Sunday, July 30, 2006

On The Shortage Of Male African American Teachers

A number of colleges and universities have developed programs aimed at getting more male African American teachers into our public school classrooms:
Who's all but missing from public schools?

Black men who are teachers.

"It's really a good feeling to be elite," said Roger Walker, 30, a black man teaching high-school reading at Florida A&M University's developmental research school. Walker, who also taught at Nims Middle and Rickards High schools, said: "But it's scary there are so few of us. We can't be everywhere to serve the great population of our youth who need to see black male teachers." In the classroom, he always sports a suit and tie to set a good example.

Black male students are the least likely to graduate from Florida high schools, and with fewer black men showing up at Florida universities last fall, the people most likely to be their educational role models are barely present.

Black men made up only 3.2 percent of Florida teachers last fall, about the same percentage as five years earlier. And they were just 2.4 percent of U.S. teachers in 2003, said Reg Weaver, National Education Association president, who's seen a decline of black teachers like himself since 1971.

"I do find there is a hunger, a drive and an attraction to the African-American men who teach in the schools," said Kenneth Wright, 50, a teacher at PACE secondary school for Leon County at-risk students. "Part of it is the young males are able to see themselves in us."

Florida could be an ideal incubator to turn around the troubling trend.

In 2003, it had both the highest number of black male students in public schools of any state - 320,962 - and the worst high-school graduation rate - 31 percent - for black male students, said researcher Michael Holzman, who wrote the just-released Schott Foundation report on public education and black males.

There also is a huge appetite for teachers in Florida, which must hire 30,000 new ones this year.

"We've authorized our recruiter, if she comes across a qualified minority male ... to give them a contract on the spot," said Jim Croteau, acting Leon County Schools superintendent. "The numbers are miniscule," said Croteau, a former elementary schoolteacher. Of Leon County teachers, 4.1 percent are black men.

Why is the absence of black men in education so little talked about? Weaver said, "Once you recognize a problem exists, then you've got to do something about it."

It may be an issue of which comes first - the struggling black male students or the shortage of black male teachers.

How do you get more black male students through high school and college so they become teachers or otherwise well-educated, if there aren't enough black male teachers to inspire them?

Start by raising the high-school graduation rate for black male students, Holzman said.

"You have twice the chance of getting (black male) kids into college if the schools in Florida were at least as good as in Boston," Holzman said. "It's tragic."

Rafael Robinson, who graduated from Florida A&M University last December, is a black man who took the challenge of teaching.

"I love it," said Robinson, who returned to the St. Petersburg neighborhood where he grew up to teach first grade at Douglas Jamerson Elementary School. That's in Pinellas County, the urban county in Florida with the worst 2003 high-school graduation rate - 21 percent - for black male students.

"The kids really want to learn and especially really want to learn from someone they can relate to. (Because) I'm a male and most teachers are female, the kids get excited," Robinson said. "I can go home with a smile on my face because I taught someone something beneficial."

Also coming back to his roots is Micheal Franklin, a math teacher at St. John Elementary School in Gadsden County.

"When I was in the public school system in Gadsden, I was fortunate enough to run into black male teachers who helped inspire me and gave me a purpose to being in school. I wanted to give that back to other kids," said Franklin, who turned down offers to teach elsewhere for more money.

Meanwhile, the number of black men receiving bachelor's degrees in education is declining at Florida universities. The 61 black men earning teaching degrees in 2004-2005 from state universities was the lowest figure since 1992-1993.

Florida A&M University and Florida State University have the best records among Florida universities of graduating black men with teaching degrees: 18 from FAMU and 15 from FSU in 2004-2005. But their numbers are in a slump: FAMU had 65 black men graduating with teaching degrees in 1998-1999; FSU had 24 in 2003-2004.

"Call Me Mister" is a Clemson University program that reaches out to educationally at-risk communities to recruit black men to college and to teaching careers. It provides tuition assistance at Clemson and other colleges and a support system for participants. No similar program exists at FSU, said Barbara Edwards, associate dean of the College of Education.

"We typically get young men who are truly interested in making a difference and who truly love children," said FAMU professor of education Mary Newell, who taught Robinson.

Low starting salary in teaching, compared with professions like business or medicine that have opened their arms to black men since the civil-rights era, is the most frequently cited reason for the scarcity.

Raising teachers' salaries may work magic, teacher Ben Nelson said, noting that higher nurses' salaries have led more men into a female-dominated profession. Nelson runs and wrote a 2002 survey on why there are so few male teachers of young children.

But for men, the turnoffs to teaching are "a combination of sexism, fear of accusation, and status, as well as pay," Nelson said. Women are the stereotypical teachers, men are afraid of being accused of sexual abuse if they teach, and the profession of teaching is less respected than in the past, he said.

Just changing the education curriculum in college to get students teaching in their freshman year would help get men hooked, Nelson said.

"When kids have a guy in a classroom, you (the teacher) feel like a rock star," he said.

"More respect, more support, more money, more schools that are safe and orderly, more ability to be part of the decision-making process," was Weaver's advice on attracting black men to teaching.
For Walker, there are no doubts. "I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything," he said. "It gives (students) a great outlook that there's hope in society for black men."
I have to agree with Ben Nelson's assertion that teachers, "the profession of teaching is less respected than in the past."

But how do we go about raising the public's level of respect for the profession of teaching so that we may recruit more able teachers of all races and ethnicities?

Food for thought.
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