Students in American K-12 schools are increasingly diverse. But that diversity is often missing in the teachers at the front of classrooms.
That’s especially true when it comes to the number of teachers who are Black men: the group makes up only 1.3 percent of American school teachers, according to a widely cited federal survey of the 2020-2021 school year.
Why are there so few Black men in the teaching profession?
To begin to answer this question, EdSurge recently spoke with Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, a prominent teacher pipeline that pushes for greater educator diversity in public schools, and Meheret Woldeyohannes, the director of external affairs for that organization. The conversation took place in front of a live audience during the ISTE Live 23 conference in Philadelphia. (EdSurge is an independent newsroom that shares a parent organization with ISTE. Learn more about EdSurge ethics and policies here and supporters here.)
Here are the highlights, edited for length and clarity.
EdSurge: I’m always curious how people conceptualize what they’re doing. So, if I were to sidle up to you somewhere and say, ‘Hey, Sharif, you look like an interesting person. What is it you do, precisely?’ What would you say?
Sharif El-Mekki: What I would say is that we’re reengineering and rebuilding a Black teacher pipeline. And so a lot of times people think of it as something new or something that they’re starting. But there was a pathway to the classroom for Black educators and other diverse educators. And that was undermined in a lot of different ways, historically, as well as a lot of contemporary challenges. So I would say we’re rebuilding the Black teacher pipeline.
And when would you say the pipeline eroded?
El-Mekki: It’s been eroding for a long time.
One of the pinpoints that people talk about a lot is the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which is celebrated for a lot of different reasons. But if you can imagine school districts — some shutting down for five years — because they did not want to integrate; others saying, “You know what, there’s money attached to the children if we accept them, and it’s financially feasible for us to accept these children, but we don’t have to accept the adults, the Black folks who are serving them.”
And I think another part of this is just a narrative that’s not spoken about as much, but the complaint of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board. They talked about [how] their teachers — their Black teachers — were amazing. They never talked about whether there was a deficit in mindset or skill gaps with their teachers. Often the teachers had Ph.D.s: they were actually super qualified to be educators. [The students] felt loved. They felt seen. They felt there was a context that they were working from, that children understood. And so many of them — the Brown family included — said, “No, our teachers were absolutely amazing. We were going to fight against some of the other issues.” That’s not just down in the South, it’s up North as well.
That gets to the root of one of the ‘why’ questions that I had for you. I know that, historically, the arguments for Black excellence in education have shifted considerably. And so when I think back to someone like W.E.B. Du Bois, the need to prove that Black people are capable of the heights of cultural excellence was a large part of the reason for the focus on education. But it sounds like you’re saying, following Brown v. Board, part of the reason that actually eroded the system was a cultural rejection of Black excellence in education by at least part of the establishment. Is that a fairly accurate characterization?
El-Mekki: Oh, I would say there’s definitely some of that. You have to remember that Brown v. Board was a tactic. And part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was not on board with that tactic… And so there were multiple narratives.
And I would say, if we fast forward this to Stokely Carmichael [a prominent civil rights organizer in twentieth-century New York], he said, “We’re not fighting for integration or segregation. We’re fighting for good education, no matter where we are.” So if it is a school that’s in a Black community, how do we make sure that the funding stream is equitable and effective, and we’re not just getting your rundown supplies and making sure that we’re not having to walk 10 miles to get to a school that’s further away from us? These are the things that they were really pushing back against.
But the narrative of, “If you’re not sitting next to a white child, that means you have a deficit in your learning and your lived experience,” is one of the pernicious messages that was also being sent through Brown v. Board.
I want to probe that in a little bit. But first, I want to paint a picture of what we’re seeing these days. Why are there so few male Black teachers now? And what are some of the barriers to entry into the profession?
El-Mekki: We know that there are fewer teachers, not just Black teachers, but teachers in general. But we know that growing up Black in America and growing up Black in American schools have, unfortunately, a lot of similarities. And so it’s not that different. But sometimes as educators, we are naive enough to think, “Oh, it’s school, and everyone loves each other.” And there’s this naive notion that school is a safe space for Black youth. And it’s not.
