Heeding the Call
The Clemson University-based Call Me MISTER program is recruiting young black men to become elementary school teachers.
Hayward Jean is the only male African-American teacher his students may ever see. Jean, who at age 23 is as old-school in his teaching style as he is young in years, is the only black man teaching at Greendale Elementary School in this small community outside the horse-country town of Aiken, S.C., less than an hour’s drive from Augusta, Ga.
Jean also brings to his 3rd grade classroom a quality that could only be measured on some kind of enthusiasm scale, if there were such a thing. He stays up late and arrives at school earlier than most to plan his lessons. Handsome, athletic, and with a close-cropped goatee and mustache, Jean wears dark, three-piece suits to work every day.
He forces his students to stand up straight, face forward, and walk in straight lines, and has been known to wait silently for 10 minutes until the children follow instructions. Girls always enter doorways first, and classmates must hold doors open for one another.
He has the qualities many educators here would like to clone, and as an African-American male, he’s just the kind of teaching candidate that universities here would like to reach.
Through a program known as Call Me MISTER—named for Sidney Poitier’s famous line in the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night,” in which he tells the Southern white sheriff that, up North, “They call me Mister Tibbs”—the recruitment of more young, gifted black men to teach elementary school is getting a boost.
Founded in 1999 as a partnership of Clemson University and several of South Carolina’s colleges that historically have served African-Americans, MISTER stands for Men Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models.
“Teaching has not been, for decades, one of those careers that black boys have seen as an option for them,” says Roy Jones, a Clemson University professor who took over as the director of Call Me MISTER after founding director Tom Parks retired two years ago.
Jean is one of only eight black male elementary school teachers in the 25,000-student Aiken County school system.
The statewide numbers are no better. Only 150 black male teachers work in all of South Carolina’s public elementary schools, or less than 1 percent of its more than 20,000 elementary teachers. African-American males make up about 15 percent of the state’s population.
Nationally, only about 2.4 percent of K-12 teachers are African-American men.
Jean (pronounced “Jahn,” with a soft J) offers the worldview and experiences that only a black man of his generation, with local roots, can contribute at his school of mostly white, female teachers. He provides a distinctive presence for his 23 students, 17 of them African-American. For a group of children that includes some who are without fathers active in their lives, he is a model of manhood.
“Dr. Jones teaches us to be leaders first and teachers second,” Jean says in his classroom while his pupils are in art class. “It’s dynamite, man. I love this job.”
In only his second year as a full-time teacher, Jean has become a high-profile ambassador for the Call Me MISTER program, not only touting its virtues, but also living them seemingly every moment of his life, inside and outside the classroom.
School volunteers say they seen him playing basketball in public parks with youngsters. He recently appeared on a panel at the University of South Carolina at Aiken to discuss academic-achievement gaps between minority and white students. Some mornings he can be heard on the local gospel-music radio station urging parents to be involved in their children’s education.
“Every time you see him, he’s always well dressed. He’s also well spoken. He’s cool,” says Sheila Suggs-Green, an assistant principal at nearby South Aiken High School, who was an administrator at Midland Valley High School in the county when Jean attended high school there. “He’s successful,” she adds. “Hayward is an example of what [his students] can become.”
Inside his classroom at Greendale Elementary School, Jean asks a boy to lead everyone in the recitation—or screaming—of the class pledge.
“I am!” 3rd grader Chase Smith leads the pupils, yelling as loudly as he can.
“I am!” his classmates repeat at the top of their lungs. The chant is audible down the hallway, even with the classroom’s door closed.
“A child of love!” Chase continues.
“A child of love!” the students echo.
They add: “I am! A child of great destiny! I am beautiful and smart! I am a student of excellence! I am a reality to the dreams of leaders before me! I am a nightmare to failure, bad behavior, and bad grades! I am a positive role model! I am loved to love, and it’s because of love that I’m here … to love you! You! You! You!” the children exclaim, pointing at whomever they love on this day.
Fifteen minutes gone, and Jean’s little family is just getting started.
The goal of Call Me MISTER is to find more black male teachers like Hayward Jean.
