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Number problem moves Morehouse professor: too few black math teachers

Nathan Alexander teaches a college algebra class in Dansby Hall at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Nathan Alexander teaches a college algebra class in Dansby Hall at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Nathan Alexander is on a mission to recruit and encourage more black men to teach mathematics, as studies suggest simply having black men as teachers has a significant impact on black students.

Alexander, a researcher and visiting professor in Morehouse College’s department of mathematics, founded the Black Male Mathematics Teacher Project, which connects black men who teach math across all grades and organizations, from K-12 classrooms to community-based programs and adult-education programs. U.S. Department of Education figures show just 2% of the country’s teachers are black men. Alexander said about .69% of those black men teach high school math.

“Seeing a black man who teaches math … is powerful,” Alexander said. He uses math as the project’s focus because of its many uses in everyday life, as well as it being a personal love of his.

In Georgia, the number of black teachers is slowly on the rise. During the 2017-2018 school year, there were 113,122 teachers in the state's workforce and approximately 21.4% of them were black, up from 20.2% during the 2015-2016 school year, according to Georgia K-12 Teacher and Leader Workforce Status Reports from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement. During the 2017-2018 school year, 24% of new teachers were black.

In metro Atlanta, 8% of teachers are black men. About 80 percent are women, and more than two-thirds of them white.

Research suggests the presence of black teachers in early grades can greatly influence a black student's future. A 2018 study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and American University suggests black students who have one black teacher by third grade are 13 percent more likely to go to college. Two black teachers, and a black student is 32 percent more likely to go to college.

Alexander points to his own experience and the man who influenced him: a black high school algebra teacher named James Rivers who encouraged him to be more active in math events at Monroe High School in Monroe, N.C., just outside of Charlotte. Rivers, Alexander said, pushed him to enter area math competitions and to become president of the school’s math club.

“I believe that’s why I got into mathematics,” Alexander said.

The Black Male Mathematics Teacher Project, which began in 2016, hopes to identify, prepare and retain black men who teach math across different education settings. It studies professional practices, beliefs and attitudes of black men teaching math and wants to create groups to support and encourage black men to enter the profession.

A teacher's approach to lessons has great impact, Alexander has seen. While he was a University of San Francisco assistant professor, annual trips to Belize with students paired him and several students with a handful of black teachers keen on improving how they thought about teaching. The trips were part of Project Learn Belize — where students and faculty work to immerse themselves in the country's culture.

He noticed people were not traveling out of their communities to teach. "There was a certain tenderness and a certain mindset they possess," he said of the Belizean teachers. "When I looked at the teachers here, a lot of my work was convincing teachers to be of the community."

While working in San Quentin State Prison through the University of California-Berkeley, Alexander found himself co-teaching with Detroit, an inmate serving a life sentence. The man earned several associate degrees in prison and taught math for 15 of the 25 years he spent there. Alexander said he learned a lot during that experience, including not to underestimate the role — or awareness — of community-based teachers.

Detroit, who left San Quentin in 2016, said he enjoyed helping others understand the concepts around math and science, often using real world scenarios that fit their lifestyles.

“I was just a guy from the ‘hood doing a life sentence, and I tried to show them a different way of doing math … that they would be receptive to,” said Detroit, now a math tutor for a public charter school group in San Francisco. “In prison, I did it getting paid 15 cents an hour for 15 years.”

According to data from the project’s first year, black men are just as likely as other teachers to have math certifications, but are more likely to have only the minimum education needed when teaching high school math and more likely to have low to moderate success.

Recruiting men to the teaching ranks could be an uphill battle.

“Somehow, teaching has increasingly become an occupation of choice for women,” said Richard Ingersoll, an education and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ingersoll was speaking to reporters and educators in Atlanta Tuesday as part of the Critical Issues Forum organized by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a series of lectures that discuss issues important to Georgia education. He said teaching jobs were initially created for women as a not-too-long-term role that women were expected to abandon as they got married and put more focus on raising families.

Ingersoll's research indicated that while the number of teachers of color was increasing, the number who quit their jobs was high as well. Teachers of color largely work in struggling schools, where turnover often is higher.

“There is big concern about the trend,” he said. “It’s not about the person. It has to do with the schools.”

Alexander said reasons so few black men teach math are rooted in discriminatory practices, such as the Negro Act of 1740, a South Carolina law that made it illegal for enslaved Africans, among other things, to earn money or learn to write. Though the law was voided in 1865, its impact remained for years as many black residents were denied fair education and access to higher education.

“Math was being used to keep us out of participating as a society through even voting,” he said.

He cited the need for Bob Moses' Algebra project — which began in the 1980s recognizing a lack of math literacy for black people — as evidence that repercussions from centuries-old laws persist.

Alexander said he is encouraged by his students at Morehouse, including several who say they plan to teach math after graduation.