teachers wanted

Only 8 percent of New York City teachers are men of color. Here’s how the city is trying to change that

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Ishmael Hall, an aspiring teacher who is part of a new program called NYC Men Teach.

“Start sharing. Don’t be shy,” the facilitator said at the start a training last week for Asian, black, and Hispanic men hoping to teach in the New York City school system. He’d asked them to name a movie or song that spoke to them.

“Rocky,” one man said. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” said another. “Remember the Titans,” Kwang Lee said, citing the movie about the black coach of a racially mixed high-school football team.

“In our classrooms, we have a lot of diverse students,” explained Lee, 47, who worked in advertising for two decades before deciding recently to become a teacher. “We have to find ways to work together.”

In a city where Asian, black, and Hispanic boys make up 43 percent of the over one million public-school students, just over 8 percent of the city’s 76,000 teachers are nonwhite men. That leaves thousands of students of color without role models who resemble them, and without teachers who research shows tend to have higher expectations of nonwhite students.

The shortage is a national problem with many causes. Men of color who never saw themselves reflected at the front of the classroom may not consider teaching a career option, while others may balk at the pay or perception of teaching as “women’s work.” Others may enter the profession but face unwelcoming administrators or assignments and end up leaving.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to change this. Last year, he announced a $16 million program to add 1,000 new teachers of color by 2018. Called NYC Men Teach, the recruitment and training program kicked off this spring and includes a series of workshops such as the one that drew the prospective teachers to a Lower Manhattan office building last week.

One of the participants, Byron Fedele, had just earned his teaching degree from Brooklyn College when he saw a subway ad for the program and decided to join. Fedele, who is Ecuadorean-American, said he was inspired by the opportunity to offer students something he never had growing up in the city: A man of color in the classroom he could look to as a role model.

“There were definitely lots of examples in textbooks, like Martin Luther King,” said Fedele, 24. “But there was no one living, breathing in the classroom. That’s different.”

Finding a few good men of color

Program staffers are searching near and far for teacher candidates.

Participants in NYC Men Teach learned about "culturally relevant" curriculum at a recent training.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Participants in NYC Men Teach learned about “culturally relevant” curriculum at a recent training.

Recruiters have traveled to Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and spoken to students at historically black colleges. In New York City, outreach workers who helped parents sign up for pre-kindergarten are now pitching the teaching program to community groups.

Meanwhile, the city has called on Teach For America and its own Teaching Fellows program to help men of color without education degrees obtain alternative teaching certificates. And it has partnered with the City University of New York, the school system’s largest teacher pipeline.

Counselors there are encouraging male students in various departments to consider teaching, while also trying to help current education students cross the finish line and begin their teaching careers. That involves providing workshops on New York’s teacher-certification exams and free vouchers for the practice test. (In 2014, only 48 percent of aspiring black teachers and 56 percent of Hispanics passed the literacy portion of the exam, compared to 75 of white test-takers.) To inspire would-be teachers, one CUNY college held seminars on the history of men of color in education.

“Whatever we can do to support them and get them into the classroom,” said Jonathan Gaines, academic student support program manager at CUNY’s Hunter College School of Education.

New York is not alone in trying to diversify its teaching ranks: about two-thirds of states have minority recruitment programs. They have a gaping hole to fill. Nationwide, over three-fourths of all 3.4 million public-school teachers in 2012 were women, while 82 percent were white.

In fact, those recruitment efforts have been highly successful, according to Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania education professor. From 1988 to 2008, the growth in nonwhite teachers nationwide outpaced the growth of nonwhite students and white teachers, according to a report he wrote with researcher Henry May.

The more intractable problem is retention, Ingersoll said. Teachers of color are more likely than white teachers to switch schools or leave the profession, according to the report.

“If you don’t have some retention,” Ingersoll said, “we’re not really going to gain much ground.”

Searching for the right school

David Taylor, 46, has bounced around from one New York City school to the next over the past five years as a substitute teacher. He said he’s interviewed for many permanent positions, but rarely is called back.

David Taylor is searching for a full-time teaching position at a school where he feels welcomed.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
David Taylor is searching for a full-time teaching position at a school where he feels welcomed.

He did once work as a full-time teacher in Las Vegas, but felt uncomfortable as one of only two black teachers at his school. During a staff meeting, his principal said some misbehaving students had been displaying “typical African-American behavior,” according to Taylor.

“It just didn’t feel like I was welcome there,” he said.

The object of Taylor’s search is similar to that of many male teachers of color: a school that will hire them for a classroom position and is also a place where they want to work.

That can be elusive, as nonwhite teachers are more likely to land in schools with many low-income students of color. Teachers at those schools often work with students who are struggling in class and facing hardships at home, even as the schools tend to have fewer resources than ones in more affluent districts.

In addition, administrators frequently pull nonwhite male teachers out of the classroom and assign them roles as disciplinarians or coaches, experts say. Even when they remain teachers, they often are enlisted as cultural translators for white colleagues, or informal counselors for students of color.

“We always have to be the conduits, the explainers,” said José Luis Vilson, an eighth-grade teacher at I.S. 52 in Upper Manhattan. Nonwhite students, he added, often “don’t feel like they have anyone else to turn to who gets it.”

Getting them into school — and keeping them there

As the program rounds up aspiring teachers, it’s working to help them land and keep good classroom jobs.

NYC Men Teach staffer Chimere Stephens moderated a discussion between prospective teachers and retired principals.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
NYC Men Teach staffer Chimere Stephens moderated a discussion between prospective teachers and retired principals.

Staffers have taken men on school visits, and are hosting a job fair this month where they hope to introduce up to 400 would-be teachers with representatives from 100 schools. They will also match the men with current and retired educators who will help them polish their resumés and prepare sample lessons.

This summer, the education department is hosting a series of workshops like the one the men attended last week, on topics ranging from “culturally relevant” curriculum to personal wellness. It is also organizing panels where current and retired administrators can give the men advice.

Once the men find positions, the program will assign them mentors to help them navigate their first year in the classroom — a notoriously grueling period when teachers of all backgrounds are most prone to quit. And it will host gatherings of principals where they will discuss ways to hire more nonwhite teachers and help them flourish.

“When male teachers of color find schools where they have representation,” said Malik Lewis, an assistant principal at West Brooklyn Community High School, “they feel more secure, they feel more supported, and they stay longer.”

If the city is successful, students will soon be looking up to more teachers like Jian Xiao, 29, who recently signed up for the training program.

As a substitute teacher, he has been struck by how excited many of his students are to have a nonwhite teacher: Asian students eagerly speak with him in Chinese, while black and Hispanic students pepper him with questions about Chinese culture, he said. When he was a student in the city schools, he never questioned why none of his teachers looked like him.

“But as I got older,” he said, “I realized — why aren’t there men of color in the school system teaching?”

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”