The “Misters,” as the enrollees are called, are recruited late in high school or early in college. They receive partial scholarships, leadership training, and academic and personal support if they enroll in the program and as they proceed through college.
After originally being financed by private foundations and donors, the program then was funded through an earmark by Congress. This year, Call Me MISTER is running for the first time on state money: $1.3 million from the South Carolina legislature.
STANDS for Men Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models.
FOUNDED in 1999 as a partnership of Clemson University and several historically black colleges and universities in South Carolina.
PROVIDES scholarships, training, and support for prospective African-American male teachers.
ENROLLS about 140 students; counted 15 college graduates as of spring 2005.
SEEKS to provide 200 young black male elementary school teachers for South Carolina.
PARTNERS with Claflin University, South Carolina State University, and Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College, all in Orangeburg; Benedict College and Midlands Technical College, both in Columbia; Morris College, in Sumter; Tri-County Technical College, in Pendleton; and Trident Technical College, in Charleston.
More information is available online at www.callmemister.clemson.edu.
Jones and others who work with the 140 college students in Call Me MISTER try to convince young men like Jean that teaching is one of the most important jobs they could choose.
The Misters can help all sorts of traditionally underachieving students achieve great things in school, he says, by passing along the motivation the program’s graduates have discovered. “There are some young men in our program who have come a long way,” Jones says. “We are trying to capture that genie in a bottle.”
It’s an uphill task at times, but program leaders have visions of graduating hundreds of new black male teachers for South Carolina schools and creating the largest pool of black men enrolled in education majors in the country, Jones says. Universities in several other states are also in serious talks with Clemson about starting Call Me MISTER programs elsewhere.
Jones and others who work in the program are strong mentors to participating college students and to Call Me MISTER graduates like Jean. The Misters from all partnering colleges gather twice a year for leadership conferences, which Jean and others say are meaningful to their growth.
The Misters, who now include 15 college graduates—almost all of whom are teaching this year— also keep in close contact. Jean counts some of the Misters he met through the program as some of his closest friends and sources of constant dialogue about teaching. He talks to fellow Call Me MISTER graduate Mark Joseph, who teaches at Westcliffe Elementary School in Greenville, S.C., almost daily to discuss their work and lighter topics.
“We began to create almost a fraternity, if you will,” Jones says.
Hayward Jean and his fraternal-twin brother, Howard, had planned to attend North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, N.C., a six-hour drive from home, on tennis scholarships after their graduation from Midland Valley High in 2000. Then they heard about Call Me MISTER through a high school counselor and decided to visit nearby Claflin University, a private college in Orangeburg, S.C. At the time, Roy Jones was the dean of education at Claflin and was an active partner in Call Me MISTER.
Together, the twins, who say they have met their father, a Haitian-born taxi driver in New York City, only once, decided they had found a life’s calling. It was a surprise to both, since they figured their natural athletic and leadership abilities might lead them to higher-paying jobs.
“Athletics are really pushed a lot,” Hayward Jean says. “It kind of limits the dreams of African-American youth.”
Having had only one black male teacher in 12 years of public school—for a math class in middle school—Hayward Jean says he remembers laughing at his high school’s homecoming queen after hearing she wanted to teach. “I thought it was a last resort,” he confesses of teaching. “I thought it was a women’s profession.”
Call Me MISTER began to convince the twins otherwise. “I can have an impact on this entire community from right here in this classroom,” Hayward Jean says he realized.
The twins say they never heard anyone criticize their career choice. Their mother, Vanessa Butler Jean, had wanted to teach, and began substitute teaching at Midland Valley High after she earned her two-year degree.
The Jean brothers made their journey into teaching together, and they started working in Aiken County schools on the same day in August 2004. Today, though, just one of the brothers is still in the classroom.
Howard Jean taught science and test-taking enrichment classes as a full-time substitute teacher at Leavelle Campbell Middle School in nearby Graniteville last year. He also coached middle school basketball and developed an after-school program to help players improve their grades, he says.
He decided to take a break from teaching this fall and considered studying education in graduate school instead. But those plans fell through, at least temporarily.
