Creating Schools Where Black Male Teachers Can Thrive
Black male educators, woefully underrepresented in U.S. classrooms, say mentorship and a sense of community help ensure they stay in the profession.
Rachael Tutwiler Fortune remembers the difficult transition of leaving her neighborhood elementary school to go to a magnet middle school for gifted and high achieving students. Her algebra teacher, Mr. Smith, helped her settle in at the school–and even became a source of inspiration. He would be Fortune’s first and only Black male teacher.
“Mr. Smith created a bit of a safe haven for me, really sought to encourage me to stay focused and to really maximize my potential and let me know that I was seen in that environment,” Fortune (Jacksonville ’08) said. “It was very easy for young people to get lost when they're kind of thrust into an environment where you have now more affluent peers, kids who are also very academically bright, but who have more resources than you.”
Fortune’s experience is all too rare. Black teachers make up just 7 percent of public school faculty. And Black men make up only 2 percent of the U.S. public school teaching force and they have a high turnover rate. That’s true even though more than half of U.S. public school students are people of color.
The representation of Black men matters in classrooms. Black men spend more time mentoring and counseling students than teachers of any other demographic. For Black boys from low-income households, exposure to a Black teacher for one year in elementary school reduces high school dropout rates by 39 percent.
Fortune is now working to make sure more students have experiences like she did with Mr. Smith. She is the president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, a think tank that works to close the opportunity gap for low-income students and students of color in Florida’s Duval County Public Schools. As part of that work, the organization is working to create a teacher pipeline for Black and Latinx men in the district.
The Fund is one of several organizations working to diversify the teacher workforce. Teach For America works to support Black educators by working with historically Black colleges and universities for recruitment and retention through the Black Educators Promise Initiative. TFA also budgets $100,000 each year for incoming Black corps members across 10 regions for help with certification support and other costs, including college debt that prevents people from getting their transcripts. This school year, 24 percent of TFA corps members are Black, and 5 percent are Black men.
From not being paid equitably to getting pigeonholed into disciplinary roles, there are many barriers preventing Black men from entering and remaining in the classroom. Research shows that for Black men in education to succeed they need a variety of supports, including mentorship, affinity spaces and the ability to build a sense of family and community with both colleagues and students.
The Inequitable Challenges Black Male Educators Face
Teacher pay is a huge challenge for many people who might want to become—and remain—an educator. But for Black educators, teacher pay can be a particularly daunting obstacle because of the racial wealth gap. The average white household in the U.S. has about 10 times more wealth than the average Black household. Without generational wealth to rely on, a Black family’s income often has to cover many needs, including debt taken on to finance a college education and advanced degrees.
“For me, having a master's degree, I shouldn't be getting paid $42,000; it just doesn't make sense,” said Tyler D. Adams (Charlotte-Piedmont Triad ’20), who teaches sixth grade humanities at Movement Freedom Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina. “A lot of times Black men leave the classroom just because of finances. The finances are not equitable for location, for taking care of our families, [and] for the amount of work that we have to do.”
Black teachers, and especially Black male teachers, are also often expected to take on more duties than other educators because of their race. This “invisible tax” can take on many forms, such as the expectation that they must serve as liaisons for families of color and discipline students of color. At the same time, Black teachers often experience their authority being challenged by white colleagues.
Sterling Grimes (Greater Philadelphia ’10), a manager of strategy, talent and culture for Teach For America’s D.C. Region, knows what it feels like to be charged with disciplining students of color. It’s more work with no extra pay, but also a very difficult position for educators of color to be in.
“Kids were sent to my room, because I was the teacher who could discipline them,” Grimes said. “I experienced what it was like to have to be responsible for that and have to be accountable to making sure that these students were supported and taken care of and held accountable and shielded, sometimes from really unfortunate circumstances that we know play out in schools.”
Indeed, actually solving systemic inequities that lead to discipline issues—and disproportionate discipline rates—in schools is a reason some Black educators get into the profession in the first place. Adams's reason for becoming a teacher was, in no small part, to be a role model for Black students and help dismantle racism-fueled disparities in the treatment of Black students, including discipline rates and their dire effects. Black boys, for example, are disproportionately suspended from school and less likely to be enrolled in gifted programs and often have teachers who set lower expectations for Black students than their white peers.
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“My why is to continue to break the cradle-to-prison pipeline,” Adams said. “A lot of times when the students don't see themselves represented in classrooms, especially males of color in the classroom, it's harder to see that they can achieve anything they set their mind to. A lot of times they settle to become products of their environment because that's what society is portraying of them.”
Another barrier to increasing the number of Black male educators, according to Grimes, is the lack of coordination between groups trying to address the issue. He said organizations need to stop operating in silos.
“Nationally, we have a number of organizations who are trying to support men of color in education, in different cities,” Grimes said. “Their work is not very connected. It's not very organized. We don't have a strong line to research and policy, [and] the things that we know will change education at the state and national levels in the way that we need to.”
Families and community members should also be vocal about their needs and ask why teachers don't look like the children in their classrooms, he said.
“Decision-makers have to see that teacher diversity is something the school community cares about and is consistently being brought up,” Grimes said.
How Mentorship and Coaching Help Retain Black Male Teachers
Grimes said Teach For America has been instrumental in creating support networks that help attract and retain Black male educators, particularly by building professional learning communities, strengthening alumni networks, and creating informal community and affinity groups.
“Having individuals who recognize the importance of this and choosing to do intentional, direct programming and resourcing around it is a huge game-changer,” Grimes said.
