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?”

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.

money talks

Why Colorado teachers marched on the state Capitol

Teachers in red gather in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Chanting “Education is a right! That is why we have to fight!” and “Whose schools? Our schools!” several hundred teachers came to the Colorado State Capitol Monday to call for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. They marched down Colfax Avenue and around the Capitol building before filling the halls to lobby legislators and rallying in the rotunda.

Emboldened by teacher strikes and walkouts across the nation, a majority of the teachers from the suburban Englewood district joined the day of action, forcing the district to cancel classes, but the protest was a small shadow of the labor unrest among educators in other states.

In interviews, teachers said they recognize the state’s fiscal constraints. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights places a constitutional cap on how much the state budget can grow, even when the economy is good, and requires voters to approve all tax increases. In the afternoon, House Democrats told teachers to go back to their communities and urge voters to approve a major tax increase that could appear on the November ballot.

We asked teachers why they were marching, and this is what they had to say:

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Cody Jump teaches government in rural Lake County, where health insurance rates are among the highest in the country and schools have a hard time filling open positions.

Low pay contributes to high teacher turnover, he said, and if changes to the state public employee retirement system are too onerous, he thinks many younger teachers will leave the profession.

The Democratic-controlled House is currently putting its own stamp on a bill that aims to address an unfunded liability in the state pension system of between $32 billion and $50 billion. The version that came out of the Republican-controlled Senate raises the retirement age, limits cost-of-living raises for retirees, and asks current teachers to pay more. Amendments put on in the House make the bill friendlier to teachers, but the final version still needs to be hashed out.

“We’re trying to stabilize our profession and bring a sense of dignity to teaching so our kids can have the stable schools they need to thrive,” he said.

Jump said he has two young children, and he and his wife use several forms of public assistance just to get by, including visiting a monthly food bank.

“If we miss that, our pantry is in trouble,” he said. Enough teacher families use the food bank that it’s become a social gathering spot for their spouses.

If something doesn’t change, he said, the quality of education will suffer.

“There are good, high-quality teachers who just will not come here,” he said. “I don’t want my son to spend a decade in a school system full of people we had to scrape together.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Amy Nagel is a physical education teacher in an Englewood elementary school, just south of Denver. Her biggest concern is the lack of mental health services and counselors in schools. Many of the children she teaches come into school having already experienced trauma in their young lives, she said, and they need counseling and support before they can learn well.

“There is a misunderstanding that we’re asking for pay raises,” she said. “This is 100 percent about making sure that our schools are funded. We deserve pay raises, but we’re here for our kids.”

The decision by Englewood teachers to leave school en masse was inspired in part by teacher action in other states, she said.

“I think the government is really hoping we will be teachers to our core and be quiet and keep the peace,” she said. “I hope that teachers see the activism and know that they’re supported and know that interrupting a little bit of a child’s education to impact decades of education is worth it.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Kathryn Brown is a counselor at an alternative high school in the Englewood district. She said she’s marching for more school funding and to protect retirement benefits.

“I feel very fortunate because my school values the mental health professionals who work there, but it’s often one of the first things cut,” she said. “So when we’re talking about school funding, we’re not just talking about academics. We’re talking about educating the whole child.”

If retirement benefits become less generous, younger teachers and counselors “absolutely” will leave the profession, Brown said.

“We don’t get paid very much, but at the end we’re promised a good retirement,” she said. “And I want my retirement.

Like many of her colleagues, Nagel has a master’s degree and student loans she can’t pay off.

“That’s okay because I love to do what I do, but at some point new educators, new counselors are going to say, this is it, it’s not worth it,” she said.

Brown said Englewood teachers were inspired by teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia.

“It emboldened our teachers and gave us a lot of courage because we’ve seen it in other states,” she said. “I think educators are fed up with not being valued and not being paid.”