The “Job” You Never Considered

tt30.jpgA common phrase that we hear all the time, especially when we judge those who we look up to, is the term “role model”. We constantly refer to upstanding and outstanding individuals whom we admire from afar and yet are close enough that we believe that they are worthy to emulate in this way. For some, finding these viable role models over the course of our day-to-day life can be challenging.

And, that is precisely the dilemma facing many of our young black children. Research shows that this dilemma has a ripple effect on their maturation and growth. As I look around and search our classrooms, it doesn’t take a statistician to deduce that black male teachers are a rare group because of their scarcity in the classroom.

Unfortunately, the facts bear this anecdotal observation out. Black males represent only about 2 percent of teachers in the United States, yet they comprise 6 percent of the population. Four percentage points might seem like a small difference, but when you realize we’re talking about millions of young, black males of impressionable age, those four percentage points represent a mountain of untapped potential. A 2012 CNN report put it bluntly: “That is less than 1 in 50 teachers.”

Why? The answer is complex, broad and challenging. But if I could simplify: Black males do not see “themselves” when they look at the front of the classroom. This oftentimes makes it unlikely for those young black males to see the teaching profession as a viable option. The root causes vary as to why, but researchers point to, in part, the lack of black males coming through the higher education pipeline. Many of us who have earned our degrees tend to be more attracted toward careers that are a little more financially rewarding.

Fortunately, public officials are beginning to take notice of this scarcity and both public and private institutions are examining the issue. United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized the problem when he appealed to students at Morehouse College in 2010 to consider a teaching career. The department launched the TEACH Campaign to encourage more minorities, especially males, to pursue careers in the classroom. As the Secretary noted, the need is more pronounced in elementary and middles schools.

We can begin to change slowly the course of potential choices for our young men with a simple, “Have you ever thought …” conversation. It’s our job to enumerate the positive aspects of teaching: the ability to influence lives, having respect, being relevant and entering a profession with a degree of job stability (if some current measures to curtail the job security issue are not implemented). I really believe that this type of discourse can make a difference.

On a more pragmatic front, I have worked with my colleagues: Assemblywomen Pam Lampitt, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Shavonda Sumter and Assemblyman Charles Mainor to develop a proposal that would establish a pilot program, under the auspices of the Department of Education, to recruit male residents who are from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds to teach in certain failing schools under the state's alternative route program.

The proposal seeks to, in part, stabilize and improve our most challenging school environments, by having college-educated men help fill those teachers’ slots. They might not fit the "typical" criteria (usually an education degree) for becoming a teacher, but there is a reservoir of untapped potential here.

Some reading this post may wonder why it matters if a black student is taught by a black teacher as long as the child is receive a quality education from whoever is the head of the classroom. A fair question. I believe that it is critical for minority students to have positive role models they can look up to, have respect for and try to mimic. Unfortunately, this becomes an elusive commodity for a child who sees nobody in a position of authority who looks anything like themselves.

Given the breadth and importance of this topic, it isn’t surprising that I, too, have had a lifelong influential black male teacher. One of the best teachers I had was one of my college history professors, the late Dr. Gary Hunter. He challenged me in ways that very few teachers ever did.

He demanded that I not merely give the "right" answer to a question but to explain the critical thinking that led to that answer. Often, if the answer was right, but the thinking that led me there was wrong in his eyes, then guess was wrong. He challenged me to think critically and not just to regurgitate the talking points of someone else. His influence remains with me to this day. That's my take. What's yours?


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