Very few of the nation’s K-12 classrooms today are helmed by Black men.
America’s teachers are overwhelmingly white and female, despite the fact that America’s students are mostly people of color. The statistics are stark: Fewer than 7 percent of teachers are Black, and just 2 percent are Black men. And teacher turnover rates are especially high for Black men.
That’s because schools can be unwelcoming places for Black men, experts say. Studies show that many Black male teachers are pigeonholed into disciplinarian roles instead of being recognized for their pedagogy and content expertise. Also, many teachers of color are concentrated in hard-to-staff schools serving high-poverty communities, where there can often be a lack of resources and support.
Yet sitting in a classroom helmed by a teacher of color can have a significant positive impact on students. Black students, especially Black boys from low-income households, are more likely to both graduate from high school and enroll in college when they have just one Black teacher in elementary school. Research has shown that Black teachers have higher expectations for Black students, and that Black students are less likely to receive detentions, suspensions, or expulsions from Black teachers.
Education Week spoke to three Black male educators about the challenges of working in a white- and female-dominated profession, and about what it might take to recruit and retain more men of color. These excerpts from those conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
“We were just not looked at as educators”
Sharif El-Mekki, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Black Educator Development, a Philadelphia-based group working to recruit, train, and retain Black teachers across the country
In 2014, I worked with a group of young men to start an organization called The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, really trying to support current and aspiring Black men. It ended up being 17 Black men from all over the country, but we were all working in Philadelphia. One of the things we realized we had in common was not a single one of us had been approached to become a teacher until we had graduated college. We all came through some type of alternative certification program.
We asked our colleagues, most of whom are white women, when they were first approached to be a teacher. The average response was 3rd grade. Third grade was when someone tapped them on the shoulder, someone invited them to consider the profession.
We actually analyzed our own actions as classroom teachers and school leaders, and we were not surfacing this invitation early and often either. We may do it randomly or respond to a student query or something, but we weren’t assertive about, “Hey, here’s why I teach,” or, “You should consider teaching,” or, “You know what, that’s great leadership,” or, “Thanks for helping your peer with that problem. That’s something teachers do all the time.”
We just committed to start sharing that with our students, and eventually one of the guys, Raymond Roy-Pace, started a Why I Teach tour, and we would visit high schools and colleges to speak to Black youth about becoming teachers, particularly Black boys. Sometimes they would share, “We don’t want to be a teacher,” because of the negative experiences they’ve had. “Why would I want to come back to this as a profession?”
Our friend Dr. Chris Emdin talks about this idea that for some Black youth, returning to a school to teach is like returning to the scene of a crime against themselves, and how painful and traumatic and how triggering some of this must be. You can’t just do it in isolation, it has to be part of an entire effort to address the inequities.
What we learned was there were a couple of things that really seemed to resonate with the Black youth. We would tap into their activism, tap into their sense of justice and fairness, and say, “Hey, if you had a great teacher, pay it forward, but if you had a bad experience, consider becoming the teacher you wish you had and knew you needed.”
And this idea of being a vanguard for younger youth: Even if you don’t come back, who’s teaching your little brother and little sister? Who’s teaching your younger cousin or younger neighbor? This idea of community—Mary Church Terrell, one of those Black educator hall of famers, would say “lifting as we climb” when she would speak about education and school and learning. That seemed to resonate: “Even if I’m going through a struggle, I can still lift as I climb.”
“It starts to wear down on you and burn you out”
Emir Davis, director of Black male engagement at the Center for Black Educator Development
I originally started in Teach For America in Philly, and I spent three years there teaching high school math. As a young teacher, there’s this bubble that exists around you, and you don’t really know what’s going on. You’re just trying to survive. You’re trying to be the best teacher you can be, you’re trying to understand the content, you’re trying to manage the classroom, you’re trying to meet deadlines.
