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?”

How I Teach

Why Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year uses penguins to help her first-graders grow as readers, writers, and thinkers

PHOTO: Alan Poizner
Melissa Miller reads aloud to her first-grade class at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, Tennessee. Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Melissa Miller loves to read, adores teaching first-graders, and has a fascination for penguins.

It’s no surprise, then, that an annual highlight for Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year is teaching a science unit she created to get her first-graders reading and learning about the unique aquatic bird.

“We have so much we can learn about and from penguins,” Miller explains. “They work together, share responsibilities, look out for each other, love each other for life, and persevere in the most challenging situations.”

The unit begins during the wintertime with reading that lets students learn penguin facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then in the spring, they do book reports on penguins — projects that “celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer.”

“The unit encompasses everything I believe about teaching and learning,” Miller says. “It puts me in the position as facilitator of learning. My desire is to fuel students’ passion for learning by teaching with passion.”

Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller works at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, south of Nashville. Her enthusiasm as a teacher and expertise in curriculum and technology are among the reasons that she was chosen Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year. 

Miller talked with Chalkbeat about why teaching students to read is her greatest passion, how she partners with parents to build classroom rapport, and the upside of behavioral challenges. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I wanted to be a teacher beginning as a kindergarten student in Columbia, Tennessee. My teacher, Ms. Portia Lea, was so loving and encouraging, she just won me over. I have taken away a valuable lesson from each teacher that I had in my journey toward my career. I feel like they are part of who I am. I just want to give to my students the same experience of love, encouragement, hope, belief, and perseverance that I received.

Why elementary-age students? What’s the best thing about that age group?

PHOTO: TN.gov
“My great passion is teaching kids to read!” says Miller.

My great passion is teaching kids to read! Reading opens the doors to their world and windows of possibilities for their future. I have taught kindergarten through fourth grade, but find myself best at home in first grade giving that strong foundation in reading. My first-graders are sponges for knowledge. Each child is as unique as a snowflake. They are just as loving and encouraging for me as I am for them. 

How do you get to know your students?

At the beginning of the school year, I send home a questionnaire for parents to share their insights. During the first few weeks of school, we do community-building activities each day. I need to know what motivates each student, their favorite books, their family members, their pets, and what they want to be when they grow up. While reading books such as “Amazing Grace,” “The Important Book,” “Chrysanthemum,” “I Like Me,” and “Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge,” we learn many things about each other and truly become a family.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite lessons to teach are within the Penguin Research Unit that I created. Students research what penguins eat, where they live, their characteristics, dangers, and adaptations. In the process, the students learn that their brains are like folders and that they need to organize information in order to remember it. They take in new facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then they write a book report complete with table of contents, headings, captions, diagrams, author information, and a glossary. Those reports are read and edited by a local author before we publish them for others in the school to read. Because this happens in the spring, it’s a time to celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer. The unit ties together fiction, nonfiction, writing, math, and science standards. Even at 6 and 7 years old, the kids are learning to research their wonderings and making connections on how to contribute to the world around them.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

A funny necessity is my Mr. Sketch Scented Markers in all sizes to create anchor charts. A serious necessity is the rich literature that I have collected through the years. I don’t collect things, I collect books. A fun date night for my husband and me is going to the bookstore for coffee and more books.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

One of the quick lessons I learned came when I started out by communicating with parents once per week about their child’s behavior. I quickly found out that weekly would not work. Parents need daily communication. They cannot address problems if I don’t communicate them right away. The best communication plan is the one that gets the most collaboration. It strengthens the partnership between teacher and parents.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

“If you look cute and smell pretty, your kids will love you.” That came in the first week of my first year. Not only was this funny advice, it keeps things fun!

You serve as a team leader and mentor at your school. What advice do you give to new teachers?

Love your students! Each one is an individual with their own gifts and challenges. Get to know what motivates them, because each one is unique. Listen, really listen, to your students. Know the names of their siblings, favorite sports, favorite authors, and pets. Greet each student with a smile and a personal message. And make each day count!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Anytime I contact a parent about behavioral challenges, it changes my perspective and approach. This is where empathy and compassion come together. Understanding the child deep down gives me a snapshot into what motivates them and what does not. It guides me in making home-school connections ultimately to benefit both places. I need to understand where they are coming from in order to help them see the vision for where they can go.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I am constantly ON. My mind is on my kids at school as everything I do and everywhere I go ties back to teaching and learning experiences that I can share.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Love Does” by Bob Goff

Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share with other educators?

“Positive people on positive teams produce positive results and the essential ingredient is positive energy.” —Jon Gordon from “The Energy Bus”

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.