Why Aren’t There More Black Teachers?

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Episode 54: Why Aren’t There More Black Teachers?

Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022

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Sharif El-Mekki

Most people can count on one hand the number of Black teachers they had during their schooling. Our guest Sharif El-Mekki is working to change that. Sharif discusses how underrepresentation of Black teachers has repercussions for all of our children, and for Black children in particular.


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LaWanda Toney: Welcome to today's episode. I'm LaWanda Toney,

Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland and we are your cohosts. Back in season two of our show, we talked live with National Teacher of the Year, Rodney Robinson, about the importance of Black educators in the teaching workforce, and today we're diving deeper into that topic.

There's a little variation in the surveys. We know from research that only about 20% of the teacher workforce identifies as a person of color compared to more than 50% of our student population and these huge differences are a problem, not just for students of color, but for all of our kids.

LaWanda Toney: Absolutely Helen, there are so many repercussions to the underrepresentation of Black teachers, particularly Black male teachers in schools. I'm glad we can dig into this today with our guest, Sharif El-Mekki. Sharif is the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators. Prior to founding the center El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and a US department of education, Principal Ambassador Fellow. His school Mastery Charter Shoemaker was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Sharif also founded The Fellowship, Black male educators for social justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers.

Welcome to the show Sharif, tell us about yourself and all your work.

Sharif El-Mekki: Thank you so much for having me really excited, and I'm so grateful that you had my brother and my friend, one of my heroes in the field, Rodney Robinson. I'm a huge fan of the work that he does. I'm Sharif El-Mekki.  I was invited into the teaching profession, after I graduated from college. I was a teacher and a principal for 26 years. The last 11 at the Shoemaker campus, which was in the neighborhood I grew up in and lived in even as a principal. And the three schools that I worked in across 26 years were all community-based schools.

And so that is really my worldview in paradigm that I learned how to teach. I learned how to lead. I learned how to serve within the school setting.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. So I cited a little bit of statistics at the top of this show, just about some of the big differences and what our teacher workforce looks like and our student population. Sharif, can you tell us some of the barriers that keep people of color from becoming and remaining teachers.

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah. Part of the reasons, people sometimes don't always connect the dots to it. So one of the things that we actually celebrate in education every year is the Brown vs Board of Education ruling, by the Supreme court, at least legally ending school-based segregation. But what happened was that, many schools, many districts, some said, we're going to shut down. and who were teaching those Black students in those all Black schools where Black teachers and Black principals, and we know around 40,000 black educators were fired or demoted, in different ways, you know, principals being offered janitorial positions. And so that type of experience had a tremendous impact that we're still seeing the repercussions. That's of course, in addition to so many other factors that dissuades Black people, Black men in particular from coming into the profession. Now I've mentioned that I was invited into the profession, but when that was invited, I think is a very important component.

I was invited or tapped on the shoulder after I graduated from college, and when we started the Fellowship that ended up being 17 Black men from all over the country who were all working in Philadelphia. And what we realized was that we had all been invited into the teaching profession, after we had graduated from college. And no one, none of us, these 17 Black men, no one had a sit down a conversation, a tap on the shoulder to engage us in, hey, this is what it means to lead a classroom. Oh, you know, what your leadership, have you ever thought about leading a classroom or teaching a course?

The same things that we see in our teachers, we asked our colleagues. Most of them were white women. The average response was third grade was when they remembered an adult engaging them into becoming a teacher. So when you look at that third grade for one group, post-bacc, after college graduation, for another group. And while that's not the only thing, but that is also just a part of, like how many messages ddo Black men receive about what they, what their worth is, what they can do.

But then they also have to think about what are the experiences that they have. Our good friend, Dr. Chris Emdin, who's now at USC, talks about inviting young Black men, Black people, brown people into the teaching profession. For many of them, it might be like inviting them back to the scene of a crime, a crime that they experienced, because of how they experienced schools. So there are a lot of these factors. And then if you can tie in the college access, where were people of color going to high school if there are college and career readiness support. College graduation, the cost of college, the cost of getting certified, the cost of going back to get your Masters. All of those can prove to be factors, but some of it starts with what are people's mindsets about these potentially future teachers.

LaWanda Toney:  Can we talk a little bit about your tap on the shoulder? I'm just curious when you mentioned that you all were tapped on the shoulder and it was after college, what did that tap look like? And what was your response initially to it?

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, it's one of the things that I think about a lot. I'm really grateful for that tap. As you could imagine, it came from a trusted person. It came from actually the mother of my elementary school, best friend Moultrie's mother, Mama Cynthia, called me one day a little while after, you know, maybe almost a year after I graduated and said, hey, I heard in Philadelphia, they're recruiting Black men to teach.