And when we talk to Black educators, it is not only that they often experience racism, from their colleagues and supervisors as professionals, but they also remember when they experienced something similar as a child. But the effect is that now they’re trying to protect children and [work] against policies and mindsets that are racist. So that’s the trifecta: I’m experiencing this as a professional; I remember that as a child; and now I’m also having a classroom full of students and I … want to push back against that.
My friend, Chris Stewart, talks about Black youth or Black children: for too many schools and districts they’re the new cotton. So they’re there because they offer a funding stream, but they’re not there for the support and things like that. Even when you think about W.E.B. Du Bois, he grew up in the North. And he talked about how even though northern schools may accept Black children, they’re often crucified in that process. And so that kind of strain and experience, unfortunately, continues today, which undermines any attempts [to educate those students]. Like when we have states that say they’re trying to recruit diverse educators, but [are] also telling them, “Erase yourself and your history as you’re filling out that application.”
Audience Question: So out of curiosity, are we suggesting that there’s a shortage of Black teachers currently because the K-12 system that we are indoctrinated in is not the best? And then, once they come of age, and may have gone to college or not, the occupation is not as attractive because of past experiences? Is it like being indoctrinated into a bad system and not wanting to go back into that bad system?
El-Mekki: It’s a combination of things.
Yesterday at a luncheon, another friend, Chris Emdin, [compared] recruiting Black youth to teach to recruiting someone to return to the scene of a crime, a crime committed against themselves. So you’re already working against that for too many Black youth.
But then, also, there are a lot of districts and schools that think about recruiting, but they pay no attention to retention. So what is the experience?
[At the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected], “You know what, sometimes I think I’m integrating my people into a burning house.” So today, we need to make sure we’re not integrating teachers into a burning schoolhouse. Because it’s complex — it’s entrenched. But we can’t reach educational justice without racial justice. We can’t recruit and retain educators of color without thinking about the social, political and economic conditions that they find themselves engrossed in and battling.
It’s a good segue. I wanted to ask about some of the economic disparities because as much as particular teachers may be mission-focused, it is a profession. And this is a country with deep economic disparities. Do you often hear, when talking with prospective teachers, questions like, ‘Why would I do that? Teachers aren’t paid particularly well. I’m already starting from behind. It’s not like I’m inheriting massive amounts of wealth. And it’s a high prestige but low pay job, historically speaking.’ Do you hear these kinds of concerns regularly or not so much?
El-Mekki: You know, it’s interesting. We do hear it and [I] 100 percent agree with you about the mission. So we’re working with our youth. And this summer, we have 200 Black and brown teachers, apprentices, in high school and college, who are interested in teaching. And so there is an interest. And even when you look at the research, the pay isn’t the number one reason. It comes up. It’s in the top five or 10. [But] it is not usually number one.
And when you look at Black men — in particular Black men who attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities — teaching is the number one profession. Actually, teaching comes up twice in the top 10 professions for Black men attending HBCUs: [teaching both] elementary and high school.
And so, we know that there are disparities… there are definitely differences in pay. And so, a lot of times, it depends on where you are.
But I think another big part of it is: what is the experience in college and how much debt are people attaining while they are matriculating through? What do the certification exams look like? How much money do you have to spend on supplies? Do you have someone who can just say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m gonna donate X amount to you.’ So all of those things factor in where it ends up.
We talked to our youth about it like, “Okay, what’s your spending power?” At the end of everything, if you’re paying back a certain amount in loans, and that’s a difference and that’s a big part of [our] black teacher pipeline fellowship.
You said pay wasn’t the number one factor pushing Black men out of the profession. What is number one?
El-Mekki: There are all these cute names for it… I’m old school: we call it racism where I came from, okay. So that’s the number one reason. And then number two is usually something very similar that we hear from all teachers: just the lack of respect, not being listened to, leadership and autonomy being eroded, lack of community.
You noted that HBCUs tend to generate a lot of interest in teaching. What are HBCUs doing that everyone else is not?
El-Mekki: A big part of it is the community aspect of it. A big part of it is the political part of it. In the Black experience in America, education was always tied to liberation and choices and autonomy — upward mobility. So it’s less about classroom management. And it’s more about community building.
Community building creates cooperation, community building has a deeper connection than classroom management.
