By Arthur Jones II and Video by Jade Lawson - ABC News

Black male teachers have often said that they are underrepresented in classrooms but the role models that exist have inspired others to become educators.

Kurt Russell, who was recognized as the 2022 Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the bug bit him when he had a Black male teacher. He cited his teacher Larry Thomas, who is now retired, for inspiring him.

“Mr. Thomas inspired me to become a teacher,” Russell, a high school history teacher, told ABC News.

“For the first time I saw someone who looked like me, in front of the classroom,” Russell said, adding “Someone who listened to the same music I listened to, someone who attended the same church, who had the same faith that I believe in, someone who enjoys sports like I did. And so I’m looking at this gentleman and saying, if he’s having that much fun in the classroom – that he brings this energy each and every day – then I’m inspired to be like this.”

Thomas and Russell’s relationship came full circle when they worked together when Russell returned to Oberlin High School, his alma mater, after college.

2023 Colorado Teacher of the Year Jimmy Day II says one can spot the energy of a Black male teacher from a mile away as it’s a step, a look, and oftentimes it’s their overall swag. Day II recalled his high school band director, Benjamin Pruitt when he was growing up in Detroit, Michigan.

Day II is currently a band director in Aurora, Colorado. He followed in Mr. Pruitt’s footsteps

“He had this way about him,” Day II said. “He had this walk about him when he was on the podium and directed the bands in the jazz band. He had this coolness to him, he had this swag to him. And so I know when I’m on the podium in front of my students, you know, I take on that same swag that he had.”

Alejandro Diasgranados, who was named the 2021 Washington DC Teacher of the Year, said if it weren’t for his Black male mentor, J. Otis Harris, Diasgranados wouldn’t have attended college let alone become a teacher.

“He is just a beacon of light in education and showed me what I could be as an educator, especially as a Black male educator,” Diasgranados told ABC News. “Everything that I do in the classroom comes from what I learned in his class.”

Despite Russell, Day II and Diasgranados being recognized as top educators, there are few Black male teachers in U.S. schools, according to data. Educators told ABC News there are unfair expectations put on Black men and they’re given outsized responsibilities in addition to teaching.

For Diasgrandos, he said Mr. Harris shows up in his classroom everyday.

“Although he was my teacher in seventh grade, he never stopped being my teacher,” Diasgranados said. “I try to be Mr. Harris every single day when I walk into my classroom. I try to approach students who might not be in my class, who might not have the opportunity to be in my class, and I see how his impact has impacted me and many many students in Prince George’s County [Maryland].”

‘Black male educators are needed’

According to the Institute of Labor Economics’ 2017 paper, “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers,” when assigned a Black teacher between third and fifth grade, Black children are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to be interested in college.

“Black male educators are needed,” Day II said.

Black male teachers are an anomaly: 1.3% of public school teachers identified as Black men in the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) National Teacher and Principal Survey in 2020. The survey is conducted every three years. The findings for 2023-2024 will not be finalized until next summer.

“They’re needed so much and – my goodness – I wish there was some kind of magic wand to flip those numbers around and get more Black males in the education career,” Day II said.

Broader government solutions and pipeline programs have attempted to attract Black men to the profession, but Diasgranados said the dearth is alarming.

“We need to get a movement, not only behind getting teachers into the teaching profession, Black teachers into the teaching profession, but retaining the great ones,” he said, adding “Creating spaces where Black educators can thrive professionally and don’t have to leave the profession to go into administration or go into a different role to find success.”

As recruitment and retention remains a top priority for these Black men, Russell issued a call to Black students.

“We need you, we need your expertise, we need your knowledge, we need your passion and your cultural relevance,” Russell said.

He believes there’s no “better profession” than being an educator and he said his journey was facilitated by Thomas. Russell said Thomas was not only a pillar in the classroom but also the Oberlin community, a northern Ohio town about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland.

“Mr. Thomas used to go to our local park and play basketball with the players, you can see Mr. Thomas jogging around the town, so he was this iconic figure in Oberlin,” Russell said.

“Many Black children who had Mr. Thomas as a teacher feel the same way that, you know, I feel about this gentleman,” he added.

Having retired after 46 years in the classroom, Thomas said he hopes to pass on his influence to the younger generation like he did for Russell.

“They [Black male teachers] do make a difference, they can impact young people’s lives, and they can change the world by just being who you are,” Thomas told ABC News.

“Continue to do what you’re doing and help encourage young people to go into education. As they look at you, there’s other people that are gonna be like ‘I want to do that. I want to be like that,'” he added.

Read the article and watch video.

February 24, 2024