William Alexander was all ears at his mother’s home in Riverside during President Barack Obama’s back-to-school message to kids Sept. 8. The Oakland elementary school teacher, who was in the area attending a conference, knows the importance of encouraging children to stay in school. In 2004, he became the first in his family to go to college.
“My two older brothers dropped out of high school. My mother and father never finished. Now I’m trying to save my two nephews. There aren’t a lot of positive role models out there,” said Alexander.
Alexander grew up wanting to become an elementary school teacher but said he was frequently the butt of jokes among his Oakland classmates who called teaching “women’s work.”
Alexander attended predominately African-American schools in Oakland for 10 years. He recalls walking into his high school Advanced Placement government class and finding something he had never seen.
“I was shocked,” said Alexander. “I had never had a black male teacher before, except for P.E.” Alexander’s experience is remarkably common. Only 2 percent of the nation’s 4.8 million teachers are African-American men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The shortage of African-American male teachers compounds the difficulties that many African-American boys face in school. About half of African-American male students do not complete high school in four years, statistics show. African-American males tend to score lower on standardized tests, take fewer AP courses and are suspended and expelled at higher rates than other groups officials say.
Alexander is part of a growing chorus of educators, politicians and parents who say more teachers like him would boost African-American male students, who struggle the most. He says encouraging African-American males to take pride in their education is everyone’s responsibility.
He admits part of the problem is men themselves.
“Some of us do not consider teaching children how to write their names for the first time or how to count to one hundred as ‘real’ teaching. Some of us, sad to say, don’t like being hugged, let alone giving a hug. We view such activities as women’s work, and that is our loss.”
He says modern elementary and secondary classrooms are rife with students struggling with personal and developmental problems.
Many children are dealing with poverty, chronic illness, broken or dysfunctional homes. In their personal lives they are exposed to drugs, violence, a lack of supervision and perhaps most significant, the lack of positive male role models.
“Another problem is that black men are not always welcomed,” said Alexander. “Anti-affirmative action sentiment has dampened what was once a robust interest in teaching our children.” Simply put, he says few school districts aggressively recruit or encourage men of any color to teach at the elementary level.
Education experts say, never has there been more of a need for African-American males to step up to the plate and serve as positive role models for children. Female-headed households with absent fathers are far from rare in African-American family life, especially inner city school children. According to the Department of Education it is not uncommon for an African-American child to turn eleven without having interacted with a man for any significant amount of time.
Educators such as Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, founder and publisher of African-American Images and more than 20 books, believes African-American male teachers expose students to African-American men as authority figures, help minority students feel that they belong, motivate African-American students to achieve, demonstrate positive male-female relationships to African-American girls and provide African-American youths with role models and mentors.
“Students relate better to teachers who, in short, look like them,” says Roy I. Jones, director of Call Me MISTER, a program at Clemson University in South Carolina that recruits, trains, certifies, and secures employment for African-American men as teachers.
Even as potential role models, minority teachers may not be encouraging students to become teachers. Although African-American teachers generally reported positive views of the factors associated with their teaching careers, studies show they were not very likely to encourage their own children to enter the profession. African-American males are leaving the profession at a higher rate than their colleagues, according to a 2003 study by the National Education Association, a national teacher’s union. Half of African-American males leave before retirement, compared with 30 percent of all teachers. Alexander has joined forces with Emory Malden, who operates an Atlanta-based recruitment service that tries to find minority teachers. Malden thinks the current emphasis on test scores discourages some African-American students from pursuing teaching careers.
“Some people are not good test takers, and that weeds out a lot of good teachers,” he said. Malden says recruiting at urban schools and African-American colleges is not enough, though it’s a good start.
“You have to go into the African-American community to the African-American churches, sororities and fraternities, to the people who know who and where the potential and existing minority teachers are.”
Education experts say another effective strategy is working with community colleges and four-year institutions where some experts call the problem “alarming.”
Malden said college professors, counselors and administrators must urge minority students, to consider teaching as a profession and nurture their progress. Still, he said that as more and more minority teachers in their 50s and 60s retire, replenishing their numbers will be difficult.
The downturn in minority educators has been so dramatic that some authors have referred to African-American teachers and school administrators as an endangered species. The current paucity of African-American male teachers is in sharp contrast to the interest in teaching seen during the civil rights era.
In 1950, nearly half of the African-American professionals in the United States were teachers. However, with the increase in the number of African-American college graduates in a variety of fields, and low pay, teaching is no longer perceived as a way out of the lower class. As a result, both teachers and parents may be discouraging talented African-American high school students from identifying teaching as a career option.