For decades, Oak Park, IL has prided itself on being a strong multiracial community. When many neighborhoods in next-door Chicago began changing rapidly because of white flight, Oak Park, starting in the 1970s, fought hard for integration and stability, welcoming in Black families while convincing white ones not to leave. Oak Park became the type of place where the First United Church of Oak Park this year decided to give up whiteness for Lent (the 40 days of prayer and fasting before Easter), by dropping all liturgy and music by white people from services.
But giving up whiteness was not entirely a done deal at a local Montessori School where Sonya Anderson, a Black resident of Oak Park, sends her son. “I have a 10-year-old son who has not had a black teacher yet,” says Anderson, who is concerned because her boy is getting older. “He has a different level of awareness than he did when he was younger. And I don’t want him to be the only one.” So she is reconsidering whether to keep her son in a school where there are few Black students and where he has never had a Black teacher.
The value of having teachers that reflect students’ identities isn’t new. There has long been concern in education circles about the dearth of male elementary school teachers or the paucity of female math and science teachers in advanced classes in high school. Other research has looked at the influence of the race of the teachers — including Hispanic and indigenous teachers and teachers of color as a whole. But the research on the value of Black educators is the most conclusive.
Simply put, Black teachers are important for Black kids. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that Black children with at least one Black teacher in grades 3 to 5 are 29 percent less likely than their peers to drop out of high school and 13 percent more likely to go to college. With two Black teachers in those early years, kids become 32 percent more likely to go to college. That research built on findings from a similar study conducted in Tennessee that found Black students who had Black teachers in the elementary grades did notably better in math.
A 2018 study in Review of Educational Research noted that across all levels of schooling, when both student and teacher are Black, there are fewer suspensions and expulsions than there would be otherwise, and that it’s reasonable to believe that teacher attitudes are at least partly responsible for the difference. Another study showed that in high school, Black teachers are noticeably more likely than white ones to assume that Black students might attend college. Finally, the impact of diverse teachers isn’t limited to kids of color. Researchers Alice Quiocho and Francisco Rios argue that having teachers of color can benefit white students both by exposing them to new perspectives that counter racial assumptions and by offering them role models that defy racist stereotypes.
But teachers in the U.S. overall are still mostly white. They make up 79 percent of the nation’s public school teachers, according to a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center, while state public school teachers are on average 27 percentage points more likely to be white than their students. Only 6.5 percent of teachers in traditional public schools are Black, and few of them, especially in the early grades, are men.
Parents are making their voices heard as they demand teacher diversity. A survey this year of 61,000 adults and teenagers in New York City, for instance, found that people thought the most important change that could be made in the city’s schools was to “increase hiring and salaries of diverse teachers and staff.” School systems are getting the message, too, with initiatives for the hiring of Black teachers — and especially Black male teachers — underway in Oakland, Memphis, New Orleans, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, to name just a few cities.
But attracting more Black men to the classroom is proving difficult. In Chicago, Janelle Lewis, director of leadership and learning at Teach For America, says that in the past three years, of about 200 first- and second-year teachers she has worked with annually, roughly three-quarters are people of color — but only a handful have been Black men. “Teaching is still seen too often as women’s work,” she says. “And the men say it doesn’t pay.”
Robert Hendricks, founder of the He is Me Institute in Boston, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of Black male teachers says that the message he can get from schools looking to hire Black men is similar: “We need you. But only at $30,000 a year.”
If low wages makes recruiting Black men challenging, an alienating work environment often makes retaining them downright difficult. According to Hendricks, after Black men accept a teaching job they often feel isolated because of the lack of school support, little professional development, scant institutional trust, and a tendency of some schools to rely on them for disciplinary enforcement rather than for their educational expertise.
Anderson, the Oak Park mother, is also president of Thrive Chicago, a nonprofit that works with other youth-serving organizations to improve life and opportunities for the city’s young people. Only 2 percent of U.S. public school teachers are Black men (according to Stanford University) and she is working to change that. Thrive designed and piloted the Male Educators of Color initiative in three Chicago high schools to promote teaching careers to Black students and attract young men to the field. “We want to encourage them to think of teaching as a profession that’s viable, worthwhile, and a form of community uplift,” she says.
If the statistics capture the positive influence that Black teachers can have on students who look like them, it takes a story to impart the humiliation and hurt that Black students experience when faced with teachers who harbor biases and stereotypes. When she was in public elementary school in Highland Park, MI, Bernita Bradley, director of parent voices at the National Parents Union, recalls a white teacher who accused her of cheating on a math test because she had all the right answers, but failed to show her work. The angry teacher called her mother and made the young girl take the test over. Bradley aced it again. “She was flabbergasted,” she recalled. “She never apologized, and was mad at me the whole next semester.”
It’s these sorts of incidents that Black teachers can avoid. They can, by virtue of training and background, lean less on heavy-handed discipline, and be more likely to see Black students’ promise instead of just their problems. But for these teachers to succeed in getting the most from often marginalized students, parents need to stay in touch with any Black teachers their kids have, work to understand the school culture around diversity in teaching, and push school authorities to actively seek out Black teachers. They can also support nonprofit groups trying to recruit more Black teachers and, of course, urge their own sons and daughters to consider a teaching career. There may be no better way to keep the pipeline full than to pay it forward.