Corrected: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of teacher Ammar Thabet.
In 2015, New York City’s then-Mayor Bill DeBlasio set a lofty goal to make the city’s teaching corps better reflect its students: Put an additional 1,000 men of color on track to become public school teachers in the city by 2018.
The nation’s largest school district sailed past that target a year early and kept right on going.
Despite the success, Chimere Stephens, a key player in the effort, couldn’t help thinking of the prospective teachers drawn in by the district’s $2 million ad campaign only to be turned away. Too many of them got tripped up by a grade point average requirement or the cost of graduate school.
“We said to ourselves, what can we do for that population of men of color?” said Stephens, who served first as a program manager in the recruitment initiative dubbed NYC Men Teach, then beginning in 2018 as its leader and the senior director of diversity recruitment for the roughly 900,000-student district.
Now, the pipeline he’s helped build to bring men of color into the teaching force stretches all the way back to high schoolers, continues with college students, and includes on-ramps for those already working as paraprofessionals and in similar positions throughout the city’s schools.
“I always get asked, ‘How do you create a vibrant, diverse, inclusive pathway for people to come into the teaching profession?’ And my biggest takeaway is start early,” Stephens said.
‘Unlike anyone I’d ever seen before’
In part thanks to Stephens’ work, the district has quadrupled its ambitious initial goal, adding 4,000 men of color to its teaching ranks over the past eight years. The move has brought the share of male teachers of color from 8.5 percent in 2015 to 15 percent last year.
That’s still not reflective of a student population in which 51 percent of children are male, and roughly four in five students are Hispanic, Black, or Asian. Still, far more New York City students will likely be taught by a man of color than students in other districts around the country. Black men make up just 2 percent of the nation’s teaching force.
The almost doubling of the proportion of male teachers of color is “pretty remarkable, though we still have a lot of progress to go,” said Amy Way, the executive director of the office of teacher recruitment and quality for the New York City system, and Stephens’ boss. Stephens, she added, “has been a critical leader in driving that progress.”
Having teachers who look like them can positively reverberate for students of color for decades, studies show. For instance, if a low-income Black student has just one Black teacher in elementary school, that student is significantly more likely to graduate high school and consider attending college, a 2017 John Hopkins University study found.
Stephens has all the data at the tip of his tongue. But he didn’t need to read a study to know how important it is for young men of color to look at their teachers and see possibilities for themselves.
Stephens, who is Black, grew up in the Bronx, where he watched his mother, a Head Start teacher, spend her own money on supplies for her classroom. He attended private Catholic schools, where he didn’t have a male teacher of color until his 8th grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Regan.
“Mr. Regan was just unlike anyone I’d ever seen before, from the way he dressed to the way he spoke, to how smart he was,” Stephens said. “That just really, really impacted me.”
The following year, Eduardo Calderone, another man of color who worked in an after-school program Stephens attended, made an even bigger impression. Stephens wasn’t the kind of kid who got into trouble, but he also didn’t have much direction. Calderone called him on it, Stephens said.
“I’ll never forget, he asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’” Stephens said. And I was like, ‘play basketball. I don’t know.’ And he was like, ‘You need to figure that out. Because if not, you’re gonna run the risk of ending up as a statistic.’”
In his early teens, Stephens didn’t understand what that phrase meant, exactly. But he grasped the message behind it when Calderone brought him along to one of his graduate classes at Fordham University. Stephens had never been on the campus, just a short distance from his home.
I always get asked, ‘How do you create a vibrant, diverse, inclusive pathway for people to come into the teaching profession?' And my biggest takeaway is start early.
“I sat through the class,” he remembered. “Boom. It blew me away. The guy changed the trajectory of my life,” Stephens said, by opening him up to the possibilities of college and advanced study. Stephens ultimately enrolled in and graduated from Fordham with a degree in English literature.
Entry points from high school and beyond
Inspired in part by his mother’s example, Stephens has dedicated his career to working with or on behalf of children—first as a director of operations at the KIPP charter network, then with a program that placed social workers in schools, before joining NYC Men Teach.
After the initial satisfaction of reaching the city’s first goal, NYC Men Teach’s original director moved on, recommending Stephens be elevated to her position.
To keep building on the program’s early success, Stephens and his team realized the district would have to look beyond education majors at nearby colleges to continue finding men of color.
“If we wait to recruit solely from the schools of education, we know that the demographic and the target audience that we’re in search of is not there,” Stephens said. “Our approach is to really meet people where they’re at. … [For] folks who are marginalized, it [doesn’t] just happen as a one shot, ‘Hey, here’s a flyer. Here’s a QR code.’”
