by Julia Sellers - South Carolina Bureau

After two years with an all-male classroom, sixth-grade teacher Eric Lewis says he thinks he’s starting to see where his work makes a difference.

As one of 27 black men recruited to teach in Aiken County for the 2005-06 school year, according to state Education Department data, the North Augusta Middle School teacher brought something different to the table for his pupils.

“The male students especially respond to me differently,” he said. “They might talk with me about things that they may feel inappropriate to talk to a female about, or they don’t have a male figure at home they talk with about.

“My time with them allowed them to enter into the middle school world where no one’s telling them what to do all day, but some weren’t ready for that freedom, so I was able to help.”

Since 2000, teachers like Mr. Lewis have been recruited to the classroom through the “Call Me MISTER” program, based at Clemson University. More than 129 black men completed the program in the past year, according to the program’s executive summary.

Male teachers in the classroom dropped to a 40-year low in 2005, with South Carolina ranking 50th in the nation with only 17.7 percent. The MISTER program aims to reverse the trend and encourage a new generation to pursue teaching.

“I think it’s a very noble profession — the best profession in the world, but some probably see it as traditionally female,” Mr. Lewis said of teaching.

Mr. Lewis said it wasn’t until high school that he had his first male teacher who wasn’t a coach. He knew he wanted to be a teacher but said the MISTER program gave him the support system to stick with a sometimes unforgiving profession.

“We all came in together. We were a support for each other,” Mr. Lewis said. “If we started feeling down about grades, we were there for each other.”

The program’s ability to pull college men into teaching drew national attention last month when Southern Living magazine featured Mr. Lewis and the MISTER program.

North Augusta Middle Principal Barry Head said he was elated that the school’s teaching diversity was recognized.

“I would say Eric has probably already influenced another generation of teachers in the three years since he’s been here,” Mr. Head said. “(Students) need that influence in their lives. The first goal is to get a quality teacher. At the same time, you want a quality teacher who fits other descriptions as well. It’s good for kids to see him and people like him and know ‘Well, I can be successful, too.’ ”

The MISTER program works with 11 two- and four-year colleges. Students are recruited as they become academically eligible to attend their chosen college and stay with their freshman cohort for the next four years.

“South Carolina is ranked last in the nation in placing men in the classroom, black or white,” said Dr. Roy Jones, MISTER’s executive director. “More African-American men who will spend tonight in a prison cell than in a college dorm. We wanted to reverse that trend.”

The program has now branched out to target all men, not just blacks, Dr. Jones said. Dr. Jones and MISTER members are also working on expanding the program to Georgia and other states.

“Most teachers that are going to leave the profession leave in the first five years,” Mr. Head said. “This is just another good support system to network them together to keep teachers here.”