“It May Be Hard To Be What You Often Don’t See”

Last month, I had the honor and opportunity to share my thoughts on the Resolution that Councilmembers Rue Landau and Isaiah Thomas supported: Black Teacher Appreciation Day!

Thank you City Council, especially Councilmember Rue Landau and her Community Liaison, Tamir Harper, for extending the invitation to speak on the day the City of Philadelphia declares May 9, 2024 as Black Teacher Appreciation Day.

To show our appreciation for Black teachers, we have a very simple, powerful message to the city, state and nation, and that is:



Black teachers save Black student lives.

Black teachers expect and help Black students to achieve.

Black teachers don’t over-penalize Black students.

Black teachers reflect a world of possibilities for Black students. 

Black teachers also reflect a more just society. They counter racism, promote cross-cultural understanding and prepare all students for a complex world.  

We know all these things to be true.

But you know what is false, despite what some may claim: that young Black high school and college students do not want to teach. Because they do.

A few months ago, when the Center for Black Educator Development put out our yearly call for Black high school and college-aged youth to serve as teacher apprentices, basically student-teachers, for this summer’s Freedom Schools Literacy Academy, there was once again an overwhelming response with more than three applicants for every available spot.

That is over 300 high school and college students expressing an interest in learning the art and science of Black teaching traditions. But without our ability to expand our program, we are faced with a nonsensical reality: to turn away highly-qualified and highly-motivated Black high school and college students.

This includes nearly 100 young Black men who are interested in exploring teaching through a program that has proven its ability to convert their interest into actionable future plans to become the Black teachers we need in Philadelphia’s schools.

City Council, Philadelphians, this keeps me up at night. And, it should keep you up as well.

In Philadelphia, we lost 1,200 Black teachers in this city between 2000 and 2020.

Today, we need to double the number of Black teachers in Philly to match the number of Black students in our public schools, quadruple the number of Black male teachers to reach parity for Black boys.

Shout out to Councilmember Isaiah Thomas for leading the charge to recognize October as Black Male Educator Month to raise awareness of the dire need for Black male teachers. He continues to champion our Black Men in Education Convening that draws more than 1,000 from around the world to Philly each year. 

To rebuild our city’s decimated Black teacher pipeline, we know we have to start early with Black students in high school and college.

So, I urge you to not misunderstand our young Black students.

They are not only saying WE NEED BLACK TEACHERS.

They are stepping up, showing up with a passion and commitment to be the teachers they wish they had and they knew they needed. They are standing up to address challenges they had NO hand in creating.

So, I ask all present here today: can we hold ourselves accountable to help them?

Can the School District of Philadelphia make it a strategic and funding priority to respond to the urgent call: WE NEED BLACK TEACHERS.

Can more school leaders like Dr. Naomi Booker, Chris Johnson, and Dr. Tony Watlington, Sr. and help us open more Freedom Schools Literacy Academies and Teaching Academies, like Science Leadership Academy – Beeber, our city’s only Career & Technical Education course for Black high school students aspiring to become teachers to powerfully demonstrate to young Black students the power of Black culture and pedagogy in schools!

Do you know what will happen if we do respond to this call?

We will see more young leaders like Tamir Harper, Horace Ryans III, Imere Williams, Sydney Smith, Ronald Smith, and countless others who are shaping a new reality defined by social equity and educational justice.

So, let’s truly show our appreciation for today’s Black teachers by paving the way for tomorrow’s Black teachers.

I’d like to conclude by remembering my friend, Miles Wilson, who very early on stood up and supported this effort to rebuild a Black Teacher Pipeline by revisiting the words from the renowned Black educator and activist, Marian Wright Edelman that inspires me every day: “It’s hard to be who you can’t see.” 

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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