Black Male Teachers: There Aren’t Enough of Them

This article was first published in the Washington Post.

“This isn’t a prison… We can’t treat our kids like they are criminals – especially [when] they are not doing anything wrong… it creates tension and nobody really wants to be here.” Dante Smith, 30, and in his fourth year as a high school teacher recounted how, in the middle of students taking a standardized exam, an administrator asked him if he had collected cell phones from students during the exam. He replied “yes,” and showed the administrator the phones that he had collected. Believing that he had not collected enough phones, the administrator interrupted the exam to stop and frisk the students for cellphones. Dante left teaching the following year.

As federal, state, and local policy makers, as well as institutions of higher education and foundations industriously search for new initiatives to increase the diversity of the teaching workforce – they may well benefit from, first, understanding the experiences of male teachers of color.

Latino, Black, Asian, and Native American teachers account for 17 percent of all U.S. public school teachers. About 2 percent are black men. However, slightly more than half of all public schools students are children of color. This disparity between the racial/ethnic composition of teachers and students in our schools is troubling for several reasons. First, in this flat or interconnected world, our children deserve a diverse teaching force to prepare them to be global citizens. Second, diversity drives innovation. White teachers can benefit from having teachers of color on the faculty to assist with navigating unfamiliar cultural territory and designing culturally sustaining pedagogy. Finally, evidence exists that there is an added-value — as measured by increases on standardized exams – for students of color when taught by a same race teacher.

But, in spite of the benefits from having a more racially/ethnically diverse teaching force – teachers of color are disappearing from schools. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz from Teachers College at Columbia University and Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania find that teachers of color leave the profession at rates that are higher than their White colleagues. While it may be easy to conclude that teachers of color are fleeing the profession for more lucrative opportunities, my study on the school-based experiences of 27 black male teachers across 14 public schools in Boston suggests otherwise.

Dante Smith’s experiences mirrored those of the other 26 black male teachers in my study. Participants believed their interactions with colleagues paralleled the encounters their students of color had with adults in the building. Black male teachers also described having to serve, first, as police officers, rather than teachers. Instead of their colleagues coming to them for help designing engaging curriculum, Black male teachers became responsible for taking care of the “misbehaving” students.

Christopher Brooks, a 26 year-old high school teacher, having to serve in this disciplinary role became a burden:

“I can see most people would feel enthused that they’re helping out their colleagues – like they picked me because they respect me – but it’s also becoming a burden now because I have other things to do.  I have to plan.  I have to plan for my kids to be on a specific track, plan my lessons, and correct papers.  Just the regular things that teachers do.”

The socio-emotional challenges black male teachers faced were not enough to drive them from their schools. The nine black male teachers who left their school or the teaching profession cited having to teach under poor working conditions – specifically dysfunctional administrators. This finding supports a recent theory by Harvard University researchers Nicole Simon and Susan Moore Johnson. Black male teachers described an environment of hyper-surveillance by administrators, continuous observations where the focus was on complying with singular ways of teaching and adhering to a scripted curriculum.

As Adebayo Adjayi, who voluntarily chose to move schools at the end of the year after having taught at his elementary school for twenty-years, said, “Administrators conduct observations and write one side of the whole story, negatives, it’s demoralizing.”

Given the socio-emotional challenges  black male teachers face and the influence of poor working conditions on their decisions to leave – what should be done?

Clearly, as Dante Smith notes, we can’t have students learn in schools that resemble prisons. And, administrators should use classroom observations to support teacher learning rather than to penalize teachers.

One potential solution is designing “differentiated professional development” sessions for male teachers of color and, by extension, teachers of color. In schools, we create learning opportunities that incorporate students’ diverse experiences into the classroom. However, we do not create differentiated learning spaces for teachers. To respond to the unique experiences of male teachers of color, I designed the Boston Teacher Residency Male Teachers of Color Network while on the faculty of the Boston Teacher Residency program (BTR). This program had two purposes: to address the unique social-emotional needs of male teachers of color and equip these teachers with tools to improve their teaching practice in service of student learning.

We met once a month, typically on Friday evenings for two hours. Informed by the experiences of black male teachers in my study, we divided meetings into two segments. During the first part of the meeting, participants provided each other with suggestions on how to address the varying socio-emotional challenges they faced. During the second part of the meeting, one male teacher presented a challenge he had around his teaching practice and received feedback from his peers. These challenges ranged from how to engage students to how to make curriculum culturally relevant.

In creating such differentiated professional development opportunities, districts should draw on the learning from these male teachers of color. According to Stanford University researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, increasing learning for teachers is vital to creating continuous improvement for the entire system.

The success of the Boston Teacher Residency Male Teachers of Color Network influenced Boston Public Schools district-wide initiative the Male Educators of Color Executive Coaching Seminar Series and New York City’s current efforts to design professional development to support male teachers of color.

In addition to calls to increase the ethnic/racial diversity in schools — districts must look within schools to design initiative to supports and retain the diverse teaching force they have.