These days, the teaching profession can be a hard sell. It’s a fact made even more apparent as districts nationwide struggle to fill vacancies, and as some look to place Black male and other teachers of color in classrooms.
By the time the new school year launched at the end of August in Maryland’s Montgomery County school district, all but a dozen of the 600 to 700 new teacher slots were filled. Think of it as a real estate deal and new teacher recruits have the upper hand.
These days, the affluent county—a suburban enclave of Washington, D.C.—represents the aftermath of a fast moving racial shift that started to inch forward in the 1970s, says Christopher Lloyd, the new president of Maryland’s Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA). That was four decades ago, when district school students were 91 percent White and the teacher workforce was a close match with 80 percent White. Today, Lloyd says, “Racially and culturally, it’s like we have two Montgomery Counties—one White and the real one is largely immigrant, Black, and Hispanic.”
But even the county’s growing diverse population and its proximity to the nation’s capital hasn’t been enough to keep other competing districts from trolling for the same small applicant pool of racially and ethnically diverse teachers. Just two years ago Black male teachers represented 3.7 percent of teachers in Maryland public schools. And nationally, no more than 2 percent of teachers in the nation’s public schools are Black men.
“If I’m an African-American teacher in the D.C. metro area, I have a lot of choices of schools and careers in front of me,” a factor that’s kept the numbers low, Lloyd says. For the past five years, the percentage of teachers of color in Montgomery County schools has hovered between 24 and 30 percent of each hiring class. Preliminary hires the district made through the end of June 2015, pointed to an upswing, “about 10 to 15 percent more racial diversity,” says Lloyd, who was counting on a more noticeable bump as the hiring concluded before school started.
Lloyd, who is also a third- and fourth-grade STEM teacher at Weller Road Elementary School, in Silver Spring, Md., wasn’t waiting for the return on the numbers to sound pumped and hopeful. He’s anticipating how different the district’s classrooms could start looking—more racially, ethnically, and gender diverse—on the first day of school compared to a decade ago. Efforts to increase the number of teachers of color and others underrepresented in the district’s current workforce dates back almost as far. Over time, little change has come and sometimes there was “no will,” Lloyd says, to ramp up a teacher workforce that was diverse and reflected the changing face of students in the classroom. In Maryland schools, like elsewhere in the country, minority enrollment has skyrocketed over the last two decades, yet the number of teachers of color has lagged.
A Sign of Change and the Times
The MCEA, says Lloyd, has been a strong advocate for the change they wanted to see in the district. The 2014 Representative Assembly (RA) voted to pass MCEA’s plan “to recruit and hire a majority minority co-hort of educators for the next school year” that mirrored the county’s “diverse majority minority population.”
This could be the year of fresh starts and purposeful supports for the county’s teacher workforce, says Lloyd who made the motion on the floor of the annual Rep- resentative Assembly—NEA’s primary policymaking body. The district’s new Building BONDs to Retain African-American Male Teachers is ￼￼￼among the innovative first steps that are designed to reach and retain those who are new to the school district. For these male educators, the services and mentoring they receive through BOND will run parallel to what the district already offers for all teachers based on matches with colleagues from the same location regardless of race and gender.
BOND—now entering its first, full year of implementation—is billed as a “system of social-emotional support networks for Black, male teachers and offers access
to consulting teachers, confidential counselors, and those in the system who can serve as their professional guides.” The goal? To keep them on the job. “It’s a start, but don’t expect a quick fix to closing the diversity and gender gaps in the workforce,” Lloyd warns.
“We’re facing a real big set of challenges in our workforce that didn’t happen overnight,” he adds. Lloyd admits that the diversity push in the county, over the years, has been a long, heavy lift for MCEA, “but it’s one that we feel very strongly about undertaking.”
And this is the reason: “Because race does matter,” says Lloyd. “It’s not just about Black and brown teachers teaching children who look like them. It’s about White children, too, who will be able to see Black men and people of color at the front of the classroom.” And with that kind of exposure, Lloyd says, “White kids will hopefully reflect on their positive interactions with Black, male teachers and teachers of color and be able to debunk stereotypes that link them to negative things.”
The MCEA, the school district, the community, and administrator groups have driven the effort for a closer look at the teacher pipeline, and implementation of steps that will create more change—especially how teachers of color are recruited, selected, and retained. This new intentional focus and shift has required collaboration and a strategy. It’s the kind of response the NEA called for in the 2014 report “Time for a Change: Diversity in Teaching Revisited,” which called conversations about teacher diversity and cultural competency “barely audible.”
Last summer, delegates to the 94th NEA Representative Assembly took steps that will raise the decibel level of those conversations, and move the nation past talk. Delegates approved a resolution stating NEA will do more to promote teaching as a career, encourage public school systems nationwide to recruit and retain ethnic minority educators, and build partnerships with local school systems, higher education institutions with strong teacher preparation programs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and others.
‘Crying Out’ for More
Why there aren’t more male educators in the classroom who look like him, keeps Robert Ellis, an African-American, first-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School in Richmond, Calif., up at night, and wrestling with what he sees as a looming crisis in the profession—a shortage of teachers. And for José Luis Vilson, a math teacher at Inwood Intermediate School in New York City, the dearth of teachers who are just like him—Black, Latino, and a guy—“is disturbing.”
“Something has to happen,” Ellis says, “and it can’t be a ‘Band-Aid’ solution.”