He was awaiting word last month on a job in Atlanta that would have him recruiting black high school students into science and math careers, though Jones, the Call Me MISTER director, hopes he returns to teaching this school year.
“In the classroom, you’re limited to an extent,” Howard Jean says. “I wanted to reach more students, and quicker.”
Back in Hayward Jean’s class at Greendale Elementary, the teacher considers phrases such as “I don’t know” or “I can’t” as cursing. A big sign standing on a classroom table says so.
Nearly all of Jean’s pupils say he’s their first male classroom teacher, except for Blake, who says he had a male teacher in kindergarten. Blake calls Jean “the nicest teacher on the planet.”
“He’s not boring and dull,” a classmate, Kayla, adds.
Directing his students to open their South Carolina history books, Jean explains why their social studies lesson is important. “You’re studying about yourself. This is more than just A’s, B’s, and C’s,” he says. Jean leads a discussion about the legacy of racially segregated schools in South Carolina. Jean asks the class to repeat after him.
“History is who I am,” he says, and they sound off. “History,” he adds, followed by the children, “is what I make.”
But on a recent afternoon, Jean is struggling to keep his class engaged. As he works with a small group of children on reading, others who are supposed to read alone at their desks are not. The episode suggests that Jean, like many new teachers, might need some help with pacing his lessons and keeping his class on track.
Later the same day, a boy sharpens his pencil down to a nub, spending several full minutes away from his desk and his work, without Jean noticing. Moments later, the teacher expresses frustration with the class’s behavior: “If y’all would let me be the teacher, man, things would be so much easier,” he tells them.
Even so, Principal Rebecca Koelker says she can’t find many faults with how Jean teaches, especially for someone just entering his second year. She has encouraged him to spend as much time helping students grow academically as he does with mentoring, which is one of his obvious strengths.
“Hayward may be the first African-American male teacher we’ve had here,” says Koelker, whose school has 400 students in prekindergarten through 5th grade. About 70 percent of her students qualify for subsidized meals based on family income, and a slight majority are black.
“He has a commitment beyond most first-year teachers’, ” Koelker says of Jean.
Other educators also recognize his strengths.
“He’s a natural,” says Frank G. Roberson, Aiken County’s associate superintendent of instruction, a distant cousin of Jean’s. A black male educator and Aiken County native, Roberson says he came from a generation when black men in these parts could make more money than teachers by working at the nearby Savannah River nuclear-waste storage site or in textile mills.
“I wish I could cut [Jean] up into little pieces” and spread him around, adds Sheneque Jackson, the principal at nearby New Ellenton Middle School, who has hired Jean to coach junior-high basketball this year. “The teachers we presently have across the country are not meeting the needs of [black boys]. Children work for teachers they can relate to.”
Sandy Sofer supervised Jean’s student-teaching in the 2003-04 school year at North Elementary School in North, S.C. While Jean says Sofer inspired his pledge of “I Am!” with her own version, she says it was actually Jean who inspired her.
“He energized me. Because of him, I’m working on my master’s degree,” says Sofer, who now teaches 3rd grade at Marshall Elementary School in Orangeburg.
The children in her class took notice of Jean’s energy and devotion, Sofer says. Boys sometimes began wearing a Sunday suit and tie to class. “ ‘I just want to be like Mr. Jean,’ ” Sofer recalls one boy saying.
Even with his early success, some of Jean’s closest friends worry his devotion to teaching will snuff itself out.
“He’s very hard on himself,” says Jean’s pastor, Shane Wall, who leads a small congregation at the Feast of the Lord Church in Orangeburg.
Starlette Foreman, Jean’s fiancée, who teaches preschool in Augusta, says the same. “He never thinks he’s given enough,” she says. At the same time, the support he receives though the Call Me MISTER network helps sustain him, Foreman adds.
Jean says he just tries to stay well organized, get exercise, and pray often. “A lot of people think I spread myself thin, but I really don’t,” he says.
Foreman knows what Jean has found in the Clemson program will stay with him. “He’s a Call Me MISTER for the rest of his life,” she says.
Vol. 25, Issue 07, Pages 23-26