“Mr. El-Mekki, I have been thinking…I think I want to be a teacher.”
When Rasheen Hill, a West Chester University student and Shoemaker alumnus, visited me last week sporting his Alpha Phi Alpha jacket, he had news that was music to my ears. I was grinning broadly when he wanted to know more about The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice and the Relay-Graduate School of Education program. He has mentored younger students since he was in high school himself, now he was looking to mentor and teach—a powerful combination.
In Philadelphia, 4 percent of classroom teachers are Black men. Although that is double the national percentage, it pales in comparison to the percentage of Black students and white teachers. There is a growing body of research, qualitative and quantitative, about the need for more Black male teachers and the challenges of retaining them once hired.
Brent Staples, author and editorial writer for the NY Times, recently wrote an op-ed column sharing his experience as a student with Black teachers in Chester, PA. He describes what I have known to be true as a Black student who had a plethora of Black teachers.
…black children — particularly those from impoverished families — benefit from having black teachers.
Important studies show, for example, that children who encounter African-American teachers are more likely to be recognized as bright enough for gifted and talented programs, more likely to be viewed as capable of success and more likely to graduate from high school and aim for college.
These studies suggest that black teachers are powerful role models, particularly for black boys; that they are more likely than white teachers to recognize competence in their black students; and that subjective judgments by teachers play a vital role in determining success at school. All the more reason for public schools across the country to do more to recruit and retain teachers of color.
There is more information and data being produced that highlights the importance of Black students having Black teachers, as well as the responsibility of districts, schools, and cities to support and retain these educators. The qualitative and quantitative work of Dr. Travis Bristol and Dr. Richard Ingersoll about teacher diversity was instrumental in the founding of The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice.
We began The Fellowship to not only support current and aspiring Black male educators, but to advocate for critically conscious Black men to step into the classroom and for all students to have a diverse group of teachers that included Black men.
It is important to recognize that having Black teachers is not only good for Black students. It is also important that students from other races are able to have windows and mirrors leading their schools and classrooms. All students should be able to see themselves in their teachers (mirrors) and see others (windows) if they are being educated to respect and engage a diverse world.
The problem is, Black students are overwhelmingly given only windows during their Pre-K to 12th- grade experience, while white students are surrounded by mirrors throughout their school career.
While white students may have their identity and self-worth constantly reinforced by the media and their white teacher, they may, at the same time, harbor negative images of Black people through the media, literature, or in school. Having an effective and nurturing Black teacher can do a lot to deconstruct stereotypes and biases white students (and others) have about Black people.
An additional push of The Fellowship is to advocate for conscious Black male educators. A Black male educator that peddles the very white supremacist teachings and biases against Blacks that historically undergirds many schools is of no benefit to any of our students. There is a critical consciousness that is needed by all educators, but Black teachers who fail to educate their students from a liberating perspective, can do more harm than good.
The Fellowship works to uplift this work and to build on formal and informal groups who support Black male educators. While we began as a seventeen-member group meeting monthly to discuss wins and challenges in our classrooms and schools, we have evolved to take on a larger role. Today, our work has three main pillars:
- To directly support current and aspiring Black male educators through recruitment and retention efforts.
- To advocate (and agitate) for policies and practices that support and empower Black male educators.
- To convene, connect, and professionally develop Black male educators through our Black Male Educators Convenings (BMEC).
We are proud to be in the process of launching more formal roles in school districts in the Greater Philadelphia region. We also recently launched a new chapter in Delaware. Systems and Civic leaders like School District of Philadelphia Superintendent, Dr. William Hite, have been instrumental in challenging us to step into leadership roles in advocacy and diversity. While we began as an affinity and support group, we now have a network of hundreds of people.
On May 6th, 2017, Black male educators are convening to discuss these and other issues pertinent to Black male educators. We also invited white educators, because it is rare for them to be in a space full of Black male educators and they need to hear our voices.
Our work at The Fellowship supports our core beliefs that an educational justice lens, content expertise, relationship building, and commitment to community are all integral ingredients in the building of an effective teacher. We also recognize the importance of hearing about the experiences in schools and classrooms from Black male educators—a small, yet vital group of educators that play an extremely important role in the success of our students.
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.