Country in Search of Raw Teaching Talent By Karen Diegmueller
Greensboro, N.C.--Last week, H. Rhett James was in New York, the week before, here.
He is spending this week--an entire week--at his office in Dallas, but on Monday, he will take off for five days and six nights to comb college campuses throughout Tennessee.
One of the few full-time teacher recruiters in the country, Mr. James, who works for the Dallas Independent School District, lives out of a suitcase. Like a baseball scout in search of the next Darryl Strawberry or Ricky Henderson, he is on the road 80 percent of the time, scouring for raw or finely burnished talent.
“I guess in one sense I am a scout,” Mr. James says. “I never thought of it like that. I’m trying to locate, identify, evaluate, and come to some conclusion as to whether that person would be an asset.”
At a table in the rear of Moore Gym at North Carolina A&T State University here, where an annual teachers’ job fair is under way, Mr. James sits, engaged in conversation. But his eyes are always on the lookout, darting around the room in search of hot prospects.
Though he rules out no May graduate, he is keenly attuned to talented young black men he may be able to persuade to come to the Dallas public schools.
He leaves the table assigned to Dallas and goes after one young man and then a second. One contact has potential. He schedules an interview with the man for 4:30, after the fair ends and most of the recruiters have cleared out.
“If I can find a man I grab him in a minute, because we need male role models in our schools, especially elementary schools,” Mr. James says.
Competition here in Greensboro is stiff. Smartly suited recruiters, mostly men, mill around the gymnasium like car salesmen in a showroom, hungrily awaiting the next buyer to walk in the door.
“Were you in Durham last week?” a recruiter asks Mr. James.
“How’d you do there?”
“I got about four good prospects,” Mr. James says.
Leon Warner, director of placement at North Carolina A&T, says recruiters from 165 districts are in attendance, vying for some 100 prospective teachers who will graduate in May.
Some of Mr. James’s toughest competition is at the next table, where a five-person delegation from Prince George’s County, Md., lures flocks of students with giveaways of plastic luggage tags and red tote bags. The suburban Washington district is also offering a $26,000 starting salary.
Mr. James has none of the enticements nor a comparable salary offer; Dallas starts beginning teachers at $21,846. The leverage he does have is offering a contract on the spot.
He stops a woman who says Dallas is too far from her family, but he persuades her to sit down anyway. “I wouldn’t dare separate you for anything in the world,” he tells her with a laugh. “That would make your mamma and daddy unhappy, and they’d put a curse on me.”
Why not push harder, he is asked after the woman moves on. The woman, he explains, is a home-economics major, and Dallas does not need any home-ec. teachers.
What Dallas, the nation’s eighth-largest system, does need are minority teachers.
The district, with a minority enrollment that exceeds 80 percent, was under court order to increase minority staffing when the school board approved the hiring of two full-time teacher recruiters in December 1989. One concentrates on blacks, the other on Hispanic teachers.
“Our board,” says Luis Tamez, the district’s minority-recruitment director, “recognized the effort to hire and recruit minority teachers had to be an ongoing, full-time activity.”
However, he adds, “The quality of the individual is still our primary consideration.”
The venture is costly. For the current year, the district allocated $240,000 for travel expenses and another $50,000 for advertising.
Apparently few districts are willing or able to invest those kind of resources. A 1987 study by the rand Corporation found that many school districts continued to rely on the age-old practice of hiring teachers from surrounding environs rather than seeking out the most qualified.
Dallas still gets some 30 percent to 40cent of its teachers from the region. For the remainder, the recruiters fan out across the country.
Dallas’s recruiters generally stay away from areas where they cannot compete with the salaries, such as in the Northeast, Mr. Tamez says. They also keep out of south Florida because Miami siphons off so many minority teachers. And some other places, like Montana and the Dakotas, have so few prospects to offer that trips there would not bear much fruit.
Despite the recruiters’ efforts, however, at least half of the 600 new teachers Dallas hires annually are white--in part, the recruiters say, because there are just not enough minority teachers to go around. Even so, since moving to a full-time recruiting scheme, Dallas has increased its proportion of minority teachers about 5 percent each year, Mr. Tamez says.
If Mr. James’s experience is any guide, traveling in search of the “diamond, the jewel,” is not a particularly glamorous line of work.
On the day he left for Greensboro, a shuttle driver picked him up from home at 10:30 A.M., a requisite two hours before his scheduled flight, which left about 45 minutes late--an increasingly frequent hazard.
Arriving at his hotel, he usually showers, prepares for the following day, and reads two or three newspapers. After dinner, Mr. James tends to his expenses and catches up on paperwork. He falls asleep to Cable News Network, opening his eyes periodically during the night to catch up on world events.
“I found out early you cannot socialize in these towns,” Mr. James says. He does not even call his relatives, which include four grown children, when he comes to town because they would keep him up too late.
A seasoned traveler before taking the job in Dallas, he has mastered some tricks over the years.
“A job like this requires a lot of advance thinking,” he says. “The average man can get by with 10 or 12 shirts. I have to have two dozen, 36 shirts,” because his schedule allows only infrequent trips to the laundry.
On meal flights, he orders--in advance--diabetic fare to cut down on his intake of fats and sugars, and he tries to watch his meals on the road to avoid the cholesterol-laden fare that events often feature.
As for exercise, he concedes it is limited on the road to long walks in airport terminals.
So he never loses track of where he is or where he is going, he carries around a full semester’s itinerary and a daybook.
“This is not a job for someone who is not self-disciplined,” Mr. James says.
The job fair here is one of many he will attend during the spring semester, his busiest time of the year. The next few months for Mr. James will be a swirl of job fairs, hotel interviews, and black expositions. The district advertises in local newspapers about upcoming visits to the area, asking prospective teachers to make appointments. Mr. James usually conducts the interviews on weekends in a hotel suite. He has 12 scheduled between now and the end of May.
In March, he will traverse the dusty highways of Louisiana by car, exploring campuses in city after city. The following month, he will tour campuses in Illinois, riding a bus throughout the state with other members of a consortium.
He spends most of his time in Dallas from the end of May until the beginning of July, putting the final touches on contracts.
During the summer, he tries to to drum up business at conventions, like those of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League.
Come September, he hits the road again, visiting campuses, schmoozing with deans and faculty members, talking to students.
The extensive traveling has meant some personal sacrifices. At one time, he notes, he held office on so many community organizations--the n.a.a.c.p. and the Texas Council of Churches among them--that “there was a time when I carried five and six attaches in my car at a time,” he says. But he has given most of that up.
Mr. James still finds time, however, to teach at Austin College in the summer when the recruiting game slows a bit. The recipient of three masters’ degrees and a doctorate, Mr. James is also completing a book with the working title The Audacity to Survive, an intergenerational study of black families.
A former elementary teacher who is certified as a principal and a superintendent as well, Mr. James has a firm idea of what he looks for in a teacher beyond good grades and references.
“No teacher can be a good teacher without a higher calling to the service profession,” Mr. James says.
At the North Carolina A&T job fair, he has his eyes out for those with that calling. He will leave the college with less than a handful of prospects, a situation he takes in stride.
“I don’t equate my success with each trip,” he says. “That way you set yourself up for failure. I’ve gone on trips where I’ve gotten 22 candidates. I’ve gone on trips where I’ve gotten none. If you did it that way you would start counting bodies and dividing by the expenses.’'
But he will return to Dallas with his diamond, his jewel. He managed to sign up Angeline Nelson Brooks, the current North Carolina teacher of the year, who is getting married and relocating to Texas.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Like a Major-League Baseball Scout, Dallas Recruiter Combs the