Diversity Matters

Here’s what male teachers of color want their districts to know about them

PHOTO: Teach901
Archie Moss is principal of Bruce Elementary School in Memphis, but started out as a teacher in North Carolina on the disciplinary track.

A passion for teaching and learning is what drew Archie Moss to a career in education. But the Memphis principal recalls how he almost left the profession when he found himself increasingly tasked as a disciplinarian.

One of the few black male teachers in his former school in Charlotte, N.C., Moss had just been tapped as its new disciplinary dean when his students’ math scores came back from the state — and were the highest in his school.

It was a revelation.

“We can be instructional leaders” and “not just pushed down to discipline,” Moss said of being a black male educator.

In his new role of working with troubled students, Moss began to see his passion for education erode “because I couldn’t affect change in academics,” he remembers. “Everybody thinks that just because I’m black means I’m going to relate to my kids. You still have to work at it.”

Moss’s experience isn’t unusual. Male teachers of color often feel consigned to become school disciplinarians instead of instructional leaders, especially in districts like in Memphis that are more likely to suspend black boys, while lagging at addressing what’s behind those numbers.

The career track is based on the assumption that black male teachers can relate better to black male students than can other teachers. There’s some merit to that theory, but it’s not exclusive to discipline. A recent study showed that black boys in Tennessee and North Carolina were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if they had just one black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grades. Other research shows that low-performing students especially benefit from having a teacher of their own race.

PHOTO: Katherine Taylor/EWA
John King is former U.S. secretary of education under the Obama administration.

Even so, black teachers are often “limited to acting as disciplinarians instead of being respected for their ability to manage their classrooms,” according to a 2014 report from Education Trust, an advocacy group led by former U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

Black teachers interviewed for the report also reported feeling that they were being confined to only teaching black students, weren’t heard in staff meetings, and “had to ‘tone down’ their personalities to be seen as professionals,” even if they related well to students.

The feedback points to just some of the reasons that teachers of color are exiting the profession at a higher rate than other teachers — and why effective male teachers of color are in demand across America. They make up only 2 percent of the teaching workforce nationally, even as U.S. public schools are comprised of mostly minority students. In Tennessee, more than 80 percent of school districts don’t have a single Hispanic or black teacher — male or female.

Tennessee education officials have acknowledged the gap and this year announced new investments aimed at increasing diversity and improving the state’s retention rate among effective minority teachers. Researchers say those teachers are also more likely to leave Tennessee schools than other teachers with high evaluation scores.

Charles Sturkey knows what it’s like to be “the only one.” For most of his 16-year career at Willow Oaks Elementary School in Memphis, he has been the only male teacher of color. And like Moss, he’s often called on to step in when kids act up.

“I am sure there are more than a few male teachers that will tell you that they are the go-to teacher on their grade for handling students with discipline issues. I know I am that person, so I play my role on the team,” said Sturkey, who teaches first grade.

Moss advises teachers like Sturkey to advocate for their own professional needs and desires.

PHOTO: Teach901
Archie Moss

That’s what Moss did when he left his job in North Carolina and came to Memphis. He told his new boss that he wanted to focus on instruction, not discipline. He’s now principal at Bruce Elementary School.

“If (discipline) is what you want to do, that’s fine,” Moss said. “But don’t let anyone tell you that’s what you’re going to do.”

Seeking a way to support and energize male teachers of color in Memphis, Moss was instrumental in starting a local chapter of Profound Gentlemen, a Charlotte-based network now in seven cities. The organization is having results. Last year, 95 percent of its 160 teachers continued teaching, which is higher than the national rate for all black and Hispanic teachers.

The group also pairs teachers with boys of color in hopes of mentoring them to build a pipeline of future educators. “(They) can’t be what they can’t see,” according to one of the group’s mantras.

But the benefits of having diverse role models is important for more than just minority students, reminds King, who served as the nation’s education chief under the Obama administration.

“Sometimes the issue of teacher diversity is framed as something that matters for students of color, but I actually think it matters immensely for all kids,” he told Tennessee education leaders meeting this spring in Nashville. “White students need to see African-American teachers, Latino teachers, African-American principals, Latino principals.”

From his instructional perch with first-graders in Memphis, Sturkey couldn’t agree more.

“All professions need a diverse workforce,” he said. “However, I believe this even more important in education than any other profession.”

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.