Advocates say increasing black teachers should be a national concern

Ashley Reeves, an Indiana school teacher, dreamed of getting her teaching certificate, but couldn’t afford the high price of certification. She settled for a renewable teaching permit, which allows teachers to work for one year, to teach at the George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academy, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Indianapolis. However, Reeves’ aspirations were revitalized when she saw a flier for the Educate ME Foundation, an organization focused on helping black people become teachers.

Reeves said she joined the program in August and received one-on-one support for test preparation and financial help to cover the cost of certification tests. Reeves received his license in November and returned to the classroom as a certified teacher.

“It was like a relief. It was a blessing. That has always been one of my goals, said Reeves (31). “I have been in education for quite a long time; six years have passed. The program itself is perfect for first-time teachers or teachers who have been in education for a long time.”

Blake Nathan launched the Educate ME Foundation in 2014 in Indianapolis to recruit and retain more black teachers. Today, the foundation works to mentor and support high school and college students who want to pursue careers in education. It educates black students about the value of becoming teachers and assists existing teachers through training and certification programs. Reeves is one of dozens of black people who have used the foundation’s programs to achieve their career goals. Nathan said the work they do ultimately benefits the students.

“If you are educated by a teacher of the same race, academically, emotionally, you perform better in the classroom,” Nathan said. “Having a black teacher in the school building reduces the level of discipline in the school. And if you can reduce the number of school disciplines, you can reduce the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Before Covid changed the education landscape, black students were already at a disadvantage due to the dismal number of black teachers in the classroom and other effects of systemic racism. Blacks represented just 7% of teachers in the 2017-18 school year, with white teachers making up 79% of the field, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. This is a dire situation as research shows that when black students have teachers who look like them, they are less likely to be overdisciplined and more likely to graduate from high school and consider college. Therefore, experts say, hiring black teachers is necessary to address the racial disparities that lead to poor educational outcomes and criminalization for black children.

But there are many barriers to blacks entering the teaching field. Costly certification tests and exams, called Praxis tests, are a major roadblock for black teachers trying to become certified, as black people are more likely than white people to fail these tests, according to a Chalkbeat report. Meanwhile, for black people who are able to enter the profession, failing these tests can get them booted from teaching jobs.

Critics believe that these tests, first implemented decades ago, simply work to exclude black teachers and do not adequately measure a person’s teaching ability. And there is little evidence that these tests predict teacher effectiveness at all. And research has shown that in some cases black students perform better academically with a black teacher who failed the Praxis exam than with a white teacher who passed.

Furthermore, advocates say that black students who do not have black teachers are less likely to become teachers themselves, so commitments to diversifying the industry must start early in the classroom.

The Educate Me Foundation is one of many programs across the country that aim to train and recruit more black people into the teaching profession. The programs can use different methods, with some focusing on breaking down the field’s financial barriers and others prioritizing the need to remove implicit biases in credentialing processes (or promoting cultural inclusion in schools). But they all ultimately aim to improve the educational experience for black children.

Call Me MISTER, a Clemson University development program for black men to become elementary school teachers, has produced about 367 teachers since 2004, said program field coordinator Winston Holton. Participants are required to work at a South Carolina K-12 public school between one and four years after completing the program, which typically lasts four years, Holton said. Students from “socio-economically disadvantaged and pedagogically disadvantaged environments” receive teaching assistance, mentorship and support to navigate the education industry, and help with job placement.

Caleb Brown.
Caleb Brown.Courtesy Call Me MISTER

Founder Tom Parks decided to launch the program in 2000 after learning about troubling incarceration rates and dismal educational opportunities for black men. Holton joined the program in 2001 and now serves as a mentor to participants like Caleb Brown, a 20-year-old in his third year of the program who hopes to become a middle school teacher.

“Representation in the classroom is important,” Brown said. “In terms of the relationships and connections I’ve made, it wouldn’t have been possible to have this experience early on without the help of Call Me MISTER.”

Many of these development and recruitment programs cater to all genders, but some—like Call Me MISTER and Men of CHS Teach, a program in Charleston, South Carolina, inspired by Call Me MISTER—focus on producing more black male teachers. Only 2% of the country’s teachers are black men.

This startling statistic, advocates say, is why programs that offer diverse paths to certification are important.

“Minority men face many barriers in their K-12 experience,” said Eric Stallings, who works with Men of CHS Teach to recruit and support teachers. Men of CHS Teach, which prioritizes men of color, is a partnership between the University of South Carolina and the Charleston County School District.

“They may go into business or marketing, but something always tugs at your heart and you say, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I just don’t know,'” he said. “We’ve created pathways for that to happen, have made it possible for some of them to come back as teachers and really make a difference. I think that speaks volumes about alternative certification.”

Sharif El-Mekki, founder and executive director of the Philadelphia-based Center for Black Educator Development, said the center’s mission is to build a “national black teacher pipeline” through policy and advocacy, programs and partnerships with school districts, colleges and similar programs across the country. The center works with school districts to facilitate a course for high school students interested in teaching, “but from a black educational framework, as opposed to what students usually get, all-white educational theory,” El-Mekki said.

“If you try to pursue and reform education without having a deep understanding of the racism that exists to create these disparities, you’re never going to achieve what you claim you want to achieve,” he said.

Teacher Ja'Quan Evans with students.
Teacher Ja’Quan Evans with students.Courtesy Men of CHS Teach

The center also offers training and mentoring programs for high school and college students, professional development for everyone from college professors to administrators, and consulting services for school districts across the country looking to retain black teachers. Since its foundation in 2019, the center has produced at least 30 teachers, who are now pedagogues or in teacher residency programs.

While some groups focus on getting more black teachers into classrooms, others focus on the cultural inclusion they believe is necessary to tear down implicit bias in schools—whether it’s in the classroom or the administrative offices. The Black Teacher Project in Oakland, California, works with black teachers to “reimagine schools as communities for liberated learning,” according to the project’s website. The project offers an 18-month fellowship for black teachers where they explore black identity, well-being, and culturally competent instruction (or “instruction rooted in blackness,” according to its website). It also teaches teachers how to implement restorative practices in their classrooms and invites them to retreats to foster community among black teachers.

This, advocates say, will have a positive impact on black students.

“BTP’s vision is that every student will benefit from the diversity, excellence and leadership of a licensed black teaching force,” the website states. “That’s why the Black Teacher Project’s motto is ‘Every child deserves a Black teacher.’

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