As I boarded the train back home, I reflected on thoughts I previously had and spoken about with my colleagues. Having been a part of such a special convening of male educators of color caused me to think about the circumstances that led me to my career in education that began in 1993. Becoming an educator was the furthest thing on my mind while I was in college, despite having a roommate majoring in Elementary Education and having a mother serving as a teacher and, what I would call, a Freedom Fighter. The reasons are many, but one of the main reasons I believe I had never previously considered becoming an educator was that I simply was not asked until 1993 to consider such a powerfully impacting career in nation building. Although I had a deep commitment to fighting for social justice issues, I didn’t realize that one of the best ways to do so was in the classroom. So, that got me thinking about the recruitment of minority teachers-especially African American men. As a current principal, here are just some of the reasons I believe it is so important to ask more African Americans to jump into this nation building work called teaching.
1) The Shift: A change in public education is occurring. More and more students of color are becoming a part of the public education system, and the people who serve them should at least be a larger part of the teaching force. Too often, students go through 12 years of public schooling while only having one teacher of color. To have an African American male teacher is even more rare experience. Some estimate that African American men make up less than 2% of the teachers in our country. By contrast, for example, more than half of the students in Philadelphia’s public schools are of African descent. And, this fall, it is expected that more than half of all public school students will be children of color.
2) Windows and Mirrors: African American students should not only be able to see the world around them (being a minority, they are quite often over-exposed to the lives of others), but they should also see themselves. African American teachers can provide this mirror-establishing an opportunity for students to see themselves in their teachers. This doesn’t mean this cannot happen without African American teachers, but it should be strongly considered during the recruitment of teachers.
3) Diversity is a Strength: The interwoven fabric in many parts of this country demands that everyone, including white students, have a multi-cultural lens with which to operate. We need our citizens to have cultural sensitivity and at least a proficient level of cultural context to draw from as they navigate life with a diverse population. By having African American teachers, we provide all of our students (Whites also) with a microcosm of society, one that is diverse and reflective of our communities. If supported properly, having more African American educators can provide a powerful cultural context within schools and communities. Also, we lose the opportunity to tap into a larger pool of talent when African American men only make up 2% of the teaching profession.
4) Purpose, Struggle, and Change: Education is the best lever for change that millions of people can take up and drive right now. African Americans have long been a part of the fight and advocacy for social justice issues. Right now, millions of students of color are trapped in failing schools. We need more African Americans to become directly involved in what can be considered, perhaps, the single most important lever: righting the myriad social justice ills we currently face. Health care, overflowing prison populations, low college attainment levels, and poor housing opportunities all plague our communities. A great education is a big part of the weapon against these overwhelming issues. We need African Americans to view schools as one of the best battlegrounds for short and long term victories against inequity.
5) Ideals for All: To apply the ideals of this nation to all students and communities, we must provide students with a well-rounded education. To do this at optimal levels, we need more teachers, African Americans in particular, to side with our students of all backgrounds by providing them with a great education-one that is rigorous, well-rounded, and taught by a diverse teaching body. Our students are still facing many forms of injustice-the most ubiquitous injustice of them all is poor education and failing schools. Our students need more advocates, more Freedom Fighters, and more thought partners to push against this wall of injustice.
Some districts play the role of a baseball catcher and will continue to just wait for more African American teachers, men in particular, to enter the schoolhouse doors. Districts and principals must possess the mindsets of a relentless scout in search of the “Top Talent” individuals who can expand the diversity within the teaching profession and serve as powerful role models and educators for our students of color. Our standard approach to recruiting people of diversity into the teaching profession needs to change. Instead of demonstrating contentment with passively “receiving” African American educators, the recruitment effort must actively pursue, proactively recruit, and deliberately highlight the amazing opportunity and potential that accompanies diversity. For example, networks like North Star Academies and Mastery Charter Schools are partnering with Relay to recruit, support, and provide authentic experiences for undergraduates interested in a teaching career. At Mastery Charter Schools, we are incentivizing choosing a career in education to our graduating seniors by promising summer school jobs (working directly with students) for them throughout college.
Recruitment must be seen as the last inning in a World Series game where every player and every decision impacts the ultimate outcome. If we want to prepare our children to be successful players and shapers in the global society, we must make the real commitment to diversify our nation’s teaching workforce. This is a change that can begin immediately. Let’s not wait to act until the bottom of the ninth inning when we can strike a homerun now for all of our students!
Sharif El-Mekki is the Principal at Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, PA and a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.