Lenny Macklin made it to 10th grade before having a teacher who looked like him — an African-American male. Gregory Georges graduated from high school without ever being taught by a black man.
Only about 2 percent of teachers nationwide are African-American men. But experts say that needs to change if educators expect to reduce minority achievement gaps and dropout rates.
Macklin, now an 18-year-old college student, said he understands the circle that keeps many of his peers out of the classroom professionally.
“A lot of males, they don’t like being in school because they can’t relate to their teacher,” said Macklin, of Pittsburgh. “So why would you want to work there?”
American teachers are overwhelmingly white (87 percent) and female (77 percent), despite minority student populations of about 44 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s a job men generally avoid because of gender stereotypes, fear of abuse accusations and low pay, said Bryan Nelson, founder of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization MenTeach. The average U.S. teacher salary was about $51,000 in 2006-07.
Yet increasing the number of minority teachers is important because of “the role model factor,” said Greg Johnson, a policy analyst for the National Education Association.
“These students need to see successful adults of color in front of them,” Johnson said.
Macklin and Georges, both sophomores at historically black Cheyney University near Philadelphia, are trying to fulfill that need through the Call Me MISTER teaching program.
MISTER is both an acronym — Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models — and a reference to the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night,” in which Sidney Poitier’s character demands respect with the line, “They call me MISTER Tibbs!”
Designed to put more minority men at the head of the classroom, the initiative offers scholarships in exchange for teaching in public schools.
“If we can recruit linebackers, point guards and track stars, we can recruit third-grade teachers,” said Roy Jones, the program’s national executive director. “It is a matter of priority.”
Jones directs the program from Clemson University in South Carolina, where it began in 2000 after researchers found that fewer than 1 percent of the state’s elementary school teachers were black men; the overall K-12 student population at the time was 42 percent black.
Nearly six years after the first MISTER cohort graduated in 2004, there has been some progress, though Jones concedes not nearly enough.
About 50 program graduates are teaching in South Carolina schools, representing a 25 percent increase in the number of black male instructors statewide, Jones said. Another 250 future teachers are in the MISTER pipeline, scattered across 28 colleges in seven states.
To improve the national percentage of black male teachers to even 3 percent, another 45,000 would need to enroll.
One hurdle may be that the program is found mostly at historically black colleges and universities, which have lower graduation rates than colleges overall, according to an Associated Press analysis. Men at those schools have a paltry 29 percent graduation rate within six years, in part due to lack of money and poor academic preparation, the AP found.
Yet some who have finished the MISTER program, like Keith Wilkes, find teaching rewarding.
Wilkes, who works in a predominantly white school in Westminster, S.C., said he believes children of all races need male role models. Wilkes, 50, sees himself as an African-American giving back to the community where he grew up — an image he hopes will dispel negative stereotypes of black men for students and parents alike.
“It’s a noble cause,” Wilkes said. “This is not just something you do as a job. This is a lifestyle. You have to believe in what you’re doing.”
Hayward Jean, 27, has found teaching equally inspiring, though not without its challenges. Now in a low-income district in Orangeburg, S.C., Jean said he was caught off guard by the initially chilly reception from boys in his class.
Many are being raised by single mothers and are wary of black men abruptly entering and leaving their lives, Jean said.
“Actually, a lot of them were a little bit bitter toward me,” Jean said. “We’ve been breaking those walls down, and that’s been helping them tremendously.”
At Cheyney, a public university serving 1,400 students, the Call Me MISTER initiative started last year with a $1 million state grant. Students receive full tuition, room and board, and a stipend; for every year they receive the scholarship, they are required to teach one year in Pennsylvania public schools.
About a dozen undergraduates are expected to get their bachelor’s degrees in 2011; six graduate MISTER students are expected to receive master’s degrees this spring.
Gregory Georges, 20, said some of his peers are attracted to higher-paying careers with fancier wardrobes. But he notes that all of his teaching salary will be going into his pocket because he’ll have no loans to pay back. And he’s not so much into clothes anyway.
“I’d rather be in a classroom rolling my sleeves up and talking to the kids,” Georges said. “Get some chalk on my fingers.”