Black Principals: How To Strengthen The Leadership Pipeline
Teach For America alum and current principal Archie Moss Jr. (Charlotte '11) sheds light on the importance of having black school leaders and how we can bring more of them into the fold.
My scholars at Bruce Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee, cannot be what they cannot see. In other words, chances are slim that they will aspire to be something more if they don’t actually encounter or witness people who look like them, sound like them, and can wholeheartedly relate to them.
Take it from me. I was once a black student acting out and seeking attention. Thankfully, that gradually changed when I met Calvin Nixon, my fourth and fifth grade teacher and Carzelle Morris, my high school principal—two African Americans who demonstrated what was possible for me down the road.
Mr. Nixon was my first black male teacher. To be honest, I didn’t think they existed before I met him. He showed me firsthand what it meant to create and foster authentic relationships with your students. Mr. Nixon joked with us, and he laughed with us, but more importantly, he held us all to high expectations. He refused to let us accept anything less than our best.
Then there’s Mr. Morris, my first black male principal. I remember a candid conversation when I wanted to take the easy road and slack off. He wouldn’t allow it; he envisioned me reaching my potential and declared I could and would be something great. I have to thank him for pushing me, even when I didn’t want to be pushed, because his unwavering belief in me instilled a sense of self-belief, too.
Today, I’m the proud principal at Bruce Elementary, where I’m the youngest principal in Shelby County and the first Teach For America alum to lead a district school. Bruce is a special place. In 1961, it was one of the first four schools in Memphis to integrate. Basically, I’m the principal at a school that wasn’t originally designed for me, and the remnants of that legacy remain in many ways. This is why my job is so important, and this is why I must continue to bring additional black educators with me on this journey toward educational equity.
Step 1: Acknowledge Where We Stand
Like most schools in Shelby County, the majority of my scholars identify as African Americans—in our case, 75 percent. They need positive African American role models. School leaders can serve either as a window to observe from the outside looking in, or as a mirror sharing commonalities as we interact with our students. As an African American principal, I think I’m the latter, showing them just how far they can go in this world.
Across this nation, our students need to be exposed to more black school leaders. They cannot exclusively see white authority figures when the outside world is much more diverse. A 2009 article from the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) discusses the impact of minority principals. Based on my experience, black principals can serve not only as a model for success, but often have stronger community ties, can deal with disciplinary issues like suspensions surrounding minorities more appropriately, and can contribute a nuanced perspective regarding academic programs that focus on the achievement of black students.
In conjunction with the impact they can have on individual students, schools serve the need of communities as a whole, which is another reason why it is undoubtedly beneficial for the leadership to better reflect the cultural identity of the local neighborhoods. I’m very fortunate to work in a district where our Superintendent, Dorsey Hopson II, is both an African American an a native Memphian who graduated from the University of Memphis. He’s a shining example for all our scholars and a direct parallel for our city’s African American constituents to emulate—myself included. Moving from Charlotte, North Carolina, last year, it’s a source of pride for my fellow black school leaders and me to be here.
Unfortunately, the model we have in Memphis is more the exception to the rule. An April report from the U.S. Department of Education found that only 10 percent of principals identify as African Americans. However, the road to increasing that number is not necessarily a difficult task, and it requires a collective effort from the school districts, as well as from national and local groups and programs.
Step 2: Pinpoint New Educators
It all starts with increasingly diversifying the workforce (teachers, counselors, coaches, etc.) in our schools, and that means improving our recruitment methods. Nationally only 7 percent of teachers identify as black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. If we break these numbers down even further, less than 2 percent of the teaching force consists of African American males.
Where are we supposed to find black principals if there are no black teachers in our schools? To give you an idea of our situation at Bruce Elementary, I have roughly 400 scholars enrolled in Pre-K through fifth grade. Meanwhile, I have a total of just four black male educators in the building, including myself. Although this number appears low on the surface, I actually have more black male teachers than most schools.
We must do a better job about recruiting African Americans in our communities who desire to enter the classroom. This is where local and national programs like MTR (Memphis Teacher Residency) and Teach for America come into play. They have been strategic about where and how we pursue potential teachers, while making a conscious effort to fill vacancies with educators of color.
We must also make the profession and field enticing enough to turn recruits’ intrigue into an inspired decision to join us. Profound Gentlemen, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit co-founded by two black educators, creates mentorship opportunities for aspiring African American teachers and engages in state-level advocacy in six regions: Memphis, Charlotte, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. As a board member, it has been encouraging to see them working on awarding fellowships to African American male college students who commit to working in K-12 education.
Step 3: Develop Future Principals
The next phase deals with supporting the black educators who do join our ranks in the classroom. If we want them to be successful, then we have to provide them with the professional development they need to flourish. It follows that effective teachers become effective principals.
As a black principal, I’m doing my part to strengthen the pipeline and cultivate potential future school leaders at my school by offering them various leadership opportunities, like leading extracurricular activities, serving as new teacher mentors, conducting observations, as well as facilitate opportunities to serve on various leadership teams to make school-wide decisions. It is imperative that I invest in my teacher’s personal and professional growth and support them on their goals.
Moreover, along with the guidance and training we give our teachers on our local school sites, more national organizations can play an integral role in our cause. For instance, New Leaders' Emerging Leaders Program and Aspiring Principals Program have helped countless black educators like me attain my dream of leading a school. They provided me a bridge from teacher to administrator through rigorous summer training, a yearlong residency where I learned from a high-performing principal, and even on-the-job coaching from the New Leaders staff as a whole.
Looking back, there were so many people who pushed, guided, motivated, and believed in me—as well as those who doubted me—before I made it to this position. But I always think of Mr. Nixon and Mr. Morris, and the lasting effect they had on my life. As I pass that gift onto others, I hope I will not be alone. It will take all of us in order for the next generation of black school leaders to make a profound impact on our nation. And it starts now.