment to our youth is rewarded. The intellectual stimulation of planning and teaching is difficult to match in any other profession. While people often lament what “kids these days need”; others provide, concretely, the support students need today and tomorrow.

I want to give my students the same things i needed as a child

I studied political science and Spanish in college with every intention of working for the federal government. I’d worked on several political campaigns and did a short study abroad program which led me to a stint with the Department of Homeland Security working with US Citizenship and Immigration Services. After a few months, however, I knew my passion wasn’t there. I had been approached by Teach for America in my junior year but didn’t give it much real thought until the fall of my senior year. I was trying to put options on the table and that one made sense. I’d spent the last four summers doing leadership training for middle and high school students so I already had experience with facilitation, planning learning units and being in front of kids. A two-year stint—that I told myself I would have to extend to three in order to beat the “I’m just in it for law school” rap—seemed like a path I could at least consider. I completed the online application and over the next few months I continued to move through the process until I was looking at a screen asking me to rank the cities that I would consider as my placement site. I top-ranked every major city on the East Coast, but I would come to learn that anyone with even remote interest in Philadelphia was likely to end up there. And so, I did. My two-year commitment was spent teaching at a middle school and it was there I learned I had a knack for this work. 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. And despite my intentions of eventually moving back to DC, I’m currently in my sixth year at my placement school. As I seek out my next steps, 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’t accomplish. 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. Sterling Grimes, Teacher Leader

She pulled me aside, “you should be a teacher”

When I graduated college in 2007, I had a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management and Economics from West Chester University.  The job market was extremely low at this time, and 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, and little did I know that my future employer (principal of the school) was also sitting in the audience among the students.  She pulled me to the side and told me, “You should be a teacher.” Two weeks later, I completed my interview and 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 After school program at Russell Byers Charter School. Based on my performance, I was asked to take on a role as a Site Manager with Watoto as they expanded into three new schools. I was placed at school in southwest Philadelphia, and while there I made an impact that was felt so strongly that 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 was overjoyed to accept it.  I began teaching November 1, 2010, remained in the 3rd grade role for two years. During that time, I enrolled at St. Joseph’s University where I graduated with my Masters in Elementary and Special Education. I eventually became the 3rd grade Lead Inclusion teacher.  James Brooks, Teacher Leader

Our work is cut out for us, but we intend to continue to support current and aspiring Black male teachers to affect the changes we desire in our schools and classrooms. Hope, alone, is severely lacking as a strategy. More intentionality must be directed in not only the recruitment, but the retention, support, and validation of our Black male educators. As usual, our schools and classrooms represent ground zero. Who are we recruiting, supporting, and retaining to be the heroes to run towards our ground zero?

Sharif El-Mekki
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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