Growing up, Horace Ryans had all sorts of plans for his future: He might become a neurosurgeon or an architect, maybe cure cancer.
Then, five years ago, his friend, Tamir Harper, invited him to speak about student activism and voice at a conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the Fellowship for Black Male Educators.
At the conference as a 16-year-old, he saw the camaraderie and absorbed the life-changing impact a teacher can have. Even though both his parents are educators – his father is a school counselor and his mother a climate manager in Philadelphia – Ryans didn’t realize until then how many Black teachers existed.
“For me, it was the exposure to so many revolutionary Black men in one space,” he said. “I had never before been in a space where Black men were trying to change the narrative.”
From then on, Ryans knew what he would do. He would become a teacher.
Five years later, now nearly 21 and a junior at Morehouse College majoring in sociology and education, he again attended the Philadelphia conference, which was held in person after a two-year hiatus due to COVID. The three-day event, sponsored by the organization now known as the Center for Black Educator Development, drew close to 1,000 people from across the country, almost all of them Black men.
Attendees this year looked at historical trends related to teacher diversity, discussed how to promote student activism, and opened up about dealing with mental health issues of teachers and students. They talked about school disciplinary policies and how they disproportionately affect Black boys.
Mostly, they studied data and strategies for both recruiting and keeping Black male teachers in the profession at a time when teachers of all backgrounds are leaving in droves and many fewer are aspiring to enter the profession.
But Ryans has no doubts – and the conference only reinforced his resolve.
“Being in this space helped me develop a deep love for what education and teaching and learning can be,” Ryans said in a break between sessions. “Now that I’m on my path to becoming an educator, so many other black men congratulated me and affirmed me. That’s what made it so special.”
‘Teaching is a revolutionary act’
In the past few summers, Ryans participated in programs sponsored by the Center and based on the Freedom Schools model, in which older students work with younger ones as literacy coaches and mentors. These experiences helped him take to heart the motto of Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the Center and mentor to many teachers of color in Philadelphia and elsewhere: Teaching is a “revolutionary” act.
“In my college years, when I actually got to work with students one-on-one, that’s when I started to love the art of teaching for what it is.”
Ryans said he believes he can have an impact, citing research showing that Black students who have a teacher of the same race by third grade are 13% more likely to attend college than those who don’t. For those who have two teachers who look like them in the early grades, that percentage jumps to 32%.
Tamir Harper, the friend who invited Ryans to the conference, started out as a student activist but now teaches English, social justice, and writing to eighth graders at the Henry Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia, not far from where he grew up.
“I get to interact and learn from beautiful brilliant eighth graders every day I walk into the classroom, and understand their reality,” Harper said.
Yet, overall, the percentage of Black teachers is declining, even as the percentage of Black and brown students in the nation’s public schools is growing. Once as high as 40%, the percentage of Black teachers in Philadelphia now stands at 24%, while those who are Black and male are just 4%. In Pennsylvania as a whole, only 1% of teachers are Black men, and almost all of them work in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, El-Mekki said.
Among the reasons for the low numbers of Black teachers are the high cost of teacher education, its relatively low pay, an overall negative perception of the teaching profession, and barriers to entry including skills tests that experts said have little to do with determining a person’s potential to be a great teacher.
“Nobody becomes a teacher to get rich, but we do have to make sure that we are offering work environments, compensation, and professional development that someone willing to take that leap deserves,” said Eric Hagarty, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of education, at one of the sessions. “I strongly believe we need to make it free to become a teacher.”
In addition, many Black students, especially Black boys, have negative experiences in school themselves. Travis Bristol, associate professor of teacher education and education policy at the University of California at Berkeley, said these experiences start early.
According to Bristol, Black boys make up 18% of the preschool population, but account for 43% of the suspensions in that grade level, he said. He found this out when his own son was suspended for two weeks from a preschool he had barely begun to attend.
“I didn’t even know preschool suspension was a thing,” he said.
On the other end, Black men who do enter the teaching profession are often treated as disciplinarians.
“They get all the behavior problems,” said Joyce Abbott, speaking in the same session as Bristol and Hagarty. She is the namesake of the TV show “Abbott Elementary” and a longtime Philadelphia educator who just retired in June. (She taught Quinta Brunson, the developer and star of the show.)
El-Mekki, who started his career as a middle school teacher in 1993, has created a Black Teacher Pipeline Project, which started out awarding four fellowships to aspiring Black male teachers each year. Now, there are 26 fellows annually and $1 million in the Future Black Teachers of Excellence Fund. Also as part of the pipeline, three high schools, including Science Leadership Academy-Beeber in Philadelphia and schools in Camden and Detroit, offer an elective course on teaching.
A new Pennsylvania law, SB99, allows high school courses on education and teaching to be eligible for Career and Technical Education credits. And the state school code now requires districts to share their data on the demographic makeup of their teacher corps.
Last summer, El-Mekki said, there were 140 paid Black and brown apprentices teaching in the Freedom School academies, as well as teacher residents in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington, DC.
Besides working to attract and retain more Black teachers, El-Mekki said he wants to challenge policymakers and districts and policymakers to change the entire “ecosystem” of education and to help all teachers improve cultural responsiveness.
El-Mekki also pointed to research showing that all students benefit from a diverse teacher workforce.
“Black teachers are absolutely critical to the student achievement of Black students and every other student,” he said.