By Constance Garcia-Barrio
The statistics almost scream.
“Only three percent of teachers in the U.S. are Black men,” Roberto J. Rodriguez, assistant secretary in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development in the U.S. Department, said at Black Men Educators Convening (BMEC), a gathering held from November 17 to 19 at Loew’s Hotel in Center City. “Only two percent of teachers in the U.S. are Latino Men,” Rodriguez added.
BMEC, led by Sharif El-Mekki, discussed the effects of having few Black men in classrooms nationwide, as well as possible remedies. The large, sold-out conference brought together teachers, administrators, artists, policymakers, legislators, and other professionals to wrestle with the challenges of recruiting and retaining Black teachers, especially men, and ensuring a quality public school education for children of color.
“We’ve got to interrupt the pervasive message to our children that they’re not worthy,” said El-Mekki, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, who has been praised by Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama for his achievements as the principal of Shoemaker Mastery Charter School in West Philadelphia. “Participants in this collective approach the issue from different perspectives, but all of us here share the goal and the responsibility for giving our children an excellent education.”
El-Mekki also aimed to support and uplift Black men in revolutionizing the educational system. Experts on many panels noted the current roadblocks to that goal.
“We have low expectations of our children and our community,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D- 7th Dist.). “We have to deal with [a] low aim, even in ourselves. Don’t think that our community can move forward without a strong education environment.”
On the other hand, Hughes — who is the Democratic Appropriations Committee Chair — pointed out that the new Democratic majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the availability of funds make conditions ripe for progress.
State Rep. Jordan Harris, who represents the 186th District in Philadelphia County, raised another issue.
Black children, especially boys, must have Black male teachers, he said.
“Many Black male students don’t attend schools where Black men teach,” said Harris, stressing the need for that model of authority and accomplishment.
Harris pointed out reasons for this vacuum in public schools. Teaching lacks glamour, he noted, but bigger issues may close the door on a classroom career.
“A lot of people would like to teach, but they just don’t see a path,” said Harris, a former middle-school teacher. “They can’t quit their job and go to school.”
Those who do pursue a degree in education may find themselves so concerned with student debt that it drains energy from their teaching, said author and award-winning educator Dr. Salome Thomas-EL.
“That distraction affects someone’s children,” he said.
BMEC looked at challenges, but it also considered solutions. When high costs bar potential teachers, why not make college free, particularly if the potential teacher will work with underserved children, a panelist asked. Another panelist suggested reimbursing the considerable cost of teacher certification.
Still, other panelists recommended scrutinizing the standardized tests that supposedly show that one has the knowledge required to teach.
“We need to put pressure on companies that prepare these tests to ensure that the tests take into account cultural differences,” said Dr. Peggy Brookins, president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, “ …the most respected professional certification available in education,” the organization’s website says.
“We also need to find alternatives for establishing competency to teach,” said Brookins, named a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans by former President Barack Obama. “Students may graduate at the top of their class yet be unprepared for an actual classroom.”
Panelists emphasized the possibility of turning to paraprofessionals for effective classroom management. Such paraprofessionals often live in neighborhoods near the school, know the children, and are skilled at keeping order.
Brief conversations with panelists enriched BMEC. Questioned about tensions that sometimes arise between Black students and other students of color, Roberto Rodriguez stressed the benefit of having school staff members of color from different backgrounds to have an inclusive, multicultural atmosphere. He also suggested that students study each other’s history to find common ground.
A crowning moment came when the panel consisted of young men who’ve already wet their feet in the classroom through the Center for Black Educator Development’s summer programs.
College and high school students teach a six-week, Afro-centric curriculum, earn a stipend, and can receive college credits.
“I didn’t plan to go into teaching,” said Horace Ryans III, 20, who started teaching in the summer program. “I wanted to be a neurologist. Now I’m teaching, and I have no regrets.”
With several years of experience under his belt, Ryans helps train younger people who teach in summer.
“You get a stipend to help defray college costs,” he said. “I want to earn a Ph.D. in the sociology of education so that I can influence policy, but ultimately, I still want to be in the classroom.”
Both high school and college students may work as apprentice teachers over the summer, said Stephanie J. Tisdale, the Center for Black Education Development’s regional director for Philadelphia/Camden.
“Apprentice teachers gain classroom experience by teaching first, second, and third graders at our Freedom Schools Literacy Academy,” said Tisdale, currently working on her Ph.D. in education at Temple University. Apprentices work with a coach and earn a stipend.
To learn more about CBED, which welcomes donations and sponsorships, please visit: https://www.thecenterblacked.org/. For more information about CBED apprenticeships, go to: https://airtable.com/shrJhYFiZRveYwlAT.