By Richard House
When I started my teaching career in 2012, I was elated to find out that the yearlong internship would be spent until the mentorship of a black male educator. Little did I know that my mentor would push me to the brink of wanting to give up and hold me to the highest of standards and expectations. To this day I continue to believe, that it was because of his high expectations and seeing potential in me that at times I did not see in myself, that I am the educator I am today.
Given the extreme rarity of black males in the classroom, being mentored by another black male was something that I will never take for granted. Watching my mentor interact with students and the high expectations he set for them, would eventually follow me into my own classroom and help shape my educational philosophy and pedagogy. While there were many times during my internship that I questioned why he was so critical of my every move, I now recognize that he saw something in me that I did not yet see in myself and knew that I had the ability to be a highly effective teacher.
My experience is a rarity and not of the norm. According to the Washington Post:
“slightly more than half of all public school students are children of color. Yet, despite documented benefits of a racially and ethnically diverse teaching force, no more than 2 percent of teachers in the public education system are black men” (WashPost April 2015).
The gap between male teachers and students of colors in our nation’s public schools is disturbing. Quite frankly the whole school, from students to teachers to administrators, benefits from having black males in the classroom.
At the beginning of my second year in the classroom, I remember assigning two of my black male students lunch detention to have a conversation about their missing homework. I saw myself in these two young men and was frustrated that they were so talented, yet so unfocused on their studies. Throughout the conversation, I reminded them how talented they were and that the opportunities in life would be endless, if they continuously strived for excellence. One of those very students would let me know at the end of the year that that conversation let him know that I was somewhat who had his best interests in mind and that he wanted to make me proud.
This is not to say that this very situation could not have happened with a white teacher, but to the contrary I’m quite certain it has. But black male teachers have the ability to see themselves in their black students and can build a connection that, quite frankly will be very hard for others to make. For this very reason, it is imperative for black male students to be taught by black male educators. Black males should not have to wait years to experience their first black male teacher. I can count on one hand the number of black men who have taught me in a classroom setting and this is not okay.
Black Men in the classroom also allow white students see black men in positions of power and bring different perspective than what they may be used to. Black men also bring a perspective that is often missing in our nation’s public schools. I have often had to bring race into the discussion, when mentioning my black students and have realized that while it may have made my white colleagues uncomfortable, progress would not have been made had it not been fluidly discussed.
It must also be noted, that I do not believe placing more black men in the classroom is the sole cure to the issue that our nations students of color face. All teachers who come into contact with young people of color must be aware of their student’s backgrounds and teach with a sense of compassion and empathy. Content is irrelevant if you are not making connections with your students. You can be the most knowledgeable teacher in the world as far as content goes, but if you know very little about your student’s backgrounds and communities, you will ultimately fail as an educator. Anyone can learn pedagogy and teaching strategies, but it takes a special type of person to be able to immerse themselves into their student’s backgrounds and communities. Teachers who teach without empathy, compassion, and relevance are not teachers at all.
A few weeks ago, I met with a colleague in Baltimore about starting a mentorship program for some of the young men of color in my building. We discussed our experiences has black male educators, our educational philosophies, and why we became teachers. I found myself leaving that meeting feeling refreshed and hopeful for the future. I also realized this was a rare occasion when I was able to connect with a colleague who looked like me. This past school year, I was the only black male teacher in just about every meeting and student discussion I sat in on. While, all of my administrators were black women, it was often discouraging when looking around a room and realizing that there is no one else like you in that room. I have faced this task too often in my short teaching career and this must change.
What can we do to change this?
There are a number of steps that should be taken to ensure that more black men are in our nations classrooms?
Schools of Education
Our nation’s universities and schools of education have start to actively recruiting black men on their campuses to consider careers in education. They need to be more proactive about this and truly come to understand the benefits of having a diverse pool of pre service teachers. While I am incredibly grateful for the education I received at the University of Pittsburgh during my yearlong Masters of Arts in Teaching Program, I ultimately feel that the majority of the program was tailored to students teaching in majority white districts. I was the only black pre service teacher in the secondary education program and while I was a part of the inaugural Urban Fellow Class, I do feel more could have and should be done.
Public School Systems
Public School Systems have got to get serious about recruiting a diverse pool of candidates. Ultimately this means they have to pay teachers a competitive wage (that could be a whole other blog), and focus on diversity. Anne Arundel County Maryland, where I started my teaching career, has a diversity recruitment fair every year which aims to help place more black men and teachers of color in the classroom. I was incredibly fortunate to be selected to attend this event in 2013 and it ultimately led to me landing my first teaching position. More School Systems need to take this approach.
School Administrators that teach in diverse settings must also recognize the importance of a diverse teaching staff and the impact it can have on students and school culture. In the last building I taught in, I felt like the principal was doing his best to force effective men of color out of the building. He would shy away from conversations on race and surrounded himself with a team of white women. Ironically, he was a black man. Administrators must realize the importance of black men and the perspective they bring to the table. They bring a unique perspective to the table that has often gone unheard.
State and Local Governments must come to understand the power in fully funding schools and paying teachers a competitive wave. Teacher’s wages continuously lag behind their counterparts with similar levels of education. Given the huge responsibility that teachers take on, this is not and will never be okay. In order to attract high quality teachers and a diverse teaching staff, school systems must do what it takes to increase teachers’ salaries.
Black Men have been and will continue to be a force within our nation’s education system. While our nation cannot completely rely on black men to change the landscape of our nations public schools, they most certainly are needed in America’s classrooms. This country must come to truly appreciate the value of black men in the classroom and do more to recruit and retain high quality black male educators.