I was frustrated at something, I just didn’t know what that something was. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced though, I started to identify that system of culturally unresponsive teaching—teaching that doesn’t respond to the culture of the students. Also, I was frustrated by this expectation that I had to take on the quote-unquote “worst-behaved students.” I’m putting that in quotes because I wouldn’t define them as such, but as the students who we all love. I was supposed to manage the classroom, be this expert on behavior, but my ability to deliver content wasn’t honored or developed.
Now, I lead a cohort of Black male current or aspiring teachers through our series of workshops around culturally responsive pedagogy, around basic teaching skills, around what it means as a Black male to navigate the predominately white institution that is teaching. We also work with the district or organization leadership to develop strategies around retention and recruitment of Black male teachers. We codify the things we have learned through conversations and convenings with other Black males and suggest them as they’re developing their strategies.
What I hear from Black male teachers who are leaving is that their voice isn’t centered, isn’t honored. They don’t feel like their leadership or their colleagues really appreciate their voice. They have this deep calling within them to stay and to give back and to teach and educate, but they have to deal with the minutia that surrounds them, that’s not culturally competent, that doesn’t push themselves to see it through their perspective. It gets really tiring.
The other thing is that there are these expectations that they have to be these discipline gurus. Let’s say they have a teaching load of 150 students—five classes, 30 students each—then they still have to, because they are Black males, find the extra energy to talk down a student who is having a crisis. Their colleagues may look at them as the saviors for Black males or for Black students in general.
That burden to be the culturally competent teacher and the one who expresses love and generosity and dedication to their students, along with the burden of leading a classroom instructionally, it starts to wear down on you and burn you out.
Having a Black principal “makes a huge difference”
Gemayel Hazard, 6th grade social studies teacher, Fairfax County, Va.
The statistic about the teacher population being 2 percent Black male? Think about it with elementary. It’s even fewer. I was the only Black male in the classroom in my building. … I’m strongly considering moving to middle or high school next year, just so I can have somebody that I can relate more to.
It does weigh on you. In my 14 years as a teacher, there’s maybe one or two years where I wasn’t thinking about changing my career. … It’s never the kids. It’s always the other stuff. It’s always the people doubting your competence. There was a three-year period where I was in my building prepping every Sunday, but I was seen as lazy.
Those ideas and stereotypes that are perpetuated in larger society really come to bear in a school setting, especially when you’re 2 percent of the population, systemwide. That means the people who are deciding whether you’re competent or good are basing that on what their world experiences are, their experiences as teachers, their experiences with school leaders, what they’ve seen other school leaders do before them.
The schools that I’ve worked in where staff hasn’t been diverse, it’s been awful. It’s harder to have tough conversations. It’s harder to expose people to new ideas, especially depending on who’s bringing that idea to the table.
Now, I work for a Black principal. If something happens in the news that affects someone on our staff, we talk about it. We have a conversation about it, and he’ll lead that conversation and give real-life examples and talk about his life, because he can. And that opens the door for everyone else to feel comfortable in what they experience and to talk about it. But when you’re part of a staff where nobody looks like you, nobody understands what you’re talking about, people don’t even think that what you’re saying is true, then it makes it even more difficult than it already is.
Hearing the person in charge talk about experiences the same as mine, … it makes a huge difference. He’s a Black male and that gives him leverage in understanding people like myself and our experiences in the world, but that doesn’t mean a white male or a white female can’t understand that. You certainly can. You would have to want to. You would have to do some research, you would have to do some listening, you’d have to do some reading.
Whatever experiences [of racism] that the last generation had, it’s all still happening. We’re seeing it play out live and in living color every day. We carry that stuff with us, and you have to be able to understand that.
The news about [Daunte Wright, a young Black man in Minnesota who was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in which the officer confronted him about an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror]—every day when I get in my car, I take my school parking pass off [the mirror]. What happened is a real fear that we have that nobody else knows about. If you want to be the kind of school leader that has a really diverse staff, you have to be aware. If you want to do an observation that day and a teacher’s off—pay attention to what happened in the news last night.
Coverage of teacher retention and recruitment is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, at carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 2021 edition of Education Week as What Black Men Need From Schools to Stay in the Teaching Profession