I think HBCUs are pulling from Black pedagogical frameworks and Black historical lenses. This is what should be taught in a lot of education prep programs. And it’s not. But it is taught in HBCUs. And so they’re pulling and drawing from an orientation, lens, history, and it’s inserted into how they’re approaching teaching. And it’s tied to a liberatory framework.
I want to stick with that theme of community for a second. What is the role of community control over things like the public education system, ideally?
Woldeyohannes: I look at that as activating agency among community members. So we’re talking about parents, family members, [and] just really thinking about everyone that has a stake in their children’s education…
I’m thinking about Lakeisha Young, for example, from Oakland Reach. Ya’ll don’t know about her, please follow her work: support it! Thinking about how they are thinking about supporting the students but also empowering the parents to get more acclimated with education, getting involved and not just attending a parent conference meeting or going to one of the things that the school happens to offer once a year. But it’s actually just saying, ‘Here’s what is needed. And this is why you need to be proactive in your children’s education journey.’ And also, you’re being proactive and expanding your own journey and learning more about your involvement in this work, because it really does take a village. And so that was really about tapping into the agency. I think that’s so important: student agency, parent agency, teacher agency, all of that.
One way of interpreting a lot of the culture war hysterics these days would be a result of parents who much more actively began paying attention — maybe for the first time during the pandemic — to what policies the school had. And actually, they don’t like more inclusion, they don’t want to see more Black teachers and paradigms. So I’m wondering: how do you actually advise teachers who may be thinking about going or actually working with Black teachers in deeply southern communities that may be very much “anti-woke” in terms of their values?
El-Mekki: For one thing, we’ve got to remember that ‘anti-wokeness,’ whatever that means, is not new…
If you reread [Mildred Taylor’s 1977 novel] “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” the mother in that book was a teacher who ended up getting fired. She got fired for being “woke.” Mildred Taylor wrote that book a long time ago.
Yeah, granted, it’s not new. So what can teachers do?
El-Mekki: It’s gonna be a multi-tiered approach. Tomorrow, I will go to a meeting with the NAACP and the Thurgood Marshall Institute in New York. And this is part of what they’re doing. So we need the legal teams around the country to actually file lawsuits against a lot of this because it’s unconstitutional.
We also need families and communities and educators to hang together and not let it down. Because this continues to happen. [We say] ‘Oh, that’s a fringe group. Oh, that’s the radical right,’ and sometimes we poopoo it. There’s this Moms for Liberty coming to town to be racist.
Not too long ago, the Union League, which started off supporting the U.S. Civil War and recruiting Union soldiers, recognized and gave an award — a couple blocks from here — to [Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate] Ron DeSantis. So he was up here, and they gave him an award right here in Philadelphia. That’s why people [say] the Liberty Bell is cracked because there is so much injustice, and it couldn’t bear the weight of the hypocrisy. So it just cracked on its own. (That’s not really what happened.)
So I think it’s going to take a coalition of folks to continue to agitate and advocate. And one of the things that we’re just telling people directly is we have to own the out-of-school time. So even if there are laws and policies happening, that doesn’t stop Freedom Schools. That doesn’t stop faith-based institutions. That doesn’t stop parent groups. We’re at a tech conference, it doesn’t stop learning from the internet. There are so many ways to continue to make sure everywhere is a classroom. And we should treat it as such, and not think that we can only teach about history, accurate history, and teach truth only within a framework. That’s actually anti-education if you think that’s the only place to learn.
And so we have to recognize that as we’re fighting and pushing and resisting back, we should continue to make sure that everywhere is a classroom.
Woldeyohannes: I’ll also say we can’t shy away from the fact that teaching has always been political. It’s not just all of a sudden we woke up in 2020… No, it’s always been political. And the work that we’re doing at the center is connecting the dots between teaching and activism. And I think it’s so important.
I am not in the business of adding more to teachers’ plates. I’m a former educator myself. And so I understand they have a lot on their plates. But they also need to understand the policy landscape that they’re operating within. And I know groups like Teach Plus and Ed Trust are doing this work working closely with teachers to educate them on the policy landscape and their regions that they’re operating within.
And it’s so important to show up to school board meetings. You have to get involved in the political process. You can’t shy away from it. At this point, there’s too much at stake. And your kids also deserve someone who’s willing to go over and beyond for them on every front — not just within the four walls of their classroom.