Like so many people throughout Atlanta, I was awed by the celebration over Barack Obama‘s victory in the presidential election. I witnessed another poignant victory the next day, when I visited a high school history class in the southwest part of the city. The teacher played portions of Obama’s acceptance speech and asked students for their reactions. The black male students in particular spoke passionately about seeing themselves in the president-elect, whose achievements gave them hope that anything is possible.
But while they can see themselves as future world leaders, young black men rarely see themselves as teachers. The proportion of black male public school teachers across the country is as low as 2 percent. Students need great teachers of both genders and all races. Yet it’s especially challenging to cultivate black male teachers because of significant family obligations or community ties. The relatively small number of black male teachers also means a smaller pool of future black male school leaders.
I don’t remember having a single black male teacher until I reached college. After graduating from Cornell University, I joined Teach For America and taught fourth and fifth grade in Houston. Teach For America recruits top college graduates to commit to teach for two years in underserved public schools. At the end of my Teach For America commitment, the principal came to me and said that I would probably never know how great an impact I had as the only black male teacher at the school, other than the P.E. teacher.
I did have some idea. In the poor Buffalo neighborhood where I grew up, almost none of my black male friends went on to college. I was raised mainly by a single mother who worked hard to send me to a well-respected public magnet school. I began to think about how education could level the playing field and the role black men can have as teachers.
When I taught for Teach For America, I wore a suit and tie to school every day. For me, it signaled that my students were important and deserved my best. At first, they asked why Mr. Griffith was so dressed up. But soon they wanted to help pick out my suits and ties for the following week. The black male students asked constantly what it was like to go to college, what it was like to be successful. The students got their own taste of success as they progressed one and a half grade levels in a single year. The opportunity to be a role model was a powerful experience and I wanted to know why more young black men weren’t going into teaching. I chose to teach as a way to give back.
After teaching, I became a recruitment director at Teach For America and then managed our diversity recruiting initiatives. In dozens of conversations with young black male applicants, I learned that the idea of teaching interested them, but two factors often held them back.
Typically these students were the first in their family to go to college. They couldn’t justify to their parents going back and teaching in the low-income communities where Teach For America operates, the type of communities they had worked so hard to leave.
I also heard about the struggles and sacrifices made by their families that allowed them to be successful. These young black men felt an obligation to secure high-paying jobs that would allow them to help support their relatives and ensure that, while they may have been the first in their families to attend college, they would not be the last.
These barriers are genuine, but there are signs that we can overcome them. As just one example, 11 percent of last year’s graduating class at Morehouse College applied to Teach For America. The need to build on this momentum will be part of the discussion at a forum on black men and education hosted by Teach For America and Morehouse today.
President-elect Obama has spoken repeatedly about the role education played in his life. His win can motivate young black men to see themselves leading a classroom, not just sitting in one.