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Recruitment & Retention Opinion

3 Solutions for the Black Male Teacher Shortage

I was well out of college before my mentor persuaded me to become a teacher
By Sharif El-Mekki — November 07, 2023 5 min read
Collaged photo illustration of Black men teachers and positive role models
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We often hear about the dearth of Black, Indigenous, Latino, and brown men teaching. We hear about the problem, the barriers, the obstacles, but not the constructive path forward. Black male educators account for less than 2 percent of the total teaching population despite volumes of studies that demonstrate how much of a game-changer they can be for not just Black male students but all students.

Despite this popular framing, there are several ways that school leaders can make progress and push for solutions. The fact is, there is ample energy for change that can assist such efforts. I see the commitment and passion for that progress daily in my own work.

In my home city of Philadelphia, last month was Black Male Educator month. It’s a big deal for me, for my fellow Black male educators, and for the organization I lead, the Center for Black Educator Development. To be recognized in this way is validating for our work, including our now-annual event, the Black Men in Education Convening, which will be held later this month and is already sold out. We’ve maxed out on our capacity now multiple years in a row, demonstrating a powerful desire among Black men in education to connect with and be sustained, inspired, and educated by their peers. It also shows that there’s a demand for solutions to the very real challenges of recruiting and retaining more Black male educators.

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

But if you aren’t able to attend, here are three ways that you can meaningfully improve your ability to recruit and retain more Black male educators.

1. Learn from the experience and legacy of historically Black colleges and universities. HBCUs produce fully half of all Black teachers nationally. They are also a key partner in addressing teacher shortages that continue to result from the mismatch between the supply of teachers and the specific needs of school districts.

HBCUs possess a combination of a culturally affirming curriculum and an environment that values Black learners and educators. Our schools can take a page from that combination; they can be places where Black men can be seen in their totality and heard authentically. That’s not just a sentiment but a deep reality. I recently had the chance to spend some time on the campuses of Spelman and Moorehouse. The sense of what is possible when an institution nurtures and supports Black excellence was palpable. Schools and school districts like that are better positioned to both retain and recruit Black men into teaching.

2. Stop “typecasting” Black male teachers. It’s time that Black men were seen for the diversity of skills that they can bring to schools rather than limiting them. Black men can be more than disciplinarians to “police” the students who look like them. They can be extraordinary educators in their own right and inspiring figures for all students. The talent is there, but it needs to be seen, recognized, and elevated.

Teacher talent among Black men also needs to be uncovered from where it’s often hiding in plain sight. Black men are everywhere in our schools, but they’re usually outside of or adjacent to classroom-teaching roles. There are countless Black men with college degrees who are behavioral-support specialists, climate and culture aides, and in a host of other paraprofessional roles. Removing barriers to entry into the teaching profession for these future educators is a must.

Martin Ryder (first row, far left), poses with a Concerned Black Men cohort and school district board president, Floyd Alston (center, first row) in 1993.

3. Recognize that the Black boys sitting in your classrooms today are the Black men leading your classrooms tomorrow. Too often, we’re not seeing Black boys as potential educators in the first place. I myself was well out of college before a soon-to-be mentor, Martin Ryder, persuaded me and a cohort of Black men to pursue a career in teaching. Meanwhile, I’ve heard stories aplenty of white women who received the proverbial tap on the shoulder from the profession as early as 3rd grade.

At last year’s Black Male Educators Convening, we gave Ryder the inaugural Liberators’ Award, which publicly recognizes people who have had a tremendous impact on the Black teacher pipeline. Ryder spent more than 43 years as an educator and professor of education. He taught high school math and chaired education departments at Rollins College and Norfolk State University.

More than that, though, he convinced my group of peers, all of us young Black men, that we could not only be teachers but great teachers. These meetings were a part of partnership between the nonprofit Concerned Black Men, Cheyney University, and the Philadelphia district that aimed to hire 500 Black men to teach in the city’s public schools. Our cohort ranged from people like me, fresh out of college, and others who were career changers. I left those meetings understanding that the purest form of activism was teaching Black children well, and that is what I committed to doing.

What if, when we saw a Black boy, instead of putting a basketball or detention slip in his hand, we took his hand and invited him toward a career in teaching?

In 1997, Sharif El-Mekki, then an 8th grade literature and history teacher at Turner Middle School in Philadelphia, poses with his student Terrance Williams, who later became a teacher. Turner is now an assistant principal.

Our Center for Black Educator Development Teaching Academy offers high school courses for students to explore their interests in becoming educators. Nearly half those students are Black boys. They are committed to social justice and strengthening their communities—a powerful mix of inspiration that can be channeled through a career in teaching. The desire on their part is right in front of us, but we have to meet them halfway with the affirmation and support to connect them with our teaching pipelines.

Our convening later this month promises to be powerful and inspiring, but its spirit can go well beyond the nearly 1,000 attendees at our Philadelphia gathering place. BMEC is delivering on that front. Last year, just over 40 percent of participants entered the convening saying they felt they had the tools and ideas to increase and retain the number of Black male educators in their local ecosystem. By the end of the BMEC2022, that number jumped to nearly 70 percent. We look forward to growing that impact.

We can get more Black men leading our classrooms. We just need to be intentional about our efforts to do it.

A plenary session at the 2022 Black Male Educators Convening #BMEC2022 at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia.

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