Black male teachers scarce in metro despite need, benefits

Each day around 3 p.m., Jarvis Williams sees off most of his first-grade class at Towns Elementary School in Atlanta, where he began his teaching career at the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

After that, he settles in for a few more hours as big brother, mentor and counselor to help with issues that come up during the day, as some students needed additional guidance.

The additional hours are not a problem, he says.

Black men, who make up about 2 percent of teachers nationwide, find themselves often playing dual roles — teacher in the classroom and mentor and male role model where, in many cases, none exists. That is especially true in urban areas such as metro Atlanta. Here, according to census figures, just over 50 percent of the population is single-parent or low-income, and children's needs can go unheard.

Across metro Atlanta, where the population is majority minority, black males make up about 8 percent of teaching staffs. About 80 percent of the teachers are female, and more than two-thirds of female teachers are white.

The benefits of a diverse teaching staff are plenty, with studies suggesting boosts in students' quality of life, grades, test scores and graduation rates among minorities. But there's trouble keeping minority teachers motivated and on staff, as low pay and the stress of working in high-need schools continues to be an issue for all educators. According to 2015-2016 data, the average starting salary for a teacher in metropolitan Atlanta is about $42,500.

Many teachers also say they find themselves working well beyond the 40-hour work week, and those in urban areas often work in problem schools full of students with the most needs in and out of the classroom.

“I’ve taken kids to the movies, bought them clothes, supplied their materials for school,” Williams said. “I do it so no one knows but that student. I don’t want you to feel like you’re less than a child because of that. And I’m bringing in other males, especially from (nearby colleges), to speak so they can see what these guys looks like. Everybody wants to be a rapper, everybody wants to be an athlete. But what’s your plan B? I want to help them with that.”

Ronald Saint-Preux, a teacher at Dunwoody High School, says he finds himself speaking more about issues unrelated to classroom instruction to black male students, discussing with them goals, and the decision to attend college. “There’s a level of relatability and ease in getting them motivated to see things different from how they see the world,” he said.

He said motivating black males to enter the teaching field should start early, because many are deterred during their formative years. “I think one of the disparities goes back to what we saw growing up,” he said. “There are less opportunities to see (black male teachers) growing up. When I hear a student talking about going into teaching, it’s most likely a female.”

Minority teachers often find themselves more motivated to work in high-poverty schools for the benefit of helping minority children, according to "The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education," a study by The Albert Shanker Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates for education of children. It is endowed by the American Federation of Teachers.

The study also found, among other things, that students profit from having teachers of their own racial and ethnic group, and that positive exposure to people from varying race and ethnic groups at an early age helps reduce the holding of stereotypes.

Minority teachers also tend to have higher expectations for minority students, according to a recently released Johns Hopkins University study. This is especially true for black students.

White teachers expect significantly less academic success than black teachers when evaluating the same black student, according to "Who Believes in Me? The Effect of Student-Teacher Demographic Match on Teacher Expectations." When both evaluate the student, the white teacher is about 30 percent less likely to predict the student will graduate from college, researchers found. White teachers, the study found, also are 12 percent less likely to believe black students will graduate from high school.

While having a diverse teaching staff provides many benefits, schools are having a hard time hiring and keeping minorities on staff. For many of the past few years, the number of minority teachers leaving the field has been higher than the number of new hires. The Shanker Institute study watched nine cities — Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — noting that from 2002 to 2012, all saw declines in the number of minority teachers. Boston and Philadelphia lost about 20 percent of black teachers, and New Orleans saw a drop of 62 percent. That was largely due to Hurricane Katrina, which displaced many.

Locally, district leaders are also having trouble keeping minority teachers, but have been able to replace the ones they lose. In Gwinnett County, black male teachers consistently have made up between 2 and 3 percent of the district’s teaching staff going back to 2011. In DeKalb County over the same period, black male teachers have accounted for about 15 percent of the total. In Atlanta Public Schools, about 13 percent of the teaching staff is black male teachers. In Fulton County, they make up just over 5 percent. In Cobb County, about 3 percent of teachers are black males.

Marcus Salter, a teacher at DeKalb County Schools’ Ronald E. McNair High School in Atlanta, said he’s heard among fellow teachers that compensation plays a major part in their decisions to leave the industry.

While it’s an issue for him, too, he’s found ways to supplement his income, including coaching sports teams.

“Money didn’t make me happy,” he said about his previous life as a civil engineer. “But (teacher) compensation keeps great people out of education.”

Salter, 33, made more as a civil engineer, but too often he felt unfulfilled.

Interacting with children, and being able to see the difference you make with them, he said, is much more worth it.

“Those are the things you get your rewards from,” said Salter. “Those are the things that make you happy.”

Conversations with students, when they’re not about classwork, tend to be about behavior and societal issues. Salter said he’s talked with his students about respect, speech, not cursing in front of adults, college, contemplating suicide.

He recalled an instance a few weeks ago when a former student was visiting the school. The former student saw an incident with a current student and immediately took the student aside, giving a lecture closely resembling one Salter said he’d doled out to the former student some years back.

“He’d made some mistakes, lost his way,” Salter said. “Seeing him with a student … showed me I’m laying a firm foundation. Sometimes, they just want to talk to somebody doing something positive in their lives.”

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