First Person

First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem

A few months ago, I helped teach a lesson about gender assumptions in the workforce. My students brainstormed a whole list of male-associated jobs: construction worker, bus driver, engineer. Not one suggested teacher.

It didn’t matter if the classroom was predominantly female, male, freshmen, upperclassmen. The answer always implied the same: I, a black man, wasn’t supposed to be in the classroom.

Currently, of New York City’s 76,000 teachers, less than 7,000 are men of color. As New York and other districts across the country work to more recruit men of color, they must also think about how they can offer them significant mentorship and emotional support. My experience shows why.

For one, it’s isolating. The profession is majority white and female, and nationally, only about 2 percent of teachers are black men. Working in these spaces, you can feel rarer than a unicorn. You’re alone in your experiences, and then feel the pressure to represent all of black America at once. Often, that means you’re expected to be “the street whisperer”: someone who can translate the students’ experiences to others.

When you don’t fulfill those expectations, it can lead to an environment where microaggressions are the norm. A former colleague once told me they were surprised I was from the South Bronx because I didn’t “act like it.” The conversation left me angry and disillusioned with a colleague who could have been a source of support.

Second, there is pressure to uphold an image of black masculinity. In both of my educational roles — as a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and now as a trainer with Global Kids, an organization that helps develop young leaders — my male students of color gravitate toward me. But the pressure to “code switch” is constant.

I was once helping a student for their first job interview. As I suggested questions and terms to use, the student said, “This is easier for you. You always sound white.” Although I knew the response was just the student’s reaction to anxiety, it was representative of the prism I operate within.

The simple reality is that I am confronting racism daily, and that’s an incredibly intense experience that you can’t understand unless you’re doing it. Racism still lingers in the school systems where we work. We experience it in our professional trainings and while communicating with colleagues and supervisors. It’s something that comes up with students, too. I see my role as an educator partly as preparing students for dealing with brutal, racist systems.

As a black male teacher, black male students share their hopes and their inner trauma with you, and you feel an obligation to make sure they succeed. The students you can’t help stay with you. They haunt you. How do you process these experiences when you don’t have black male supervisors or fellow teachers?

What can help keep black male teachers in the classroom is making sure they have great mentorships that allow them to process those experiences within safe spaces. One of the biggest sources of support I had as an educator was my first supervisor, a black man. His example showed me how to navigate such a system and not be overcome by it.

New York City is moving in the right direction with NYC Men Teach, which aims to recruit and support more men of color. Districts need to continue to increase their efforts to make sure those new teachers get connected to current and former black male educators. Building cross-school connections to decrease that isolation, adding bias training to address persistent racism, and increasing the number of panel discussions or workshops that allow us to speak to our experiences would help, too.

Diversity in the teaching workforce benefits everyone, and our students most of all. We help shape students who can grow up understanding that they can become anything — a lawyer, doctor, construction worker, president, or, hopefully, teacher.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.