by Michael Rainey - editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

Pay a visit to almost any elementary school, junior high or high school in the United States today and chances are the last thing you’ll see is an African-American male teacher walking the halls. This isn’t necessarily the result of any inherent form of racism, but rather it is at least partially the result of a lack of African-American males coming through the higher education pipeline, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those that do go on to earn a bachelor’s degree and subsequently a masters degree tend to gravitate toward careers that are a little more financially rewarding. It can be difficult for a young person to emerge from their postsecondary education with upwards of $100,000 in debt and be satisfied with making $42,000 a year, which is the average salary of a K-12 teacher in the U.S. today. In most cases, high-performing African-American men with a variety of options available to them are going strive for more unless they simply feel a strong kinship toward educating America’s youth and having an impact on the country’s future. While it may be a core issue, the lack of salary is hardly the only factor deterring black males from becoming teachers.

“We look at the pay for teachers, especially in the early years, but also the working conditions and the support that [teachers] do and don’t receive when they enter schools,” says Jim Shelton, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. “We also look at the preparation that teachers feel like they receive when they enter the profession – they don’t always feel like they were well prepared, so we have a high attrition rate. All of these things actually impact teachers at large, and they are oftentimes even more pronounced when you start talking about African-Americans.”

The importance of role models

As of 2010, only 1.7 percent of the nation’s 4.8 million public school teachers were comprised of black men. That means that less than one in 50 teachers is a black male. Considering that black males make up nearly seven percent of the U.S. population, that statistic represents an alarming disparity. There are some African-American children that will go through their entire K-12 school years and never be taught by a black male teacher. Some may wonder why it matters if a black student is taught by a black teacher as long as the child is getting a solid education from whoever is standing at the head of the classroom. The answer is that it is vital that students have positive role models they can look up to, have respect for and try to emulate, and that becomes an elusive commodity for a child who sees nobody in a position of authority who looks anything like themselves.

“The reality is that when you talk to just about anyone who is successful, they look back and talk about teachers who were impactful in their lives. They also talk about different kinds of role models that they’ve had along the way, and inevitably a lot of those role models are people that they’ve encountered through school,” Shelton says. “School is where kids spend the vast majority of their time and where they see how adults act and how they work together for most of their formative years. If in that context they don’t see anyone who looks like them, that’s a wanting experience. Students need role models they can relate to.”

The lack of black men in K-12 classrooms certainly isn’t helping inspire the next wave of high school and college graduates, particularly those without a male authority figure in their life elsewhere, to enter the teaching profession, so this becomes a catch-22 dilemma that is difficult to solve. The challenge is even more daunting when you consider how many young black men are being tempted to take far more divergent paths.

“I think all of our students benefit from having a black male in the classroom,” Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, told CNN in February 2012. “But particularly our young black males. I think what we haven’t talked about enough is that we’re competing with the gangs, we’re competing with the drug dealers on the corner, and when students fall through the cracks, when young people don’t have that positive mentor, in a school setting, in the church or community, there’s always a guy on the street corner that can say come my way.”

Terris King, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher at the Bishop John T. Walker School in Washington, D.C., didn’t have an African-American teacher until he got to college, but he had positive African-American role models present elsewhere in his life. Many children aren’t so fortunate, and King is happy to fill that void for his male students who are in need of a positive role model they can easily identify with.

“My boys definitely are in a state where they need a positive African-American male role model, because they just don’t have it at all,” he explains. “In school is one of the best places for that role model to be. Because my boys are spending more time with me than they’re spending with anyone else, the opportunities they have to have positive experiences and learn more about what it means to be a gentleman, what it means to do right, what actions are wrong and what are the consequences, etc., are essential. They learn it from someone who looks like them. In a lot of cases, a child’s only African-American role model is someone who is selling drugs and doing a lot of the negative things that young men do because of the guidance they get in communities like Southeast D.C.”

The solution

In 2010, the Department of Education launched the TEACH Campaign to encourage more minorities, especially males, to pursue careers in the classroom.  TEACH has since been transferred to Microsoft Corporation, but its mission remains the same – to recruit diverse, highly qualified teachers. With the Baby Boomer generation moving toward retirement and thousands of teaching jobs set to become available over the next few years, the campaign initially set out to recruit one million new teachers by visiting high schools and colleges across the country and informing students that the best way to make a difference in their community and become a leader is to enter the teaching profession.

“We have a significant portion of our teachers eligible for retirement in the coming years and we have the opportunity to replace them with some of the best and brightest in the country, but in order to do so we have to make this profession attractive,” Shelton says. “We launched the TEACH Campaign to do that kind of outreach and to partner with others to elevate the profession in the minds of undergraduates, even in the midst of the downturn in the economy, and say, ‘Look, as you’re going through college, you need to be thinking that one of the best things you can do with your life in order to have an impact is to become a teacher.’ That message has resonated broadly, and we’ve gotten lots of interest and our outreach efforts have touched people in a way that they’ve become active themselves.”

In February 2012, the Department of Education launched Project RESPECT (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching), a $5 billion program aimed at strengthening and elevating the teaching profession. Some of the strategies Project RESPECT plans to put into practice include strengthening teacher prep programs, establishing better career ladders, creating mentorship programs with master teachers and providing more ongoing training to teachers. “Our goal is to work with educators in rebuilding their profession–and to elevate the teacher voice in shaping federal, state and local education policy,” Duncan said at the program’s launch on February 15. “Our larger goal is to make teaching not only America’s most important profession–but America’s most respected profession.”

Adds Shelton: “[With RESPECT] we are trying to elevate the teaching profession overall. We want to make teachers something that we as a country hold up and say, ‘This is one of the most important roles that we have in our society.’ They are equally as important as doctors, lawyers and engineers, and we need to recognize, appreciate and reward our teachers as we do other highly-regarded professions.”

Shelton also points out the need to erase the stereotype of teaching as a female-dominated profession by letting children know at a early age that it is a respected vocation that men can also thrive in and find rewarding.

The ultimate goal

Nobody is clamoring for any unrealistic numbers when it comes to black male K-12 teachers in the U.S. Shelton says equal representation is reasonable starting point – if roughly seven percent of the U.S. population is comprised of black males, then seven percent of teachers should fall into the same category.

“Generally, you would like for kids to go to schools that are representative of society,” Shelton says. “But particularly in highly-impacted communities, you might expect there would be some benefits to having even more black teachers.”

By starting multi-faceted programs like the TEACH Campaign and Project RESPECT, the Department of Education is doing everything within its power to rectify an issue that offers no quick solutions. It will take years to see tangible results from these efforts, but there’s reason to believe that Shelton’s stated goal of equal representation for African-American males in the teaching workforce is realistically attainable in the years ahead.