Where are they?
For millions of African-American male youth who look toward the front of their classroom every day, the thought must arise frequently “Why don’t I see myself?”
That “myself,” of course, is a male teacher who represents to these youth a familiarity in gender and cultural experience that is virtually an unknown occurrence for African-American students in the American educational system.
For decades now, we have promoted the notion that one of the most effective ways to promote progress in our community is to provide real-life role models for our youth. Even more important, I suspect, is that we accomplish this by focusing attention on the less “glamorous” fields that have a more realistic outcome for our young men than those linked to sports or entertainment. One writer put it succinctly: “You can’t be what you don’t see.” However, trying to find African American male teachers in our classroom is like searching for a phantom.
African-American males represent only about 2% of teachers in the United States, yet they comprise 6% of the population. Four percentage points seem like a modest difference, but in relationship to approximately millions of youths, that divide is huge. A CNN report put it more starkly: “That is less than 1 in 50 teachers.”
In that report, Terris King, a kindergarten teacher in Washington, D.C., maintains that having a male role model is important. “I fit a void in their lives,” King told CNN. “A lot of them have never felt what it feels like to shake a man’s hand, [have him] look them in the eye, and tell them right from wrong ... They need someone in their lives who’s strong – they need an African American male in their lives that’s positive.” Fortunately, recognizing this shortage of African-American male is gaining traction. Throughout the country, both private and public efforts are beginning to confront the issue.
Atlanta Journal Constitution blogger Maureen Downey reports that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized the problem when he appealed to students at Morehouse College to consider a teaching career. Mr. Duncan announced that $4 billion dollars is being directed to the lowest performing schools. Also, the Department of Education (DOE) is spearheading TEACH.org (www.teach.org), aimed at recruiting more college students to the teaching profession.
Almost everyone agrees that teaching is a noble profession, and it routinely hits the top of the charts on any “respected profession” list. Yet today, in many states, including my own state of New Jersey, teachers are victims of cost cutting and rules that would tarnish, if not eliminate the need for tenure. This has the potential to reduce interest in all would-be teachers and creates even more disincentive for minority candidates who generally face obstacles that their nonminority counterparts have not.
What We Can Do
Our appeal to young African Americans must be both idealistic and pragmatic. The idealistic part is in some ways the more manageable hurdle. It involves personal contact and offering direction whenever we have the opportunity. Pundits, politicians, and academics have weighed in on this topic; however, all of us must do more. Simply put: we must take action.
Think how easy this is if you offer the minimal effort, which could potentially offer the maximum benefit. The next time you have a conversation with a young man, just ask these questions: “Have you ever thought about becoming a teacher?” “Do you know that despite growing issues in the profession, teachers continue to lead the list of respected professions?” “Becoming a teacher would allow YOU the opportunity to become the type of teacher you wanted but never had.”
On the pragmatic side, as legislators we can do much more. I have co-sponsored a bill in the New Jersey legislature that addresses this issue head on. My bill would establish a pilot program, under the auspices of the Department of Education, which would recruit disadvantaged or minority men to teach in certain failing schools under an alternative route program.
My bill meshes two problems linked by community: schools and teachers. We aim to reinvigorate schools that have earned a failing grade, with college-educated men who might not fulfill the typical criteria (usually an education degree) for becoming a teacher. Many minority students in chronically troubled schools would finally have a teacher role model who would understand them in a manner unique to our cultural and historical experience. This is no guarantee of success, but it is a workable solution that we must test if we have any hope for the future.
In addition to a program that encourages and steers African-American youth into teaching, as legislators we must fight against any laws that jeopardize the financial and institutional security of teachers, such as tenure.. In New Jersey, current polices have eroded teachers’ pay and tampered with their pensions. True, some teachers are “grandfathered in,” but given that teachers have lower pay compared to many professions for college graduates, it begs the question of why African-American males or others would find the profession appealing. Idealism will only go so far, but to ask aspiring teachers to enter a profession that is often underpaid and offers limited security is unrealistic.
In closing, most of us will have a life after the legislature. When YOU mull over your future, it might be an ideal time to consider the pull of the classroom and the influence you can exert on a younger person, one student at a time.
As a legislator, however, you too can either take the initiative or support an existing process that offers young African-American males the opportunity to enter a career they might have never considered. That career might not offer huge monetary rewards, but the compensation of seeing our youth enter the working world with more passion, skills, and confidence is a gift without a price tag.