And LaWanda you said, what was my first reaction? My first reaction was like, Mama Cynthia, I don't want to be a teacher. And I it was, I remember my mind racing, like, why Mama Cynthia think I want to be a teacher? What did I ever say to her that made her think that like, how could she be so wrong? but she said they're having an interest meeting, I want you to go. If you don't like it, or you're not interested fine, but I want you to go to the meeting.

Again, I say she's a trusted mentor. A person in that community I so I'm like, hey, you know what Mama Cynthia said go. So I'm going to go, even though I'm very skeptical, I'm doing it because I love you. I respect you, and you told me to do it. But getting there, then I met Dr. Martin Ryder, veteran Black male educator in the school district of Philadelphia, I was interested in activism. I was interested in supporting communities. I thought I wanted to do that through legal means. I wanted to be a lawyer. And so I like, no, this is just a quick hiatus before I go to law school. And he said, I understand your activism. I believe in that activism that you're displaying

He said, you know what? The purest form of activism is teaching Black children well. And I was like, what? And it resonated because I'm like, yeah, that is right. I just hadn't thought of it. I believed in like the importance of education. I had a fantastic elementary and middle school experience. I loved my high school.  But what he also said was there's a deep connection between educational justice and racial justice.

And if you are able to obtain one, then you probably obtain the other. And so that means to fight for one is fighting for the other. And when he was able to paint, leading a classroom differently for me as this 21-year-old, a young Black man, I said, oh yeah. And you know what, I've never looked back since.

Helen Westmoreland: So you weren't just tapped on the shoulder. You were sort of pushed down the path at the beginning.

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, well, yeah, I would say that the tap was Mama Cynthia calling. After that it was like, sit down, son, let me explain to you what you say you don't want to do. And I think it's so important just to at least have these conversations and elevate and help students connect their leadership to leading a classroom., and that's what we tell them.

We've talked to youth, we used to have these Why Teach tours at the, at the fellowship. And we're talking to these youth in and they say, well, we don't want to be a teacher. We're like, why not? Hey, how many of you like love youth, appreciate youth, understand how important it is. They all raised their hand.

How many of you have displayed leadership have been told or you know, that you know what leadership is important and you, and you have it, the vast majority of them raise their hand. How many want to make a difference? Like how many of you want to change something so dramatically that the trajectory is forever, changed. And we emphasize all of these things and they're raising their hands. How many of y'all have, like one thing that you've shared with a peer or with a younger sibling or a cousin or a neighbor? How many of you actually taught something to someone? Mentor taught, helped explain. They all raised their hands.

And so then we said, you know what? This is kind of like being a teacher. These are like parts of the things that make up - it ain't the only thing - but these are some of the ingredients of becoming a teacher. And then I share with them with Dr. Martin Ryder shared with me about that  connection between educational justice and racial justice and their sense of fairness, this the activism of purest form of activism. And even the ones that Dr. Emdin describes as those who had negative experiences, some of them will say like, I can't stand school right now though. And we ask them, do you want it better for your younger sibling or your younger neighbor or your own children? And do you think you can emphasize and impact, change and working with others.

And then we also share, like consider becoming a teacher you wish you had and knew you needed at that moment. So these are all the dozens of tapping on the shoulder that we're doing. But I think what's missing from a lot of students' experiences is the opportunity to do, to lead, to impact, to provide input. And so we provide, based off the freedom school model, based off the liberation schools model, based off the independent Black schools model, we provide paid teacher apprenticeships for young Black youth in high school and college to actually practice teaching, to get feedback about their teaching, seeing what it feels like to lead a classroom.

LaWanda Toney: That's really great. I know there was a lot behind that tap. I know in your conversation,

Helen Westmoreland: It was the journalist in you LaWanda.

I know there was an intentionality with the phrase. Sharif, I want to shift gears a little bit. LaWanda and I have talked before, so we grew up just a few hours from one another in South Carolina public schools. So we were reflecting on like the curriculum and who was and wasn't represented in our curriculum and what our different experiences were at home, either augmenting that or leaving that as is. So coming to today's episode, I was thinking about the Black teachers I had, in school or that were in my schools. And, there weren't very many of them. I remember Mrs. Smalls, a ninth grade English teacher, but then I was like, but who else?  I'm curious your perspective about why it's particularly important for white kids to see Black educators in the classroom too, and what messages we give if they don't see those educators in the classroom?

Sharif El-Mekki: I think it's absolutely crucial  and many schools will have some type of mission or vision statement that speaks to preparing their students for the world? And they're doing the exact opposite, because the world is pretty diverse. In backgrounds and culture and opinions and work styles, lifestyles, and, but many students are actually developed and prepared to do the exact opposite of only working, thinking in some type of homogenous way. And so that's one thing, but I think an even deeper issue is the amount of information, that has not made it into a white America about all the diverse experiences, contributions and people, that do not look like them, that have contributed mightily to civilization. And I think it's unfortunate that so many white children, are taught that the only heroes are the ones that look like them.

