by Mark Jenkins, Jr. - FRESH TALK The Hartford Courant

I am one of the African American males who, according to The National Academy of Education, make up less than 2 percent of the nation’s public school teachers.

It’s a statistic that came out just a few months after CNN reported that black male students have dramatically fewer black male teachers as role models compared with their white peers. It’s not a new phenomenon. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched a recruitment campaign, “Black Men to the Blackboard,” which called for more African American males to pursue education careers.

Efforts like these to fight disparities are well-intentioned but, from my experience, don’t address the heart of the problem, which has little to do with awareness. Low expectations and lack of both role models and support from adults are what keep African Americans from becoming teachers.

Children learn what they live. So how can they be expected to pursue, or believe they’ll receive support from, a field where few people look, sound or come from places like they do? The low expectations teachers place on minority students are also strangling the relationship they have with education. This, however, doesn’t have to be the case, as a male African American student in my classroom recently reminded me when he said to his peers: “Remember what Mr. Jenkins says every day. If we meet him halfway, he can help. We are responsible for what happens to us.”

These words sparked the realization in me that my students know I hold them to the highest standard, that they are responsible for their own educations, and that I am there to provide them with guidance and support.

Inspired by this, I turned to the Webster’s New World College Dictionary and looked up “support.” What I found was that its definition includes words like courage and faith — vital characteristics that I believe each student is entitled to receive. For success to occur, a student must feel empowered and trusted.

As a graduate student at UConn’s Neag School of Education, I not only experienced these transformational beliefs myself, but watched as my instructors and colleagues worked to instill them in others.

Neag is not just the name of a fantastic couple who believe so much in the potential of Connecticut’s future educators that they donated $21 million to the school, but an acronym for the support Neag students receive: “No Experience As Great.” More important, it’s also an acronym for what its graduates work to give the students who, in turn, sit in their classrooms.

For those driven to teach, there is no better training ground than Neag. Its three-year integrated bachelor’s/master’s program is a road map for success that allowed me to receive the expertise needed to be an effective teacher, as well as the confidence and support needed to give my own students the same.

I know how to advocate for myself and my students; how to hold students accountable for their own educations; and, perhaps most important, to inspire and show them all that they can achieve. We who teach want to make a difference. We believe in respect, embracing differences and the magnificent possibilities that can come from working tirelessly to provide support.

Like my students, I needed the support and guidance I acquired as an undergraduate and graduate student to make me an educator committed to the future of my students and of education. I have no doubt Neag will continue to do the same for other future educators, and that those educators — like me — will discover in themselves all that they have and want to give. Ideally, the result will be that one day in the not-too-distant future, young African Americans, Latinos and other minorities won’t even have to question whether they can one day be a teacher, because the answer will be standing at the front of their classrooms.

Mark Jenkins Jr., 22, of Fitchberg, Mass., graduated with honors in English from the University of Connecticut and is studying for a master’s degree at the Neag School of Education at UConn.