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If Any Man Will

Sharon Harden
Program Chair
Elementary Education
Pillar College
Who will dispute evidence from education experts that all students benefit when they are taught by teachers who look like them? Who will argue with the fact that most black students in urban schools and districts across the country show academic and social gains when they have been taught by black teachers? And who among us will dispute that education is still the most promising pathway to enable children to escape poverty and achieve their dreams? We know unequivocally that instrumental in activating and motivating progress along this pathway is the classroom teacher. How is it then that some boys and girls may go through their entire elementary school experience and not see one black male teacher? Some non-white students as early as elementary grades believe that all teachers must be white. Some pass from one grade to the next and never have a teacher who looks like them.
In Newark alone, about 57 percent of teachers are black or Hispanic along with 89 percent of the district’s students. In urban districts here and across the country where ethnic and racial, differences in the classroom do indeed make a difference in student achievement and motivation, we often hear the question: “Where are the black male teachers?” Statements affirming this apparent absence of a black male presence in our classrooms are all too commonplace since only 20 percent of teachers in the U.S. identify themselves as non-white and only 2 percent are black men. Interestingly, black educators have disappeared from the scene in our classrooms before throughout history. For instance, in 1954 there were 82,000 black teachers in U.S. public schools. In the decade following Brown v. Board of Education, we lost roughly 40,000 black teachers and principals as all-black schools shut down. Accordingly, many blacks prior to this time went into the teaching profession and were depicted as either victims of their oppressive environments or as trained professionals who embraced and taught an emancipatory form of education.
In 2014, the Center for American Progress reported that teachers who look like their students have higher expectations, may provide culturally relevant teaching, develop trusting relationships with their students, confront issues of racism through teaching, and are often seen as advocates and cultural brokers. It is important that students see their cultural values, beliefs, religion, language, and ethnicity reflected in the educational enterprise. In addition, Johns Hopkins University released its 2017 study that found multiple risk factors for low-income black students were reduced by as much as 39 percent in some instances simply by having just one black teacher.
As a former school district administrator and as someone now engaged in teacher preparation in higher education, I have experienced and heard firsthand the reluctance, fear, and lack of serious consideration coming from black and Hispanic males when I talk to them about becoming part of America’s teaching corps. The reasons given to me seem to consistently resonate with what has been identified by experts in the field. Aside from the predominant hesitancy to be viewed as a school “disciplinarian or behavioral specialist” for black and brown students, there is also a reluctance to seriously consider teaching as a noble profession. Fear of being the “only one” is also very real and prevalent in feedback I have obtained. This risk of isolation within the school runs high if a black male is the only one on faculty. There is also a burden and fear of being associated as a spokesperson for the race or group which is often the case when a black male is assigned to a predominately white school faculty. It is noteworthy that in order to help teacher candidates find ways to reconcile their masculine identities in the context of their roles as teachers, disciplinarians, and cultural representatives, preparation programs must provide intentional and meaningful pre-professional practices and courses that allow black males, in particular, to be affirmed in their masculinity and increase their self awareness. This is extremely important as we recruit young black males into the teacher pipeline who themselves may not have benefitted from having black male teachers. Additionally, some young men that I speak with perceive the profession as having little respect and prestige associated with low wages. I recall with sadness having encountered students in my own classes asking me why I was a teacher when I could have easily been involved in other professions and made more money. Another predominant theme I hear is the perception about gender and role confusion often associated with teaching as a female profession, especially in elementary education.
I suspect if we examine closely some of the popular local and national efforts underway to increase entry into the teacher pipeline for non-white males, we may find that the disproportionate numbers are not necessarily due to a lack of so-called “minority” recruitment efforts. There are great programs across the country that have experienced or are currently experiencing significant impact on reducing disparities associated with recruiting black males into the profession. However, I posit that we also look more closely at challenges that may be associated with what I term the three P’s – Policy, Preparation, and Practices in the recruitment and retention of black males as teachers who are in it for the long haul of career building. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the numbers of non-white teachers in U.S. schools from 1987 to 2012 has more than doubled. This growth rate has exceeded that of white teachers and non-white students and suggests that efforts to recruit non-white teachers have overall been successful. The policy and preparation responses in most instances have been to recruit more non-white teachers. Funding and preparation efforts include future educator programs in high schools, community college and four-year college partnerships, scholarships, career laddering, residency programs, and alternative teacher preparation programs. These reflect some of the more widely adopted strategies.
Furthermore, Educational Testing Service (ETS) research data from 2005 to 2009 highlight other teacher preparation challenges that become a barrier before one enters the teaching profession. Core teacher certification exams required in most states measure basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics and are designed to assess whether an individual has the necessary skills to succeed in a teacher preparation program. The pass rate for first-time teacher certification test takers found that pass rates for whites in reading, writing, and mathematics were about 81.5 percent compared to 41 percent for African Americans.
As indicated, the data suggest that even the best recruitment strategies alone are not enough to address the deepest causes of the lack of black male teachers in U.S. schools. Once black males enter the profession, they are more likely to leave the profession early, and support to increase retention strategies is warranted. There are many reasons cited in the research, however, common themes tend to be related to school assignment and working conditions, organizational leadership, management issues, and the desire to improve career opportunities. Most non-white males entering the teaching profession are assigned to low income schools in urban areas that are under-resourced. Perceptions of stereotypes, lack of awareness of the “hidden curriculum” in schools, and administrative decisions impact the early turnover of black males in teaching. Furthermore, the need for increased self-awareness, mentoring, professional development, and classroom autonomy and shared decision-making also influence why black males choose to leave the teaching profession. Fortunately, these elements of the education enterprise can be addressed with sustained district commitment and support.
Unique opportunities exist for black men to develop and flourish in the art and craft of teaching children to transform lives and impact communities. There are educators willing and waiting to help black men believe that they too can become a successful teacher. Who is willing to consider a career as a public intellectual, character builder, mentor, friend, and role model that just may be that extra lift needed to help students be the best they can be? The issues are complex, and there are no easy solutions especially when it is easy to simply walk away. But for any man who will undertake this noble calling, there are opportunities to contribute towards this important aspect of creating socially just and equitable communities for all.
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