There are six Black male teachers in our school. They represent twelve percent of our classroom teachers. That sounds like only a few (and it is) but in a city where Black men represent four percent of classroom teachers, it seems like that’s a lot.
Over the course of my career, I have been committed to supporting current and aspiring Black male educators. I was one of them and I had the support of Black male teachers at John P. Turner Middle School. Teachers like Dr Blackwell and Mr. Gibbs. I also had the support of other Black men when we launched the Association of Black School Administrators (ABSA), a group of Black male principals. IN 2014, we would launch The Fellowship – Black Male Educators for Social Justice to support current and aspiring Black male educators.
I intimately know the power of having Black men teach and lead me. I know what my Nidhamu Sasa teachers like Baba Changa, Baba Juhudi, Baba Mjenzi, and Baba Chavis meant to my development as an impressionable elementary school student. Their influence is everlasting. I wistfully think about the role my coach and Health/PE teacher, Mr. Jones, played for me in high school. I also recognize that as a nascent teacher, teachers at John P. Turner Middle School like Mr. Rutland, Mr. Gibbs, and Dr. Blackwell, played instrumental roles in my development as a teacher and leader.
We need more Black men to teach and lead classrooms, but is that all Black kids need?
While I readily agree that we need far more Black men teaching our students—both Black and White students—I am always a little nervous that policy makers, principals, etc. will use our call for immediate diversity and inclusion of Black men in schools and classrooms to slow-walk so many other pressing needs.
There is research that demonstrates that Black teachers can have a tremendous impact on the trajectory of Black students—particularly boys in elementary schools—there is also plenty of research that highlights the need for more robust and comprehensive school improvement planning.
Black teachers not only enter the field in smaller numbers than their white counterparts, Black teachers tend to be attracted to the schools with the highest needs. Many Black people (teachers are no exception) tend to be communal and the success of the community is more important than the individual which leads these teachers to the lowest performing schools. However, this can lead to added stress and burnout.
Dr. William Hayes, one of the founding members of The Fellowship – Black Male Educators for Social Justice shares that Black men (and women) can’t do it alone. When all of the responsibility for social justice lenses is placed on the shoulders of a few Black people, it can lead to burnout. The responsibility to approach education as a human right and to prepare students in the school-to-activism pipeline cannot solely be the work of woke and conscientious Black teachers – it is the responsibility of all who have the honor to call themselves educators.
One way to prevent minority teacher burnout, Hayes says, is to make sure one or two people aren’t shouldering the social-justice load. At his school, white, black, and Latino/bilingual teachers each make up a third of the staff. The front office workers are Latino. Assistant principals are black, white, male, female. I think it’s important that staff can have a personal connection with students,” Hayes says.
As a black male, I have experienced what it is to go out into society and nobody cares what you know, to go into college and it’s assumed you don’t know much, or to have people make stereotypical comments. Those are things that aren’t going to be written into the literature books or the math books, but they need to be part of the conversation. We’re not afraid to articulate: You are black, you are Latino; it’s not going to be easy for you, but we want you to be successful despite living in a society that doesn’t necessarily honor that.
Teachers who leave the profession often cite working conditions, limited opportunity for leadership and autonomy, and their relationships with their supervisors. So, only adding teachers—including Black men—while ignoring other massive shortcomings is a myopic and poorly planned strategy.
Diversifying our teachers is going to be a challenge. But, even as we do this, all boats must rise. Our students deserve an experience that affirms, empowers, and educates them well. A just ecosystem ensures that Black students have the mirrors they deserve and need as well as a school that has a positive culture that respects them and the teachers who serve them directly.
Yes, we need more Black men leading our classrooms. But, we also need schools and districts to simultaneously provide ongoing and robust professional development for these Black men’s colleagues and supervisors (and their supervisor’s supervisors). We need these schools to make these spaces conducive for Black children – if they do, it will likely be safe spaces for Black teachers as well.
Without this, we are simultaneously adding water and drilling a hole in the hull of an already leaky ship.
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.