Many of the lessons Black male teachers bring to the classroom go far beyond academic content and pedagogy. Their unique lived experiences create a rich curriculum that contributes to student success in ways that can’t be graded or easily quantified. Using methods that transcend traditional teaching and learning, Black male teachers can provide hope, inspiration, advice, compassionate listening and, sometimes, tough love to make a difference in their students’ lives.
Black men make up only two percent of the country’s teaching force, but their presence in the classroom is shown to improve outcomes for students. A 2017 study by the Institute of Labor Economics found that low-income Black students who have a Black teacher—man or woman—for at least one year in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider college. Still, only seven percent of teachers nationwide are Black.
“It’s important for children to see black males in their lives, especially on a daily basis, who are in respectable positions of authority,” says Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, AFT vice president and a former elementary school teacher. “I think that gives them something to strive for, even if they don’t become teachers. They can see someone who ‘looks like me,’ and it tells them they can become a professional, a writer, an educator, someone who is respected.”
Inspiring children is what teachers do. But the rapport and personal connections Black teachers are able to create with children who look like them helps build a level of trust and confidence that makes teaching and learning more successful, says Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association and former high school band director.
“One reason I think I was successful as a teacher is the fact that I took the time to build relationships with my students and to really have conversations with them and to make sure they feel seen,” says Ingram, an AFT vice president. Cultivating caring relationships with students who all too often feel unseen and disconnected from school and the education process is key to reaching those students.
“I taught in a Title I school in what most people call an impoverished community. I prefer to say these kids are from challenged situations,” Ingram says, explaining that the word impoverished stigmatizes children and communities. “The way we confront those challenges in an educational setting is to reach students at the heart level. You have to be willing to meet them where they are, talk to them and let them know you care about them.”
Ingram and other African American teachers say that Black children and students of color often see inequalities—in their schools and communities—that send negative messages about value and self-worth. When children are consigned to learn in aging school buildings in overcrowded classrooms that lack even basic resources—like textbooks, supplies, computers and technology—it tells children their education and future are not a priority.
“Our kids can see the inequalities that are built into the education system,” says Harry Preston, V, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher at a Baltimore City public charter high school and member of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union. “They see the differences between our engineering program and those at other schools in more affluent neighborhoods that offer courses in calculus, design and entrepreneurship, while our school doesn’t go past trigonometry.”
Those differences and inequities create challenges and disadvantages that can be difficult to overcome, Preston explains. Helping his students, 99 percent of whom are African American, understand and overcome those systemic shortcomings begins with telling them the truth.
“I use different opportunities, even engineering lessons, to talk about who lives in what communities around the city and how resources get used to benefit higher-income communities,” Preston says. “I push them to try harder and not to be afraid to make mistakes, to fix them and then try again. I’m trying to give them the confidence to try.”
Building confidence—especially in Black and Brown students—is essential to teaching and learning at every level of the education system, says Derryn Moten, PhD, a professor and chair of the history department at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama. Moten is the co-president of the Alabama State University Faculty-Staff Alliance and a vice president of the Alabama AFL-CIO.
“Many of my students have told me I’m the first Black teacher they’ve ever had, and that always strikes me,” says Moten, vice chair of AFT’s Higher Education Program & Policy Council and a member of the Civil and Human Rights Committee. “In my role as an educator at an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], I’ve had to try to imbue my students—to the best of my ability—with a sense of confidence and self-worth.
“It’s heartbreaking to hear them to approach a situation and talk, at the outset, about what they will not be able to do,” Moten continues. “This whole idea that I can’t do something because of the skin I’m clad in is not something my elders told me.”
Moten says he tries to pass along the lessons of strength and pride he learned from his parents and during his years as a student at Howard University, another HBCU.
“One of the reasons I wanted to teach at an HBCU is because I’m the product of an HBCU, and I know the impression it made on me,” Moten says. “The way I try to influence the young men and women in my classroom is by modeling. And to me, the first order of respect is to respect yourself.
“One of the lessons I try to convey is that we must value who we are, and that everyone in our community has value. I always learned from my parents that anyone loved can be saved,” Moten says.
One of the toughest lessons Black male educators sometimes have to teach echoes the lecture that generations of Black parents have given their children. Known as “the talk,” it is a lesson—not about the birds and the bees and the human reproductive system, but about the injustices of the criminal justice system.
“I have two adult sons and two adult daughters, and we gave our kids ‘the talk’ as soon as they received their drivers’ license,” Moten says. “We told them if you’re pulled over by a cop while driving, turn on your interior lights, roll down both front windows, only answer questions with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and keep your hands on the steering wheel.”
Moten says he’s had a version of that talk with his students, reminding and warning them to always be mindful about minimizing their chances for negative encounters with law enforcement and to avoid criminal arrests.
“I tell my students, ‘You’re Black in America. You’ don’t want a record,’” Moten explains. “A criminal record can follow you all of your life, and then when you get to be as old as I am, it can come back to haunt you.”
Preston says he has had “the talk” with his high school students during various moments in recent years, particularly following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who suffered spinal cord injuries and died while in police custody. Gray’s death led to a series of protests and days of rioting.
“It’s a tough conversation to have, even with my own son, but I often talk to my students like they are my own,” says Preston, who often tells his students about his own experience of being profiled and pulled over by Baltimore City police 12 times during his first year in the city. “I coach wrestling at my school, and a lot of the kids are big and athletic. I’ve had to help them understand that some folks will see them as a threat.”
Still, Preston says, being a teacher has given him an opportunity to open a new world of possibilities for young people. In addition to running an after-school STEM program and a summer camp teaching kids robotics, Preston also partners with engineering firms to create internship programs for students. But becoming a teacher wasn’t always on Preston’s agenda.
“I had no intentions, whatsoever, of becoming a teacher. My plan was to become a physicist,” Preston says. “It wasn’t until I volunteered at a charter school and saw the disparities—how some kids get nothing, in terms of academic resources—and I thought, ‘This is wrong.’”
Preston says he “volunteered his way,” into the teaching profession. “I wanted to create a new generation of people who could create these unique leaning experiences for more Black students to level the playing field.”
Thomas Calhoun, president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers in Virginia, says he also came to teaching in order to make a difference for young Black children from economically disadvantaged communities.
“Teaching was a second career for me that I didn’t start until I was in my forties,” says Calhoun, a former elementary school teacher. “I did not change careers to go teach in a predominantly White school. I wanted to go to work where I was needed.”
After completing a teacher training program called Pathways to Teaching Careers sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, Calhoun taught for 13 years of his 17-year teaching career at schools where virtually all of the students were Black and lived in nearby low-income public housing developments.
“For many of these children, school was a place of refuge for six to seven hours a day,” Calhoun says. “Sometimes, they came to school hungry, and sometimes I listened as they talked to me about the violence they had witnessed in their communities. Some kids came to school because it was the only quiet, safe place they had and the place where they could get a meal.”
Calhoun says he considers his time as a teacher a privilege.
“I got more from those kids during my 17 years as a teacher than I think I ever gave me them,” he says. “Nothing I’ve done before or since has affected me like working with children. It gets to your heart.”