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Keeping Black Men In Front Of The Class

LA Johnson

Of all the teachers in the U.S., only 2 percent are black and male. That news is bad enough. But it gets worse: Many of these men are leaving the profession.

Just last month, a new study found that the number of black teachers in the public schools of nine cities dropped between 2002 and 2012. In Washington, D.C., black teachers' share of the workforce dropped from 77 percent to 49 percent.

Now, a researcher at Stanford, Travis Bristol, is trying to figure out why black men are leaving the profession. Bristol himself taught high school English in New York City public schools; there he grew interested in designing policies that would support his male students, particularly boys of color. As a Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, he noticed a disconnect: While lots of attention was being paid to hiring more black male teachers, relatively little was being done to hold onto them.

So Bristol, now a fellow at Stanford's Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, set out to understand: What can be done in classrooms and break rooms to improve retention? For answers, he designed a survey for black male public school teachers in Boston.

I spoke with Bristol about teacher turnover and what he learned from the survey.

Why is the shortage of black male teachers something we should worry about?

Diversity drives innovation. There are more students of color in U.S. public schools than white students. Teachers of color represent 18 percent of the country's teaching force, and black male teachers less than 2 percent. Teachers of color are well-positioned to support their colleagues in navigating unfamiliar cultural terrain and designing culturally relevant pedagogy. Having a teacher of color, or black male teacher, can serve to disrupt societal preconceptions. And, as Gloria Ladson-Billings recently suggested, white students also benefit from having teachers of color.

Let's talk about your survey of black male teachers in Boston. What did you find?

I had about a 34 percent response rate. So it was a small sample, but I was able to note an interesting pattern: The number of other black men in the building seemed to influence their experiences. If you were the only black man in your school, you were more likely to say that people in your building were afraid of you because you were black — versus a school with three or more black male teachers.

I decided to compare schools that had just one black male teacher and their experiences with schools that had three or more black male teachers and their experiences.

What did you find when you compared the two groups?

I interviewed 27 black male teachers across 14 schools — seven schools with one black male teacher and seven with three or more black male teachers.

One of the things that I found out: If a school did not have a black male teacher on the faculty, it was more likely to be led by a white principal. If a school had three or more black male teachers on the faculty, it was more likely to be led by a black principal. So the two categories suggest that I was looking at very different types of schools.

It also became clear that black male teachers, at least in Boston, were concentrated in the most challenging schools. Schools that had just one black male teacher in my study were more likely to be higher achieving schools based on state assessment data. They had more white students. They had more white teachers. They were more likely to be led by a white principal.

Schools that had many more black male teachers tended to be schools that were turnaround schools, schools that were at one point shut down and then people had to reapply for their jobs because they were historically underperforming.

So how does this relate to teacher turnover?

The survey showed that the black male teachers who were the only ones at their school talked about being feared. They talked about being socially isolated and sort of disconnected from the core mission of the school.

But, even though those teachers talked about this idea of social isolation, when I looped back the following year to see which of them stayed or left, all of the teachers, all of those loners, all of those seven teachers stayed.

Then I looked at the groupers — those teachers who were in schools of three or more black men and in schools that were more, sort of, historically underperforming. Out of the 20 teachers that I interviewed, nine did not return to their same position the following year.

So why did the "groupers" leave?

So, those teachers left because even though there were many more black male teachers — and you would think there was probably more camaraderie — at the end of the day, these black men left because of the poor working conditions.

Can you describe poor working conditions? What were some of the situations?

There were sort of patterns that held true regardless of being the only black male teacher or being in a school with three or more black male teachers. The black men said their colleagues saw them first as police officers and not teachers.

One participant talked about how someone would come and ask him to watch his students. His colleagues kept on interrupting him, interrupting either his lunch or his teaching or his grading papers or his preparing lessons to take care of misbehaving students. And so for him, and for many of the participants, their colleagues only sought their help when it came to behavior management and not when it came to thinking about some of the content that they might have designed to engage students. These black men didn't have space and time to think about their practice in deep ways in their schools because they were serving the role of a behavior manager.

The other finding was that these black male teachers' colleagues did not see them as intellectual peers. During faculty meetings or department meetings or grade team meetings, the teachers would share their ideas about how to engage students of color or how to think about other ways to correct behavior, and their colleagues sort of disregarded their ideas. And so there appeared to be these sort of social-emotional challenges associated with being a black man that made it harder to navigate the school.

What's the key takeaway from your research?

Recruiting black male teachers is not enough. Policymakers and school administrators must give attention to the working conditions in schools that drive black men away from the teaching profession.

As part of your research in Boston, you started a support group for black male teachers — part of the city's Boston Teacher Residency. Now that you've left Boston, will the group live on?

The district invited me and several other participants who were in the program to sort of think about how to bring the program up to scale. They are launching a coaching and seminar program that is informed by some of the ideas from that program in the Boston Teacher Residency. The structure of that series is that men of color who have senior leadership positions mentor and lead discussions for more junior men of color in the district.

What are other cities doing?

I've been working with the office of the mayor of New York City to help them craft a soon-to-be-launched initiative to recruit 1,000 male teachers of color. My charge to them: We need to look at retention too, and so the city is also thinking of ways to support male teachers of color. So, New York City has this really ambitious program to think about ways to recruit and support these teachers based on some of the research that I did in Boston.

In Colorado, there's a pipeline from high school to university where high school students get some training, go through college, and then the idea is that they return to the same district.

So what can other districts (or schools) do to improve working conditions for black male teachers?

First, districts must ensure that black male teachers are not concentrated in the worst-performing schools; teachers, regardless of race, will eventually leave a school with poor working conditions. Second, schools should think of more expansive roles for black men to serve besides policing the hallways and the front of the building or serving as dean.

Schools and districts should tap black male teachers to share the varying ways in which they engage students. Given their ability to complete secondary and postsecondary education, black male teachers have the funds of knowledge that might assist their white and female colleagues in their day-to-day work with students.

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Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.