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The Fierce Urgency of Now: Black & Latino Men in the Teaching Profession

Who are today's teachers? In this article, Carlos Moreno, the Director of Big Picture Learning, explains why the population of teachers needs to change and what we can do about it. Want to participate in a conversation about this? Subscribe to the Heinemann Digital Campus and join the discussion: http://www.heinemann.com/digitalcampus/referenceLibrary.aspx

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The Fierce Urgency of Now: Black & Latino Men in the Teaching Profession

Written by Carlos R. Moreno, National Director – Big Picture Learning

Carlos R. Moreno, National Director – Big Picture LearningRecently I had dinner with some old friends I hadn't seen since college. The conversation gradually became a "men of color" roundtable. We shared the highlights and frustrations of our careers and explored whether we were content professionally. Most said they were happy. The lone educator in the group, I was the only one who could not stop talking about his career, and the conversation turned to the paucity of black and Latino males in the teaching profession.

Similar conversations I've had over the last few years with educators and people in other industries, along with my own experiences as a student of color in New York City public schools and now as a director for a national organization working on school redesign and improvement, have reinforced my belief that we need many professional men of color to choose careers in education, particularly as teachers. Why is it so important, why doesn't it happen, and what might we do about it?

As we learned from Moneyball, it helps to start with some data. There are about fifty-five million students in this country; about 55 percent are white, 21 percent are black, 17 percent are Latino, and 6 percent are Asian and other. Of the approximately one million teachers in K-12, about 2 percent are black or Latino males. At the critical elementary school level, fewer than 1 percent of teachers are men of color. As revealing as these numbers are, they do not begin to communicate the impact of the absence of young men of color as classroom teachers. This absence is causing serious problems in our schools, just as the absence of young men as fathers in black and Latino families is causing problems in our society.

David Autor, an MIT economist, finds that boys particularly suffer in fatherless homes, most of which are black or Latino. I believe these same boys suffer from a dearth of black and brown teachers in their classrooms. Some research suggests that children of color do better academically when they have men of color as their teachers.

The effects extend beyond traditional academic performance to student engagement in learning and the development of equally vital social-emotional competencies such as self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and the ability to form relationships and make responsible decisions. Despite a consensus on their importance, it has been difficult to develop consistently effective methods to teach and assess this vital learning. Research focusing specifically on the positive role of black and brown male teachers might reveal the significant impact their presence has on student achievement and performance.

In our own Big Picture Learning schools, we have witnessed firsthand how black and brown boys respond to teachers, mentors, and tutors who are men of color. Our day-to-day experience demonstrates how challenging it can be to connect with, and educate, these students without significantly more men of color in the classroom. We have also learned that a school organization and culture are critical to maximizing the impact that these men can have.

Given the potential benefits, it amazes me that there is little of what Dr. King called "the fierce urgency of now" with respect to addressing this issue. My own experiences while deciding to become an educator suggest that there is a Rubik's cube of factors-economic, social, and educational-that resist alignment, so that talented young men of color become a decidedly scarce resource in schools.

While economic considerations may not be the most important factor for many people considering the teaching profession, the situation is different for many talented young men of color with a college degree. We are aggressively courted by other sectors of our economy eager to have a more racially diverse workforce and able to offer higher compensation and prestige. The majority of men of color in this country grow up below the poverty line. Why, after earning a baccalaureate, would they want to continue to struggle to make ends meet on a beginning teacher's salary when they can be well compensated in other professions and support their families who made it possible for them to accomplish their goals? I often hear the argument that these young men should become teachers in order to "give back" to the community, but I wonder how many of these young men feel this obligation when, many times, we've had to wrest "success" from the system-practically steal it!

There are social factors at work as well. For example, do the African American and Latino communities consider highly able men of color too talented to teach when more prestigious careers are open to them? Does the community pass on stereotypical and harmful images about success and how to achieve it and about what kind of work is worth doing?

Then too, most Black and Latino children are poorly served by their schools, leaving these children with very negative feelings about education. Perhaps many of those who survive the experience are not eager to revisit schools, much less take up residence as a faculty member. There is also the education system itself. Most schools still subscribe to a rigid and archaic organization and culture that make it difficult to recognize, much less award, special talents, competencies, and accomplishments. With few exceptions, schools are not good at spotting talent outside the narrow bands of traditional academic subjects. Even the best teachers are treated as a fungible commodity. It isn't surprising that schools have few ways of recognizing, recruiting, and rewarding men of color, who could contribute so much to the success of young black and brown students.

Because these economic, social, and educational factors are numerous and complex, it is unlikely that any one strategy will be a "silver bullet"; however, organizations such as the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC), are working relentlessly to address this issue.

It helps to reframe the goal as providing every young person with deep and sustained interactions with men of color in a variety of roles-primarily as teachers but also as mentors and coaches. Do we need to create new roles within schools? Expand the notion of who can teach what and how? Might more openness to teams led by teachers contribute to a solution? Reframing the goal and understanding the varied dimensions of the problem might open up a larger and more diverse set of interventions, ones that address all three interdependent factors-economic, social, and educational-strategically, systemically, and comprehensively.

There are things we can do, things that are being done in pockets of innovation that are begging to be replicated nationally. I suggest these specific actions:

  • Aggressively reach out in high school and college to young men of color. Recently, the Department of Education announced a media campaign, Teach, to attract "top students" to teaching, particularly in STEM subjects. Using video and audio spots, the messages emphasize the ways in which a teaching career can be as compelling as one in medicine or engineering. We would benefit from a similar campaign, targeted at talented black and brown young men, to search out special leadership talents that may not be revealed through standard testing and traditional academic performance. We need to cast the net more broadly in order to attract diverse talent. In doing so, we may attract young men who would lead schools and schooling to a different and better place.
  • Provide scholarships to promising high school and college students to pursue an education degree and career. Also, how might we galvanize the business and philanthropic community to support signing bonuses or augment the salary of these highly talented individuals?
  • Change the school structure and culture. Of course, merely expanding the number of black and brown men who become teachers-as challenging as that is-will not be enough if we ask them to work in the existing organization and culture of schools. We need to create structures and cultures that maximize the talents of these young men. For example, team teaching in elementary schools may give many more students an opportunity to work with a male educator of color.
  • Tap community resources and share talent. Create permeable membranes between schools and their communities so that teachers can tap young men of color in the community to become mentors and coaches both in and out of school, perhaps with teacher guidance. This is another instance in which the belief that "it takes a village" applies.

Many of these proposals are already being implemented in scattered pockets of the country, but the education profession has yet to establish a systemic and comprehensive approach. To quote Chief Brody in the movie Jaws, we are "going to need a bigger boat." Educational leaders have an obligation to students to do whatever is necessary to recruit more male educators of color who will show students of color that they need to care about more than just athletics, music, and money. If we do not, we are perpetuating the "pipe dreams" of our young brothers, about which adults constantly complain.

It will require enlightened and committed leadership to build that "bigger boat," a measure of good will and imagination mixed with more than a pinch of impatience. School, community, and business leaders must, as Dr. King did, blend "I have a dream" with "the fierce urgency of now."


Topics: Teaching-General, Carlos Moreno, Digital Campus

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