Early on in his 40-year career in Boston Public Schools, Chuck McAfee learned a critical lesson. He was a young black teacher, sitting with his white colleagues and the parent of a black student they all taught. One by one, McAfee recalled, the teachers explained why the kid was a “pain in the butt.”
Then it was McAfee’s turn. He said, “I don’t have a problem with him. He’s just fine in my classroom.” When the parent left, McAfee said, his colleagues gave him “the eyes of death.” A veteran teacher laid into him: “How could you do that? You made us all look like fools.”
McAfee was humiliated. “I’m six-foot-five, an athlete, and I went home in tears,” he said. He didn’t know if he could return to the school.
Male educators of color often cite such moments, when they almost quit the classroom after a conflict arising from race that no professional development or education school training has prepared them for. McAfee weathered the storm. Now he serves as a coach in the Boston school system’s Male Educators of Color Executive Coaching Program, which was created to address the particular challenges confronting teachers who are black, Latino, Asian, or Native American. The program is now in its second year.
The push in the nation’s school districts to staff classrooms with more males of color has become increasingly urgent. In 2014, students of color became the majority demographic group in public schools, yet only 2 percent of U.S. teachers are Latino men, fewer than 2 percent are black men, and just half a percent are Asian men. Boston Public Schools wants to advance the effort to recruit teachers who reflect the student body and make sure they remain in the system.
The program is modeled after a similar professional development program started in 2013 by Travis J. Bristol when he was training teachers in the Boston Teacher Residency. Now an assistant education professor at Boston University, Bristol sees the PD groups as a space for male teachers to talk about the race-based expectations they often feel ill-equipped to meet.
“People expect us to know what to do,” Bristol said, “but we don’t always.”
Putting Ego Aside
The 22 male educators in the coaching program meet once a month. They take college courses on leadership development and organizational change at the University of Massachusetts, and over the course of the year, they must identify a problem related to their teaching and devise a solution.
But it’s the one-on-one advice from the retired teachers and administrators of color who serve as coaches that keeps many in the program coming back. There are discussions about feeling isolated on a staff with few, if any, male educators of color, or the frustration of being called upon to act as the sole disciplinarian or the translator of record when you speak the language of most of the parents at the school.
The advice from coaches and mentors, McAfee said, tends to be simple and practical. Go back to your school and talk about these issues with colleagues or the principal. Share what you do to reach students of color. Ask that the school hire a translator.
McAfee hopes sharing his experience will save the young teachers from having to relearn old lessons, in particular, from falling into what he calls “the angry black man syndrome.” The anger he experienced after the contentious parent-teacher meeting increased, he said, when a white veteran teacher suggested he apologize. All McAfee had meant was that he understood where the kid’s anger was coming from and connected with him. Why should he apologize for that?
In the end though, the veteran teacher’s advice resonated.
“You have to put your ego aside,” McAfee remembered his colleague saying. “If you feel you have a purpose, and you can make a difference, then you do that. But instead of thinking it’s all about you, why don’t you help your colleagues work with that kid? Give them some tips on how they can connect. They may come to understand you better.”
For E. Christiaan Summerhill, an African-American 7th and 8th grade history teacher, the crisis point came
in 2015. Summerhill was arrested while protesting a New York City grand jury’s decision to clear a white city police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, who was black. He shared a video of the arrest with his 9th grade history class at English High School, where he was teaching at the time, because he wanted to show an example of civic action. Though Summerhill had informed his principal of the arrest and no action was taken by the school, parents were angered to learn he had discussed the arrest with students.
“They thought I glorified my arrest,” said Summerhill. “They thought I was pushing an anti-white curriculum.” The complaints came from parents of color. Summerhill didn’t have anyone on staff who could support him. He was not welcomed back to English and started at Tobin School, a district K-8 school, the following school year. He was also found not guilty of civil charges of disturbing the peace and trespassing.
Guidance From Mentors
Coaches in the Male Educators of Color program analyzed Summerhill’s approach. He should have immediately contacted parents after the arrest, they said, and made it clear this was not something he wished to endorse. So at his new school and at his coaches’ suggestion, Summerhill sent students home with an article about his arrest, information about what he’d be teaching in the class, and his phone number. The response was overwhelmingly positive, according to Summerhill—no pushback at all.
Summerhill said the support from the program inspired him to stay in the classroom. “We are incredibly privileged to have these mentors who have so much experience and who have had such an impact in public schools,” he said. “Our relationship will continue for the rest of our careers. While they are living and breathing, they are there to support us.”
That support appears to drive success. Some of the first year’s participants have become principals. One participant took a position as assistant superintendent of opportunity and achievement gaps and hired two fellow members of the Educators of Color program.
“Networking is something that happens often in white society and not so regularly among people of color,” said Carroll Blake, a former principal and head coach for the Educators of Color program. “This is a good example of what a cohort can achieve.”
Ceronne Daly, the director of diversity programs in Boston public schools, said that the men’s sense of connection is powerful. “The classroom can be isolating, and gender, race, and language can isolate you even more,” she said. “But these men now have each other. They play basketball, go to dinner, text. They have this underground network of collaboration.”
The program’s success spurred the creation last year of professional development geared toward promoting the same family-like support network for women educators of color.
Bristol, who has advised other districts on how to recruit and retain male teachers and is now studying New York City’s MenTeach initiative, stressed the importance of the “fraternal element” in the men’s program. “You begin to realize you don’t have to suffer in silence,” he said. “There are others going through similar challenges, and that wasn’t because there was something wrong with them. There was something wrong with the system and how it’s organized.”
When McAfee was first asked to be a coach in the program, he hesitated because he didn’t like the idea of separating male educators of color. “I thought, ‘I’m not doing this race-card thing,’” he said. “But now I see how powerful working with these young men can be.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2017 edition of Education Week as For Male Educators of Color, a Shoulder to Lean On