Equity & Diversity

Black Male Teachers a Dwindling Demographic

By Corey Mitchell — February 16, 2016 7 min read
Chrissell Rhone speaks with Gage Harrison, a student at the Picayune Center for Alternative Education in Picayune, Miss. After teaching for 10 years in a school system with an ample supply of black teachers, Rhone is now the only African-American teacher in his workplace.
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When Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, Chrissell Rhone lost lots: his home, his job, and the sense of security that came from teaching alongside people who looked like him.

The storm forced Rhone to pack up and leave New Orleans, where an ample supply of black educators populated the city’s classrooms. He settled just 45 miles northeast, in Picayune, Miss., a town of 11,000 near the Mississippi-Louisiana border, and is now the lone black teacher at the district’s alternative education center and among only a handful of black male educators in a district where a majority of students are white.

As a result, the past decade of Rhone’s 20-year career has taken a shape that differs from the first. He went from a place where race was an afterthought for him to one where race is more frequently on his mind.

“I wouldn’t say every day, but much more frequently than it had ever been when I lived in New Orleans,” Rhone said. “I have run into some problems and situations [where] I wondered, ‘Had I not been a black man, would it have been such a problem?’ ”

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The fact that he’s among a dwindling demographic, both nationally and close to home, isn’t lost on Rhone. Nationally, black males represent roughly 2 percent of all public school teachers.

“Sometimes we’re just overlooked and sometimes we’re just not there,” he said.

Failing to Keep Pace

America’s K-12 schools have never been more diverse, with nonwhite students now outnumbering whites, but efforts to diversify the nation’s teaching corps haven’t kept pace. As a group, U.S. teachers remain overwhelmingly white and female—and black men are the most underrepresented demographic in the teaching ranks. And surveys and anecdotal information show that teachers of color can feel the sting of bias in schools as easily as minority students in mostly white educational environments.

The shortage may be even worse in places like Picayune that have historically struggled to attract nonwhite teachers. In the district, 60 percent of students are white and 34 percent are black.

Even when teachers of color find work in the classroom, many end up fleeing in frustration, according to “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education,” a 2015 report from the Albert Shanker Institute. Nationally, the report says, nonwhite teachers are being hired at a higher proportional rate than other teachers, but they’re also leaving the profession at a higher rate.

The research by the Shanker Institute, a think tank supported by the American Federation of Teachers, raises questions about whether districts are doing enough to hold onto nonwhite teachers.

Myth vs. Reality

Fueled by his own experience as an English teacher in New York City’s public schools, Travis Bristol, a research and policy fellow at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, has explored what it takes to keep minority male teachers in the classroom.

Bristol and other researchers studying teacher retention have landed on some common findings: Many nonwhite educators feel voiceless and incapable of effecting change in their schools.

In documenting the experiences of 27 black male teachers in the Boston public schools during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, Bristol found that “loners,” those who were the only black male teachers in a school, more often stayed in their current school because of favorable working conditions and school environments, despite feeling “disconnected from the mission of their school,” a sensation akin to what nonwhite students experience in schools where they’re the racial minority.

Chrissell Rhone moved from New Orleans to his grandmother’s home in Picayune, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. As a minority on Picayune’s mostly white teaching force, he said he thinks about race more often now.

In Boston, the loner teachers felt frustration because colleagues often sought their help in dealing with student discipline issues, but rarely asked them for advice when it came to actual teaching. In other words, they were viewed as behavioral managers first, and teachers second, Bristol said.

“Many of them felt their colleagues considered them intellectually inferior,” he said.

Rhone, for his part, shares stories of having his suggestions ignored or discounted by colleagues, pondering the motivations behind personnel decisions and perceived slights, and serving as a frequent sounding board for the concerns of black parents and students.

By contrast, “grouper” teachers, those who worked in the same school as other nonwhite males, were usually clustered in low-performing schools and were more likely to leave their schools or the profession altogether, according to Bristol’s study.

Across the nation, nonwhite teachers tend to be concentrated in schools serving high-poverty communities, often in high-stakes environments where demands to raise test scores can trump other needs such as culturally responsive curriculum and social-emotional learning.

In addition to those pressures, teachers in these hard-to-staff schools often reported a lack of support and collegiality, elements that could drive away even the most devoted teachers, said education researcher Rodney Ogawa.

“They found themselves in the proverbial space between a rock and a hard place,” said Ogawa, an emeritus professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and former director of the school’s Center for Educational Research in the Interest of Underserved Students (CERIUS). “A highly dedicated individual will try to stick it out because of the strength of their calling, but it’s tough.”

Flags fly in front of Picayune’s city hall. More than a third of the district’s students—but only a handful of teachers—are black.

During his teaching days in New York City schools, Bristol himself worked as a loner and grouper. Reluctant to speak in detail about his own experience, Bristol did acknowledge that it inspired his research.

A frustrated Bristol would often see male black and Hispanic students excel in his classroom, and then struggle in classes with his colleagues, most of whom were white women.

“I wanted to design learning conditions that would help boys of color do better,” he said.

For many, including Bristol, those conditions include having a more-representative teaching force to work with students. Research has found that nonblack teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students.

“Teachers of color working with students of color can make a difference with those kids,” Ogawa said.

Staying in the Classroom

In light of such research, districts are increasingly undertaking efforts to boost the number of black males in the teaching force.

New York City, home of the nation’s largest public school system and one of the districts highlighted in the Shanker report, is spending $16.5 million as part of a plan to hire 1,000 black, Latino, and Asian male teachers by 2017.

In Boston, officials have launched two efforts: the Boston Teacher Residency program, a yearlong program that trains a diverse corps of teachers to work in the district, and the Male Educators of Color Executive Coaching Seminar Series, a professional development opportunity open to all male educators of color in the district.

“If urban districts want to focus on bringing more black male teachers in, they have to give more attention to retention,” Bristol said.

Chrissell Rhone uses a metal detector to search students for contraband before the school day starts in Picayune, Miss. Like many African-American teachers, Rhone said he has considered leaving K-12 schools.

One university-led consortium in Pennsylvania, the Black Men Teaching Initiative, is starting its minority-teacher recruiting efforts well before students hit college campuses. They’re using workshops and mentorship programs to recruit middle and high school students, as well as teaching assistants already working in schools, into teacher education programs. Organizers say developing grow-your-own teacher pipelines is one way to counter the biases that some see as driving promising black male students away from the teaching profession.

Many nonwhite males see teaching as a woman’s profession. That holds especially true at the prekindergarten and elementary levels, where the dearth of nonwhite male teachers is most pronounced, said Stanley Denton, an associate professor of education at Point Park University and a former Pittsburgh public schools administrator.

“There are stereotypes about who should be in the classroom and who constitutes an ideal teacher,” Denton said.

Point Park is among the coalition of colleges and universities trying to persuade more young black men to become teachers, through a project funded by the Heinz Endowments.

“We have to look beyond the impact on [minority students’] achievement,” said Denton, the education professor in charge of the initiative at Point Park University. “This can be transformative for lives and communities.”

Rhone, the Picayune teacher, can relate to that sense of responsibility and possibility. He has considered leaving K-12 schools several times during his career, but the call of the profession has always reeled him back in.

“The kids really don’t feel like they have many people they can go to or teachers they can relate to,” Rhone said. “I find myself being the support system for many kids [who] are black.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Black Male Teachers a Rarity

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