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?”

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.