Rachael Tutwiler Fortune of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund says a mentorship program has been a key part of her organization’s success. Their signature project, the 1,000 by 2025 Initiative, aims to recruit, support, and retain 1,000 Black and Latinx male educators by 2025 to help increase teacher diversity in the district by at least 12 percent annually. This school year, Duval County Public Schools hired 148 male teachers of color and as of December 2022, 503 Black male teachers were working in the district, Fortune reported citing Duval County Public School data.
The Fund has individual peer mentor coaches for new teachers and hosts affinity groups for Black and Latinx male teachers.
“Educators are saying that the greatest support system that they have is each other,” Fortune said. “If we have new teachers coming in, we want to make sure that they have people who literally have been assigned to them, who identify with them, who they can call upon when they need additional guidance, additional thought partnership, or literally just someone to talk to.”
Nick Nelson, who has taught second grade for nine years, is mentoring five Black male educators this year for the 1,000 by 2025 Initiative. His mentees seek guidance on a variety of topics, such as how to get administration support, how to organize seating arrangements in class, and what professional development training to attend.
In addition to mentoring colleagues, Nelson recently partnered with the Fund and University of North Florida to survey Black male educators on the key ingredients needed to retain them in the profession. The research results reinforced what Nelson and other Black educators have been saying they need to thrive in the classroom: a sense of family, a sense of faith, finances, and respect.
Adams is also a huge proponent of mentorship and creating safe, authentic spaces for Black educators and students. Messy Roots, a social-emotional learning and mindfulness organization for male leaders of color, has been a safe haven for him. The organization, founded by Mario Jovan Shaw (Charlotte '12), offers affordable one-on-one coaching, master classes, mindfulness workshops and wellness retreats. Four of the nine coaches are Teach For America alumni and a partnership with TFA is underway to expand Messy Root’s reach.
Adams said Messy Roots helped him cultivate how to show up in the classroom, be authentic and lead with love and understanding for his students.
“Messy Roots has taught me to be okay with not being okay and to just be able to sit with those emotions and know that I'm doing my best,” Adams said. “I also can't pour from an empty cup, which is the best piece of advice that I've ever gotten.”
Adams has even infused social and emotional lessons from Messy Roots into his curriculum. He leads mindfulness activities, deep breathing and discussions for students to share how their lived experiences tie into concepts learned in class.
“Taking a moment to breathe, taking a moment to recenter yourself is always important, because sometimes we have emotions that we're not able to process and we carry that with us to school,” he said.
Adams will ask students to visualize, “What is in your backpack? What are you carrying with you that you need to get rid of so you can fully show up and fully be present with us?”
Now, mentorship is helping Adams prepare to advance in his career. He is participating in Teach For America’s Rise Fellowship, a six-month seminar that prepares teachers to take on leadership roles within their schools. “The fellowship has been eye-opening and rewarding,” he said, “as it is pushing me to become the leader in education that I want to be.”
Building a Sense of Family with Students
For many Black male educators, building a sense of family and community is not just what’s needed among peers, but also with their students. Nelson entered the classroom for that very reason—to build lasting relationships with the young people in his class. A product of Duval County Schools where he currently teaches, Nelson fondly remembers being taught by Black women from second to fourth grade and how they created that kind of space for their students.
“Those three teachers really set a foundation for my learning and a foundation of family. I can draw back on those three years and really feel like I belong. So I push that into my classroom now,” Nelson said.
He also does that after school. Last year, he started a program called Talk of the Flock—a weekly boys club for first through fifth graders to address behavioral inconsistencies by using social-emotional learning and community-building activities. Once a month, Talk of the Flock also completes a campus improvement project, such as repainting the school’s graffitied picnic tables.
Krystal Gage's son, Jeremiah Philo, was one of Nelson's students and remains part of the Flock.
“He really cares about their well-being, what they're learning, how they're growing. And even though they're not his students anymore, he still keeps in touch,” she said.
“Mr. Nelson would reach out to me if he felt like Jeremiah was not being himself or if he had a down day,” Gage said. Mr. Nelson would tell Gage, ‘Jeremiah was acting kind of standoffish in class today, and that's not normally who he is. Letting you know to check on him and see if there's anything wrong with him.’
“I appreciated him just kind of caring and checking on him all the time,” Gage said.
“It's really wonderful to be in a position now to provide the kind of mentorship that I didn't have early in my career. I know what it's like when you walk in the school and no one looks like you.”
Creating a sense of family rings true for Grimes too. He stayed at his school for eight years to see all of his students graduate.
“I haven't been in my old school in five years; I still got five different group chats of students that are following up or asking for letters of recommendation or who come by my house to eat up my food while they talk about what's going on at college over winter break,” he said. “My students, the ones that I've really connected with, have adopted me and I’ve adopted them. It’s a huge honor for me.”
Grimes is mentoring a former student, Tamir Harper, who is now a first-year teacher. “It's really wonderful to be in a position now to provide the kind of mentorship that I didn't have early in my career. I know what it's like when you walk in the school and no one looks like you,” said Grimes.
It is common for Harper to spend the day at Grimes’ house to talk about everything from grading to the significance of being Black men in the classroom.
“No one knows what it's like when you walk outside and see law enforcement in a different way or the way the street rolls in a different way,” said Grimes. “And how do you navigate that? And what does it mean to talk to your students and think about how they see you?”
Featured image at top of page: Photo taken in 2018 of Tamir Harper (left) when he was a high school senior. Sterling Grimes (right) at the time was teaching high school English. Photo by Charles Mostoller.
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