Opinion
Recruitment & Retention Commentary

Obama’s Legacy for Male Principals of Color

By Winston C. Cox — September 20, 2016 4 min read

As President Barack Obama prepares to leave office, I find myself thinking deeply about his leadership—and mine.

Though I am an elementary school principal in Washington and do not know what it’s like to run a country, I know what it’s like to run a public school in our nation’s capital. In fact, there are several parallels to our lives and experiences as public servants. I, too, am the son of a white American mother and a black father born outside the United States, and my parents divorced when I was young. Having a family history similar to the president’s and seeing the leader he has become has both empowered and inspired me.

Upon his inauguration as the 44th U.S. president in 2009, Obama inherited a difficult state of affairs: double-digit unemployment, a swelling budget deficit, the deepest recession in 80 years, and two ongoing wars. In 2011, I would face the biggest challenge of my career, when I became principal of Crosby S. Noyes Elementary School, an award-winning urban school in Northeast Washington that was rocked by allegations of a standardized-test cheating scandal.

Obama's Legacy for Male Principals of Color: Students of color need more teachers and leaders with whom they share a cultural background, writes principal Winston C. Cox.

Five years later, our school is beginning to show signs of recovery. The school climate is turning around, and students are making academic strides. I admit to having often looked at Obama’s leadership style for examples of how to navigate these difficult years.

Much remains to be done both in the nation and in education. As the president prepares to pass the torch to his successor, I, too, am considering the next generation of school leaders. My personal mission is to figure out how schools can enlist and retain more men of color in positions of K-12 leadership. The school-leadership pipeline begins in the classroom, where our progress to date—that of men of color—has been lackluster.

In 1987, 12 percent of public school teachers in the United States were minorities. Nearly 30 years later, that figure has increased to only 17 percent, according to a 2015 report by the Albert Shanker Institute. And, currently, no more than 2 percent of all public school teachers in the United States are black and male. Even fewer stick around long enough to transition to leadership roles at the district level or beyond; in fact, the annual rate of minority-teacher turnover has increased by 28 percent over the last two decades.

Only 8 percent of the nation’s experienced public school principals (those with more than 10 years in their role) are men of color, and the pipeline to administration is little more than a trickle. In Washington, the number of principals who are men of color is slightly higher, at 18 percent. These numbers must improve, given that students of color make up more than half the enrollment of our nation’s public schools.

Any boy of color will tell you that it makes a difference to have learning framed by a teacher who has traveled the same road."

There are many reasons why we urgently need males of color in teacher and leadership positions. Research shows that students who are taught by teachers from a variety of backgrounds and races are better prepared to succeed in a diverse world.

Students of color benefit from teachers and leaders of color who share similar cultural backgrounds. When black, Hispanic, or Asian male students go through their entire schooling without seeing men in leadership roles who look like them and share their perspectives, they can develop a sense of alienation. Having a role model can help these young men hone their own leadership skills and make them feel less isolated.

In my own experience as a student, I didn’t see a male teacher or principal of color until I was in middle school. I acted out against what I felt to be an absence of connection and understanding. I cursed at teachers and sometimes bullied my peers. I accepted mediocre grades and had low expectations for myself. Without frequent contact from my own father, I yearned for guidance.

It made a difference when middle school teachers introduced me to a legacy of struggle and achievement through the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Although some might argue that any highly skilled teacher, regardless of his or her ethnicity, could have helped me, any boy of color will tell you that it makes a difference to have learning framed by a teacher who has traveled the same road.

The recruitment, development, and retention of males of color in our public schools must address the systemic challenges that have contributed to their high turnover. As U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. recently noted, teachers of color pay an “invisible tax.” We are often expected to handle unwanted student behaviors and to be more culturally responsive than our peers.

Men of color need to be invited to bring the full spectrum of their skills and talents to their work with children. In my own practice, I factor this need into my hiring and professional-development efforts. I also mentor and encourage male teachers of color to pursue roles in leadership. President Obama is preparing to leave office at a time when the country—the one my students will soon inherit—is troubled. From the divisive 2016 political circus to recent violence in Baltimore, Chicago, and Dallas, young people have cause for concern. School is the one place where we can prepare them to be future leaders for change and show them that they, too, can grow up to be principals or even presidents.

Leaders of color in education have a critical role to play in healing the nation’s schools and the nation itself.

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2016 edition of Education Week as Why Public Schools Need More Male Principals of Color

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