The idea that we need more black male teachers is obvious to everyone, and many groups are working to increase the numbers, but Beau Lancaster’s experience in education tells him we’re not addressing issues that would help us gain and retain more teachers like him. One important issue is addressing the “microagressions” and negative messages transmitted by colleagues and students.
“I, a black man, wasn’t supposed to be in the classroom,” was the message Lancaster says he got.
This rings true for me now that my oldest son has returned home with many stories after a few years teaching in South Korea and the Philippines. When he was younger I often asked him if he would ever be interested in becoming a teacher and his answer was always a firm “no.” Even after teaching in other countries he still says the same thing.
As it turns out he only had one black male teacher in all his years of schooling. It was Mr. Morris, a black mathematician from Alabama who taught fifth grade. That was the first year my son really took to math and saw himself as capable of performing in the subject at a high level. It wasn’t lost on me how much he was robbed by experiences like that.
Mr. Morris is clearly a unicorn in general, but in our state, Minnesota, even more so. Here only 4% of our teachers are of color as compared to 28% of students. Fewer teachers are black and even fewer are black males.
Even as children of color become the majority population of public schools, the percentage of black male teachers is dwindling. That’s not a problem begging for a cosmetic diversification of the teaching force, it’s a problem that impacts student achievement and school outcomes.
According to the Albert Shanker Institute, teachers of color are more likely to commit to teaching in “high-poverty, racially and ethnically segregated schools. Their commitment creates higher academic expectations for students and provides role models as Mr. Morris did for my son. That reduces stereotypes for black students and increases intra-racial understanding for white students.
So what are efforts to fix the problem missing? According to Lancaster, efforts to increase the black male “pipeline” do too little to understand the experience of black male teachers working in a white woman-dominated occupation.
For one, it’s isolating…you’re alone in your experiences, and then feel the pressure to represent all of black America at once. Often, that means you’re expected to be “the street whisperer”: someone who can translate the students’ experiences to others.
When you don’t fulfill those expectations, it can lead to an environment where microaggressions are the norm. A former colleague once told me they were surprised I was from the South Bronx because I didn’t “act like it.” The conversation left me angry and disillusioned with a colleague who could have been a source of support.
Second, there is pressure to uphold an image of black masculinity. In both of my educational roles — as a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and now as a trainer with Global Kids, an organization that helps develop young leaders — my male students of color gravitate toward me. But the pressure to “code switch” is constant.
I was once helping a student for their first job interview. As I suggested questions and terms to use, the student said, “This is easier for you. You always sound white.” Although I knew the response was just the student’s reaction to anxiety, it was representative of the prism I operate within.
The simple reality is that I am confronting racism daily, and that’s an incredibly intense experience that you can’t understand unless you’re doing it. Racism still lingers in the school systems where we work. We experience it in our professional trainings and while communicating with colleagues and supervisors. It’s something that comes up with students, too. I see my role as an educator partly as preparing students for dealing with brutal, racist systems.
As a black male teacher, black male students share their hopes and their inner trauma with you, and you feel an obligation to make sure they succeed. The students you can’t help stay with you. They haunt you. How do you process these experiences when you don’t have black male supervisors or fellow teachers?
In the end, Lancaster says new black male teachers will need to find a sense of fellowship and mentorship from other black men in the field. They need time, space, and help to process the uniquely different experience they have with students, white colleagues, and a system of education that is still working to overcome its own racism.
While getting more black male teachers is a matter of better preparation and recruiting, keeping them in place once they’ve committed to serving in hard-to-staff schools is a matter of addressing their isolation.
Read Beau Lancaster s full story at Chalkbeat.