by Curtis Weathers —
This time of the year, school systems and their principals are busy interviewing and hiring new teachers, filling vacancies caused by the pandemic, and just the normal attrition process that naturally occurs at the end of an academic school year.
But the search for good black male teachers has been a journey over the years fraught with disappointment and frustration for many school systems.
As a former principal, I was always on the lookout for black male teachers, primarily because of the unique perspective they brought to the teaching and learning process and because they were such a rare find. I was fortunate, however, to hire several young men that turned out to be exceptionally good teachers.
Although slightly more than half of all public-school students are children of color, teachers of color account for only about 17 percent of all U.S. public school teachers. In addition, about 7 percent are African American, and only 2 percent are African American males.
The dearth of black male teachers at the K-12 level is not a new phenomenon. The education community has been grappling with this issue for decades with little progress to show for its efforts.
Research shows that, for black boys, having a teacher of the same race correlates with the greater likelihood of attending college, improved academic performance, and better behavior in the classroom.
According to studies by Johns Hopkins University and American University, these positive outcomes can have an impact well into adulthood and can potentially shrink academic achievement gaps significantly for students of color.
But, despite these benefits, teachers of color are leaving the profession at a staggering rate.
This fact, of course, has not escaped the attention of Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray. So, one of the first priorities of his administration was to recruit more African American male teachers, especially at the elementary level.
But attracting quality Black male candidates to the teaching profession has been incredibly difficult. The working conditions in many high-poverty, urban schools are not always conducive to long, fulfilling careers — for anyone.
Last year, SCS and its charter schools lost over thirty Black male classroom teachers through promotion and retirement due to COVID-19. While that number may not seem like a lot, these teachers were extremely hard to replace while at the same time trying to increase the district’s overall numbers of Black male teachers.
Gestalt Community Schools’ teacher, Berry Nailer, is a prime example. He taught 7th-grade social studies for five years but was recently promoted to Resident Dean of Scholars. So, while he will not be in the classroom, he will still be able to work closely with students in his school building, especially his male students. But replacing him in the classroom will be difficult.
Mr. Nailer, when asked if he enjoyed teaching, responded, “Absolutely! I enjoyed every moment of it. I love to teach not just content but teaching them how to do this thing call life.”
Many of the lessons Black male teachers like Mr. Nailer bring to the classroom go far beyond academic content and pedagogy. Their unique lived experiences create a rich curriculum that contributes to student success in ways that cannot be graded or easily quantified.
When asked what he thought contributed most to the lack of black male teachers in our schools, his response — “teacher pay” and the “rigor and responsibilities” of teaching.
Shelby County Schools and its partners are working extremely hard to put infrastructure in place to support the development of Black male students and attract quality Black male teachers to our school system.
There are three high-quality initiatives currently in place that deserve recognition: The Man up Teacher Fellowship, the University of Memphis African American Male Academy, and the district’s African American Male Empowerment Initiative. I love these initiatives!
These programs are laser-focused on finding and developing black male teachers and giving them the opportunity to have successful careers that can impact our young boys in positive and lasting ways.
While these three programs are off to a great start, the more people know about them, the better their chances of success.
But the work cannot stop there. If we want to persuade more black males to join the ranks of the teaching profession, colleges and universities need to be much more aggressive in their recruiting efforts.
Communities should respect and celebrate male teachers in the same way it idolizes celebrities and sports figures.
As Fredrick Douglas once said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
I am thankful for our male teachers, black and white. But we need our Black male educators to step up and go the extra mile to help our young boys achieve success. I know we are asking a lot from teachers (all of them). But they are sorely needed right now more than ever.
So, let us celebrate our Black male teachers and encourage more college students to consider joining this incredible fraternity of K-12 educators.
Stay safe, Memphis; it’s not over yet!
(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)