Stephens believed the first step in the process should be focused on students. He and his staff revamped the district’s chapter of Educators Rising, a nonprofit program aimed at developing future teachers already in place in the district serving around 70 students across five high schools. Now the program includes 200 students in 15 schools.
Instead of merely showing up for weekly meetings, students in Educators Rising also take what Stephens calls a mini course in urban education, offered by the City University of New York, and tour the campuses of local teaching colleges.
Stephens also persuaded the district to make it clear that New York City schools would support any student in the program who later sought a teaching job in the district by helping with a resume, cover letter, demonstration lessons, certification requirements, and more.
College students have their own entry points in the pipeline, including through an internship program, an idea Stephens said was inspired in part by his wife, who at the time was a recruiter for Bank of America. Stephens visits colleges around the region, but also historically Black colleges in other states, such as Atlanta’s Morehouse College, in part to find candidates for the internships.
Each year, the program allows about 30 men of color to spend the summer in the Big Apple, living in dorms of partner colleges. They spend the first two weeks in intensive professional development, with a special focus on culturally responsive teaching.
Over the next eight weeks, they serve as teaching assistants in summer school classes. By the end of the experience, each intern delivers a 45-minute lesson. The program has run for the past several years, though it was entirely virtual at the height of the pandemic.
“It’s a great way for us to be able to get these students to see New York City, to see these communities, to get acquainted with our students,” Stephens said. Later, the program’s alumni—more than 100 on college campuses across the country—can serve as ambassadors, persuading their classmates to consider teaching in New York City.
Ammar Thabet credits his teaching career to the program. Back in 2018, as a chemistry major at Brooklyn College, Thabet knew he wanted to work in a service-oriented profession where he could interact directly with people. Maybe in nursing or education.
As soon as he got into the classroom as a fellow and began working with small groups of summer school students who had struggled with math, Thabet knew he’d found his path.
Math is one of his favorite subjects and in his two-week professional development crash course, he’d been told to try and relate as much content as possible to real life. So he put problems in terms students could understand—money, food. And math started to connect for them.
“It just made me feel good about myself, that I was making a difference,” Thabet said.
Other parts of the fellowship resonated with Thabet too, including the conversations about how important it can be for students of color to see themselves in their teachers. Thabet immigrated to the United States from the Middle East as a teenager and started in New York City schools as an English learner. He remembers how much it meant to him to find a teacher who had been in his shoes, someone to field questions about grammar and vocabulary that he was too embarrassed to ask native speakers.
Now, he has a special relationship with many of the English learners in his own chemistry classes at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, a highly selective magnet school. Some come to his room during his free periods, just to chat or get advice.
“They just feel more comfortable in my class,” Thabet said.
Drawing from its paraprofessionals
The district has had its most success so far in looking closer to home. Principals can nominate staffers in their building who already have a bachelor’s degree—often paraprofessionals—to get a $4,800, reduced-price master’s degree. That’s brought in 500 new male teachers of color, Stephens said.
Early-career teachers continue to receive support from NYC Men Teach, through a mentoring program that puts them in small groups with other men of color.
“Sometimes, there’s this stigma for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] teachers, especially men, who feel like: ‘I don’t want to express to the school-appointed mentor that I don’t know what I’m doing here,’ because of fear of being ostracized or fear of being labeled as incompetent,” Stephens said.
Participants in the NYC Men Teach program also get access to extra professional development, including a bank of lesson ideas, and monthly small group sessions focused on curriculum.
In addition, Stephens and his team are continually reaching out to prospective teachers in non-traditional ways—poetry slams on Instagram, open mic nights, podcasts they’ve created, film screenings, and discussions.
They’ve held Zoom discussions diving into uncomfortable—even wrenching—topics, including police violence against Black men, the disparate impact of the pandemic on people of color, and the lack of healthcare access for marginalized communities.
Teacher morale has been at a low point nationally over the last few years, but Stephens tries to help candidates see what the Big Apple’s schools can offer.
With about 1,600 schools serving students who speak more than 200 different native languages, “you can find the right fit for you,” he said. “You can teach the world. Even if it’s just one student that you impact and change their life, they’ll go on to inspire and impact [others]. And you would have had a part in that.”
EdWeek’s Leadership Symposium | Live in D.C.
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Want to Recruit Male Teachers of Color? Look to This New York City Leader