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Celebrating and Sharing the Stories of Black Male Teachers

This guest post by Jabali Sawicki appears in coordination with Teacher Appreciation Week and #TeachingIs, a social media movement seeking to elevate public perception of the teaching profession. Click here to learn how you can participate.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and I want to give my thanks to Richard Harris III and William Wylie, two individuals who changed the trajectory of my life more than 20 years ago. Both of these mentors were teachers—and black men, like myself.

As black male teachers, their influence on me was transformative. The unique wisdom, guidance, motivation, and inspiration they provided me was what I desperately needed to succeed as a student and young black man. By expressing genuine empathy for my struggles and experience, providing authentic and relatable tough love, introducing me to the value of scholarship, and demanding academic and personal excellence, they provided me with an accessible roadmap to my own success.

And just like me, there are millions of students, schools, and communities that stand to benefit from an increased number of African American male teachers in our classrooms. But the harsh reality is that black men currently make up less than two percent of the teacher workforce. Our student population is diverse, but our profession isn’t.

As our country grows racially, ethnically, and culturally, it’s imperative that our teaching force reflects this growing diversity. Greater teacher diversity will increase the likelihood that students are aware of and sympathetic to the dynamics of different social experiences and cultural norms. Exposure to a broad range of personal histories—from teachers and students alike—will have a tremendous impact on students’ school experiences.

So how can we identify a strategic path toward a more diverse profession? A few months ago, inspired by my gratitude for Brother Harris and Brother Wylie, as well as my 15 years of experience as a teacher and school leader, I created the website Black.Man.Teach. I wanted to draw more attention to the need for more African American male teachers while simultaneously celebrating those individuals. Black.Man.Teach. gives a voice to these underrepresented teachers and chronicles the numerous ways in which they bring value to the work of educating our nation’s children.

Our first responsibility in recruiting more teachers of color is to better understand and learn from the experiences of existing teachers who have chosen to do this work. For many black male teachers, like John Burnett, their motivation to teach comes from the opportunity to directly impact black boys, a population that our schools continue to fail at alarming rates. Across the country, the dropout rate of young black men is well above 50%. Black boys are also more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and they are less likely to enroll or graduate from college than any other racial group.

Such dismal statistics strike a painful nerve in many black male teachers. “I teach because my students are like me,” Burnett writes. “In fact, they are me when I was much younger. Young black boys need a steadfast advocate who will always support their best interests, and that’s what I will do.” 

Others, like Korby Wesley, recognize a unique opportunity to elevate students’ life ambitions. “Having a black man in their life who cares about them and helps them every day is a necessary stepping stone to raise self-esteem and take our children to a higher level,” he says.

And many still, like Eric Bunting, teach because they recognize students’ desperate need for ongoing exposure to positive male role models. “I teach because I want to be an example,” he says. “I want children of color to look at me and say: ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”

Although every educator’s position, school, region, and path to teaching differs, their passion and commitment to students is consistent and uplifting. Their words highlight a keen awareness of the educational opportunities presented to them as professionals, along with a willingness to embrace whatever challenges they encounter.

Black.Man.Teach has reaffirmed my belief in the power and efficacy of effective black male teachers. It has also convinced me that there is an urgent need for our profession to address diversity within our ranks. In order for teachers to better serve all children, black male teachers must play a more prominent role in classrooms, as well as conversations that address our country’s most pressing education issues.

The dignified portraits of each teacher on Black.Man.Teach., capturing each man’s pride and vulnerability, should serve as a reminder that we must also encourage these men as educators. We must support them. We must challenge them to get better and to teach with passion, rigor, and joy. We must celebrate them. We must appreciate their unique journeys—their failures, their struggles, and their triumphs. Most importantly, we must heed their advice and understand their motivations and inspirations—so that we in turn can motivate and inspire other people of color to join the profession.

Ultimately, the stories shared in Black.Man.Teach. must galvanize us towards appropriate action in diversifying the teaching profession, including large-scale improvements in recruitment, training, support, development, recognition, and celebration of black male teachers. We must do this for the benefit of all of our children.

 

Jabali Sawicki is an Instructional Designer at Zearn. Previously, he served as the founding principal of Excellence Boys Charter School of Bedford Stuyvesant, an all-boys K-8 charter school located in Brooklyn, NY. Prior to founding Excellence, he taught Science in Boston, MA at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. Jabali is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he received dual degrees in Biology and Philosophy. He received his master's Degree in Educational Administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.

2 Comments

William Tolley commented on May 9, 2014 at 10:45am:

A matter deserving much attention.

When I was teaching at Manhattan Center in East Harlem, with a 20% African-American population mixed in with their roughly 70% Latino and 10% South Asian classmates, I noted how we only had one black male teacher (Special Education--great at his job) in the entire school. It mayhave been Spanish Harlem, but it still didn't seem to explain why the school was well-populated by white male teachers, but also a broad range of Latino males. 

Do you have any thoughts on why Dominican and Puerto Rican males seem to be better represented in urban schools than African-Americans? 

Renee Moore commented on May 11, 2014 at 7:34pm:

Great Need

Thank you so much for this piece, and for your work with Black.Man.Teach. As a Black teacher and a grandmother, I am seriously concerned about the lack of black males in our profession. My two oldest grandsons have gone through their entire K-12 education without ever seeing--much less being taught by---a black male teacher. And they attend 100% African American schools. Based on that observation and the other experiences they have had, they could understandably conclude that there is no place in education for black men, or as one young man told my husband and me recently: "School just ain't for us!"

As a profession, we can and must do much more to eliminate the unnecessary obstacles keeping Black men who want to teach out of our school systems, and helping more of those who enter to stay. I blogged about one such episode a while back; a promising young Black male teacher (a former student of mine) being pushed out of education unnecessarily. Does Black.Man.Teach. help the men network? I'm concerned about new Black male teachers not having mentors around them to help them through those early days/years of teaching.

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