The only contributors, the only intellectuals, the only artists look like them.  Where my elementary school teacher is the one who told me, like, you know, when you go out into the rest of the world, people are going to tell you that classic anything, classic literature, classic art, classic music only means white or European. And he said, but let me tell you, as soon as someone starts talking about classical anything, ask them what part of Africa they referring to. I'm a third grader and understanding that, yeah, you can't just say no, nobody else's contributions are classical. This is a form of the racism that has permeated, right?

So for my perspective, it's extremely important for students to have a better understanding, a deeper understanding of what history is, what, and be able to be critical thinkers and analyze whose voices, experiences, and perspectives are missing in this book that I'm reading in the content and teachers should be preparing this. In your unit mapping, in your lesson plans, how are you thinking about, am I telling one side of the story?

So I think that's a far so I've even been given, been given a lot of feedback from white educators who said some of their best professional development has been to be around diverse educators, seeing how they value communities. See how they end, receive input from communities, see how they are a warm demanders. All of those things and content, how many times he said, I've never heard of that person. I've never heard of that idea. I've never heard of him, right? Because they didn't get it from their teacher prep programs. Often it's a diverse educator who's sharing a different perspective that never permeated their bubble, essentially.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. I was thinking of when society we sent messages to people about, you could be a teacher, you have skills that can be a teacher. And that I don't know what I thought, when I was 15 years old necessarily, I feel like there were messages probably being sent to me that like teachers are white. That's who you see.

Sharif El-Mekki: And that's what we see that a lot of kids were like, yeah, they are. I mean, you said you had  Ms. Smalls, I think is at ninth grade. You would not believe how many educators would say, like I've actually had none, you know, like I never saw a Black teacher. And so that is as the lived experience for a whole lot of students including Black students in many, in many spaces, depending on where they are.

LaWanda Toney: Wow. Both my parents were teachers. One taught a high school English and the other one taught middle school science. And majority of my elementary, middle school and high school, I had Black teachers or teachers of color. Then when I went to college and having conversations with other people who look just like me lived in different parts of the countries, they didn't have that same experience. And I was shocked and surprised. Can you talk a little bit of why that experience is important? Why diversity matters? Why is, especially Black males need to see Black males in the classroom?

Sharif El-Mekki: We've known this for a long time actually, what we've seen over and over again from a whole catalog of research is that short-term, Black students who have Black teachers are more likely to have, access to rigorous courses. We're talking about honors, AP, IB course. They'll be referred, more likely to have higher test scores, better attendance, a stronger sense of belongingness, better relationships, you know, over and over and over again, all, all the things point to like, oh, short-term, this has an impact on these students.

But what Dr. Lindsay and her colleagues found was that long-term. And he looked at thousands of students. Long-term more likely to go to college, less likely to drop out of high school, if they have one, that’s one Black teacher in elementary school. And so that's the, the importance of it. Right? Like, and so we're talking about positive racial identity development. We're talking to mentorship, we're talking about seeing someone like, oh, I had a Black tea-- Oh, you know what? You went to college. Oh, I can go to college. Oh, you do hard work. Oh, I can do that.

So all of these things reinforces this positive racial identity to sense of self, but it's likely that what they're sharing in the curriculum also plays an impact, because they're more likely to see, mirrors in the curriculum, if that Black teacher is teaching a class. Even if it's not in the official curriculum, it's more likely that a teacher is also sharing some additional aspects, some kind of connection to help that child connect that education experience with the world or with their aspirations. One of the most important things is that it's consistently shared in the data that Black teachers have high expectations for all students.

And often Black children with other teachers, people have lower expectations for them. We're seeing people look at students with the same data one having a Black "sounding" name, what they call ethnic name or whatever and they automatically attributing lower expectations on that child. And the thing about the thing that's so pernicious about lower expectations, it's not just low expectations about what the child can do, that's bad enough. There's also lower expectations for what I need to provide the child.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. Yeah. And what their parents can do. LaWanda and I work in the world of family engagement. I'm like, oh my gosh, the thing some folks will say about other parents, it's crazy.