Ellis could easily be talking about infusing the country’s anemic Black male teacher pipeline or what’s needed to diversify the country’s teacher workforce, which in many districts has not kept pace with the growing diversity among students in the classroom.
In either case, the topic is no elephant in the room, offers Ellis who also chairs the California Teachers Association’s (CTA) African American Caucus. For many members of this state affiliate, he says, the shortages and need for diversity are urgent matters.
“My view reflects the culmination of conversations I’ve had over and over again across the state of California with members who are ‘crying out’ for more men and more African-American men, particular, in the classroom.”
It continues to be a familiar and urgent call that Jacqui Watts Greadington also hears. As president of the East Orange Education Association in New Jersey, Greadington and her board members mark the start of the school year by attending new teacher orientations.
And “every year, we notice fewer and fewer Black male teachers among them,” she adds. Of those who enter teacher education programs and earn degrees, only 23 percent of Black males choose to teach, studies show.
If the absence persists, Greadington says, “A Black boy could go through an entire K–12 experience without ever seeing a Black male teacher in the classroom, with the exception of their physical education teacher or coach.
“I’m gravely concerned,” says Greadington who also chairs the NEA’s Black Caucus. In that role, she says, “We continue to bring forward the issue of Black male recruitment and retention to NEA leadership.”
“My view reflects the culmination of conversations I’ve had over and over again across the state of California with members who are ‘crying out’ for more men and more African-American men, in particular, in the classroom.”
But what’s needed in today’s classrooms, even those in large, urban cities like Los Angeles, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York City—“is parity,” Ellis says. It’s what’s lacking between African-American and other racially and ethnically diverse students and those who teach them. Although minority children have steadily become a majority in public schools, according to government estimates, nationwide, their teachers haven’t kept pace. White women (76 percent) continue to make up the majority of those who teach, according to 2010 PEDS data, down slightly from 80 percent in 2004. Today’s teacher candidates reflect the same demographic makeup—82 percent female and White. Strong numbers like these, says Greadington, scream that teaching is “women’s work.” And while this may be a biased view, agrees Vilson, the number of women in the classroom can be enough to keep men from giving teaching as a career a first look.
Ellis and other concerned educators and advocates realize there are no easy answers to moving beyond modest gains in the number of Black, male teachers in the classroom—no quick fixes for scaffolding a culturally diverse teaching force that provides a quality education for all students and students of color in particular.
In California, Ellis is hoping that this year, the needle will inch up and point toward greater diversity and progress. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer,” adds Ellis who plans to roll out a new CTA teacher recruitment program that’s been stalled in part because of state budget cuts and a teaching hiring drought. But a determined Ellis says it may be hardest, yet, to change the minds of some in the caucus who say that they don’t want their college-bound children following them into the profession.
That’s tough for Ellis to hear. He is a believer that teaching is still noble work. But when the conversation turns to teacher salaries, he can understand their reluc- tance. Since becoming a teacher, Ellis has learned to live frugally and take in occasional renters to make ends meet. It’s what makes doing the work he loves possible. In society, money matters, says Vilson, whose mother wonders why he doesn’t leave teaching to become a computer programmer, a job that would pay him more.
Men in Clusters
African-American men, like other male teachers, are mostly clustered in middle schools and high schools, levels that require more specialized training. Few, though, choose to work in elementary schools, the place where Ellis landed more than a decade ago. Most don’t want to do what he does with his first graders: teach them to count, wipe runny noses, huddle in a cozy corner of the classroom with new readers to share stories of Civil Rights leaders and turn the pages of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.
“My heart and focus is on the profession,” says Ellis, whose narrow face wears black glasses, and sports a salt-and-pepper goatee. He knows that the teacher his first-grade parents see greeting them on the first day of school may not be who they expected or sometimes are willing to accept. When asked, Ellis says he never had a child pulled from his class because he was their teacher, although a parent or two let him know that they had considered it.
Ellis, who has “stayed in the classroom because of his students and his parents,” hasn’t let instances like that deter him.
“I want to be with the kids and experience their ‘aha’ moments and see the sparkle in their eyes when they get excited about what they’re learning” adds Ellis.
Terence King is another Black male teacher. His story of why he entered the profession and what keeps him in it, shares a common thread with those of Ellis and Vilson. Their individual journeys to the profession didn’t take a straight path but these educators agree that collectively they arrived in the right place—in front of the classroom.
For King, a science teacher at Turner Elementary School in Wilkinsburg, Pa., exhaus- tion and loneliness can set in when you are “the only African-American male teacher at school.” On most days, King says, those things take a back seat to doing what matters most to him as a teacher: imparting life lessons to Black boys that he, alone, can deliver and that they can grasp and embrace; and it is being the face of the professional, college-educated, Black man that some of his students rarely get to meet. King looks like his students and grew up in Turner Elementary’s shadow, where his students now live. It’s proved to be among his greatest assets.
“The things kids have told me over the years would bring tears to your eyes,” says King whose students sometimes call him “Dad.” Today, he also serves as an advisor to a teacher recruitment and certification program aimed at African-American males based at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. King hopes that someday some of his students will be among those in the teacher pipeline.
And at the close of the day, when the school bell rings, King, Ellis, and Vilson agree on this: It matters that they are in the classroom, and at their schools, even if they are the only ones. Students expect them to show up, be role models, to teach—and, Vilson adds, to care.
“When students see us,” he says, “they can see who they want to become.”