We Must Lift As We Climb-How Some Black Male Educators Are Supporting Each Other

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”—Angela Davis

Marilyn Anderson Rhames wrote a great piece recently, “It’s Hard to Get a Teaching Job When You’re Black” that really resonated with the work that a group of Black men in Philadelphia are doing.

Seventeen Black men who were leading classrooms and schools in Philadelphia launched The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice. Our initial goal was hardly to create a formal organization. We came together over a monthly dinner at a Black-owned restaurant in west Philly to problem-solve and celebrate wins, to collaborate, and to support each other. We met to ensure our students’ success. And, to facilitate our own learning.

Every one of us came through an alternative certification program, but what attracted us to teach was what serves as the clarion call for many Black men: We wanted to use content expertise, relationships, and the Black context to affect change in our communities. We knew that a lot of Black men are adjacent to classrooms, but we wanted to lead one.

We were all extremely concerned about the inequity that our communities had been subjected to for generations and we wanted to use the classroom as a force to address these inequities.

Today, we are proud to be gearing up for our 7th BMEC (Black Male Educators Convening). Despite the name, these convenings are not solely for Black men—although our focus is. Our convenings (and membership to The Fellowship) are open to anyone who is committed to the idea of diversity in our classroom and school leaders. We welcome all who want to engage in problem-solving to rectify decades-long issues that negatively impact our children.

When was the last time you sought out the voices of the Black male educators in your school or district?

A colleague, a white principal, reached out to me as he had reservations of invading what he thought was an all-Black space. I told him he was welcome to come if increasing and supporting Black male educators was important to him. He still asked if it was okay to come.

“When was the last time you heard from Black male educators about their experiences, concerns, ambitions, commitments, etc.? When did you last hear their voices amplified?”

He acknowledged that although he had a couple Black men who were teaching in his school, he acknowledged that their voices may be drowned out and he assumed their voices and ideas were the same as the teachers who represented the majority of his teaching force—white women. He committed to seeking their perspectives out and would begin by attending our BMEC.

I am glad he did. Seeking out Black male educators’ voices is a first step.

The founding members of The Fellowship were from very different backgrounds, but we coalesced around the idea that schools were integral components to the necessary freedom fighting and nation building that our communities were doing. We also felt a responsibility to each other. Some founding members reached out for support because they were strongly considering leaving their schools or even the profession and our small affinity group created a sort of lifeline.

We hailed from small towns in South Carolina or were home grown in Philly; we attended HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) or PWIs (Private White Institutions), and we either  went right into teaching or we were career changers. Some of us were working adjacent to schools before realizing that the essence of impact was within the walls of the classroom. Our experience as educators varied from nascent level to gray-haired veterans.

We were challenged and supported by our superintendent and others to step up

After informally meeting and supporting each other for a year, we were encouraged by other practitioners and our city’s school superintendent, Dr. Hite, to expand our work and provide more support for other Black male educators—many who, like us, were alone in their schools and shared many of our experiences, challenges, and aspirations.

We continued to meet to determine how we could increase the success of Black men who were teaching and leading their classrooms and schools. “How do we lift as we climb” was an essential question that we grappled with as we charted a path. We knew that our focus could not solely be on the practitioner. We knew we would need to engage communities, students, policy makers, and school and district administrators, many who were white and could not fathom the challenges that a single Black male educator in their schools faced during their quest to educate children from their communities.

We landed on three main pillars to our work:

  • Professional Development: Addressing the unique needs of Black male educators collected through experience, research, and feedback from our Black Male Educator Convenings (BMEC).
  • Advocacy: Engaging policy makers, school, and district leaders to address roadblocks that have been created that stymie attempts to diversify the profession.
  • Influencing Pathways: Engaging high school and college students, career changers, etc. to consider education as the most important lever to affect revolutionary and sustainable change.

As a practitioner, I am grateful that Angela Davis’s quote resonated with the founding members of The Fellowship. They did not wait until someone told them to do something. In the truest form of self-determination, these Black male educators saw that society was being short changed, that our students were lacking the diversity they deserved, and they chose to do something about it through our fellowship.

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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