Sharif El-Mekki: That's crazy. And, and not just parent the parent, but also, you know unfortunately sadly educators about parents. My mother was a teacher like yours LaWanda, and she said some of the  some of the concerns she had about students experiences was just based on how they were talked about how they were spoken about, and she only worked in elementary school. Right. But there's research to support that. That Black children experienced the teacher's racial biases as early as third, as three and four-year-olds, Pre-K, right. So how does that permeate throughout our systems and our districts and our schools and our classrooms? How does the child continue to experience that over and over and over again? And then at what point do they just for their own, self-preservation start to check out

So all of this, we have a lot of work to do, and we believe that educators have to have a positive, healthy, supportive, almost revolutionary mindset about other people's children. They feel like literally I'm leading and serving in this school, in this community. And I am, you know, I am, I'm here to, to help you meet your expectations and aspirations as a family, as a community, and as a student. If that's our north star and we'll be able to celebrate student achievement much faster than we've ever been before.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, I love that. So, How do we get to that north star? We have a lot of our listeners who are involved in some sort of, I don't know if, if, if they would necessarily self-identify as advocates, but like you obviously run a center that does recruitment, support, retention to increase diversity in the workforce. Is it going well in any place? What are some things we should be asking of our school systems to meet that promise?

Sharif El-Mekki: Exactly, so I think that's one thing really, as parents pushing and challenging the systems that, yeah, I heard you. Now, how does this play out? What is my child's experience going to be? I think part of a school and district leadership, it is absolutely crucial to ask, how am I showing up? How are you experiencing my leadership? How have I let you down and what can I do to improve? Suppose we looked at back to school night differently for example. Instead of typically parents and children, if they're allowed, I've heard of some schools that say is to keep your kids home. It's just for parents.

[Right? All kinds of weird stuff, if you're thinking of it as a community. But anyway, they usually come in, the parents come in and they hear about all the rules, regulations, policies, procedures. Here's the homework policy. Here's our tenets. Here's where they can't, don't park here. Don't do that. Here's what you eat. Don't drop off lunch. They hear all these rules. Just imagine that Back to School night was only about, can you tell me about your child? What can I do to ensure that they have a fantastic experience? What are their strengths? What are their aspirations? What are your aspirations? How do you want me to communicate with you? Suppose we were listening, back to school night was about parents coming back to the school to remind us as educators about what their expectations are.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. I appreciate that, and going back a little to, to some of the teacher diversity. One of the things I wonder is does schools even track teacher diversity. Is that data a parent could ask for and be curious about?

Sharif El-Mekki: More people track it, then we will probably believe, but not many are transparent about it, so they may know about it and not share it. And so it's not even just, what do you have there? Like what are the demographics? But I think another question is like, what's the retention rate? Because the attrition rate is so high. So for us, a lot of districts reach out to us. Some of them just, they were like, we need a Black teacher and we don't have them in our back pockets. You know, what we do is help you imagine what is a Black teacher pipeline for your district for your region, for your city? That's how we're looking at it. For us, the Black teacher pipeline is 12 years long, early exposure, clinical experiences in high school and college.

And then the first four years of teaching providing support so that they stay, because a lot of districts are actually doing better at recruiting teachers of color, but they're not retaining. So they're inviting them into the front door, not being curious about the experiences, or the ecosystem that they're inviting them to. Some of them are inviting them into some as Dr. Martin Luther King talked about integration, he said at sometimes I think there we're, I'm asking my people to integrate into a burning house. Well, that could be applied to educators of color too. Some of them are coming into some pretty, anti-Black, anti-brown environments.

So why would they stay? There's so many Black or brown educators who are the lone and lonely in their school. Imagine what that can look like if people just think like, oh, you know what, we don't have to talk about race, class, power, privilege, or any of that kind of thing just teach.

LaWanda Toney: Sharif, you've given us so much information, so many things to consider, to think about. If you can narrow it down to one thing, that you want families to walk away from this conversation, or one thing that they can do what's your suggestion?

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, I would say, please continue to have these conversations. Diversity is absolutely important for all students, but also the experiences of diverse educators is also important, they can help accelerate achievement. They can improve school climates, but they should not be expected to do that by themselves. It takes everyone, so everyone should be thinking, how can I be anti-racist in how I lead, how I support, how I partner, how I teach? And secondly, if you know, any young Black youth who would be open to teaching, well, if you tap on the shoulder we'll provide the clinical experience.

So, if you know any young Black youth in high school or college who might be interested in teaching, we want to offer them the opportunity to work in our freedom school literacy academy. Which is a paid apprenticeship this, every summer for our high school and college youth interested in teaching and they will teach first, second and third graders literacy, positive racial identity development, and some type of educational activism project. We have in-person in Philadelphia and, and Detroit and Camden, and we have virtual for other places.

LaWanda Toney: Thanks.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh my gosh, this has been a great conversation. Do you know that website address at the top of your head because we can include that.

Sharif El-Mekki: Sure. www.thecenterblacked.org. That's www.thecenterblacked.org. And you can find this on all the social media platforms, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Helen Westmoreland: Awesome.

LaWanda Toney: To our listeners, thanks for joining us. Please remember to visit Apple podcast page and leave a rating and review. We'd love to hear your thoughts on the season so far, and as always for more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com. Thanks for listening and join us next.