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.”

boosting literacy

A new Memphis nonprofit sees training teachers in dyslexia therapy as key to closing literacy gap for all

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis Delta Preparatory charter school is one of four schools working with ALLMemphis to develop stronger literacy curriculum.

A new nonprofit organization says educators must be better trained to recognize and teach students with learning disorders like dyslexia if they are to raise reading proficiency throughout Memphis.

Michelle Gaines and Krista L. Johnson founded ALLMemphis in June to boost overall reading comprehension and fill a gap they see in local classrooms — the lack of training for teachers in approaches proven to help students with dyslexia, a disorder from which many Memphis students are likely struggling.

The pair now work, for free, with about 500 students in four Memphis elementary charter schools and have trained 29 educators.

About one in five children in Tennessee are dyslexic, but until last year, early screenings weren’t required in local schools. Students with dyslexia have difficulty recognizing words and sounds and spelling, but can learn how to read with a specific multisensory approach that combines touch, sound and sight.

But even when the disorder is caught early, schools often don’t have the proper training or tools to address it. Gaines and Johnson say their organization can change that and even benefit students who aren’t dyslexic.

Specifically, ALLMemphis trains teachers in the Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory approach to reading that is common in dyslexia therapy but is rarely a part of public school curriculum in Tennessee.

“This approach is the gold standard when it comes to dyslexia therapy, but we believe it can benefit children’s reading ability regardless whether or not they are dyslexic,” Johnson said. “Our mission is to impact the third-grade reading crisis, and we believe this can do it.” 

PHOTO: Darius Williams
Krista L. Johnson

The latest data shows that two out of three Memphis third-graders aren’t reading on grade level. Shelby County Schools officials have set a goal of to have 90 percent of students reading on grade level by 2025.

ALLMemphis trained teachers and coaches in Orton-Gillingham over the summer and works with the educators throughout the year. Gaines and Johnson also work with individual students in the classrooms. The organization will be tracking student data throughout the year, and the initial results are encouraging.

While working for the Bodine School in Memphis, a private school that serves students with dyslexia, Gaines and Johnson piloted their teacher-training model at KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary for the last two years. They left Bodine to form ALLMemphis in June and brought on Megan Weinstein shortly after to oversee data evaluation.

Johnson said ALLMemphis will work with their current four schools for the next three years, with hopes of adding new schools every year. Eventually, the plan is to charge schools a minimal fee.

Gaines said the initial data after two years showed that KIPP students who worked with ALLMemphis showed more growth overall on MAP score data than their peers, especially in first and fourth grades.

PHOTO: Darius Williams
Michelle Gaines

“What’s so exciting is that the data shows this can work in an urban, whole-class setting,” Gaines said. “We know that as we grow, we want to continue offering supports that are relevant to teachers. We write and give teachers lesson plans and we work with coaches on assessments. The point is for our program to be an asset, not a burden.”

Catherine Norman, a teacher at KIPP Collegiate, said the training changed the way she thought about literacy and armed her with strong lesson plans, too.

“What I appreciate most about Orton-Gillingham is that it incorporates lots of different learning styles in one lesson,” Norman said. “The training is really expensive when a teacher does it on their own, but the fact they (ALLMemphis) have trained every K-3 teacher at our school is crazy in a good way. It makes me really excited because it provides a lot of opportunities that our kids wouldn’t get otherwise.”  

Schools currently working with ALLMemphis are KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary, Collegiate Elementary and Preparatory Elementary and Memphis Delta Preparatory.

teacher trap

America’s teachers don’t move out of state much. That could be bad for students.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Certification rules can make moving to a new state a serious hassle for teachers.

That might explain a recent finding: Teachers are significantly less likely to move between states than others with similar jobs — and past research suggests that students suffer as a result.

The study, which uses national data from 2005 to 2015 and was released this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research, appears to be the first to document how frequently teachers move states compared to those in other occupations.

Teaching stands out: Relative to jobs requiring a similar level of education, teachers were 45 percent less likely to move to different state, but only 5 percent less likely to move a long distance within a given state. This suggests that teachers aren’t averse to moving — there are just strong incentives to not cross state lines.

That “may limit the ability of workers to move to take advantage of job opportunities,” the researchers write. That’s consistent with research on the Oregon–Washington border, where teachers were more likely to move long distances in their own state than shorter distances across the state line.

Winning permission to teach in a new state sometimes requires re-taking coursework and taking new certification exams. There may be good reasons for that — for instance, states that are particularly attractive to teachers may want to maintain especially high standards but it’s also a complicated process to navigate.

“Web-surfing became my life, through hard-to-navigate state department of education websites and portals that looked like something I had created back in my college sophomore computer science class in 1998,” wrote one teacher in a recent piece for Education Week, describing her efforts to meet new requirements after moving from Florida to Massachusetts.

This matters because the rules may keep teachers who move from re-entering the classroom altogether. A national survey found that among people who had left teaching but were considering re-entering the classroom, 40 percent identified “state certification reciprocity” as a key factor in their consideration.

That, in turn, affects students. One analysis has found that schools near state borders perform consistently worse on standardized tests — perhaps because certification and other rules limit the pool of potential teachers. Research has also shown that teachers perform best when they find a good “fit” with a school, and certification rules may make that harder.

Certification rules are not the only factor in play. Teachers’ decisions may also be influenced by retirement plans that aren’t easily portable and rules that would require them to give up seniority and tenure protections when they move.

It doesn’t have to work this way. The study finds that people in other professions, like medicine, are freer to move and have certifications that easily transfer between states. But the idea of a national “bar exam” for educators hasn’t ever gained traction.

A handful of states have agreed to accept one another’s certifications, and a provision in ESSA would allow federal money to go toward the efforts.

As for the teacher, Megan Allen, who struggled with Massachusetts’ rules — and had 10 years of experience and a National Board certification? She left public education as a result. “I didn’t feel like I was valued for any of the expertise that I had earned, worked hard for, and proved,” she wrote.