First-year teacher Tamir D. Harper wanted to be an educator so that he could help the community he grew up in and to give his students a chance of having a better education system than he had.
Harper teaches eighth-grade students in English and social studies at the Henry C. Lea School in West Philadelphia.
“Being a teacher has been one of the toughest jobs I ever had, but I love it,” Harper said. “As their teacher, I’m giving them lessons that will prepare them for the next level, but I also make sure my students know that I love them and will be there for them.”
Very few of the nation’s K-12 classrooms today are helmed by Black men. Less than 7% percent of teachers are Black, and just 2% are Black men, according to the Department of Education.
Research shows that students who have at least one Black teacher will be 39% less likely to drop out of high school and 29% more likely to enroll in college.
Harper said that in order to recruit more Black male educators there needs to be programming, strategic support and funding.
“We need to invest in elementary and middle school students that are Black males and open their eyes up to teaching. Adopt programs like Educators Rising and put them in schools and connect students to what we do as teachers.
“We need to evaluate the Praxis exam” for teaching applicants, he said. “There are studies that show people of color, especially Black people, fail this exam at a disproportionate rate than their counterparts.
“We also need to look at how we provide funding for Black male educators,” he said. “Teaching is very rewarding, but it can also be taxing at times. Are we able to provide mental health services such as counseling and therapy for teachers who need it?”
In 2014, Sharif El-Mekki founded The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice and in 2019 he founded the Center for Black Educator Development. The center’s mission is to rebuild the Black teacher pipeline through policy and advocacy efforts, programming and partnering with school districts and colleges across the country.
“You can’t recruit more Black teachers if you don’t have a retention plan,” El-Mekki said. “You have to look into what type of environment you’re inviting them into because if the classroom is hostile to Black students it is often hostile to former Black students who are now Black teachers.
“It’s not just about recruiting Black male educators now, it’s also about retaining them so they can be in our classroom 15 and 20 years from now,” he added.
In 2021, the center created the Black Teacher Pipeline, an initiative that aims to recruit and train the next generation of Black educators. Students are recruited in high school and are offered scholarships and paid internships.
The project, which is in partnership with the United Negro College Fund, has fellows commit to teaching in one of the projects partners: Philadelphia, Camden and Detroit.
“To rebuild the National Black Teacher Pipeline, we look at three components,” El-Mekki said. “With policy and advocacy, we look at the policies that can support a Black teacher pipeline or work on policies that undermine it.
“Professional development is necessary for people to be great colleagues, great supervisors, but also great educators,” he said. “We provide professional development to districts, schools and college professors.
“We also have pathways, which includes a summer program called the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy, after-school tutoring and a Teaching Academy. Over the next decade, we’re looking to be in at least 10 cities where our full programming is implemented,” he added.
Councilmember Isaiah Thomas introduced a resolution last year designating October as Black Male Educators Month.
Last year, the School District of Philadelphia launched the Paraprofessional Career Development program, which enables paraprofessionals to obtain teacher certification without paying tuition.
Paraprofessionals serve as instructional assistants or provide additional support services to students, but are not certified classroom teachers. The program has a partnership with four universities: Temple, Cheyney, La Salle and Drexel. The program was developed with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
“This program is really important because the majority of the paraprofessionals in the program are teachers of color,” said School District of Philadelphia superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. “We don’t have Black and Latinx teacher representation that matches up with the student population in Philadelphia.
“We’re working with Sharif El-Mekki and the Center for Black Educator Development to identify ways to grow our recruitment of teachers and how we can get young people who are interested in teaching,” he said.
Watlington added that historically nearly 50% of the Black teachers nationwide have come from historically Black colleges and universities.
“We want to expand teacher recruitment outside of Philadelphia,” Watlington said. “We don’t just want to be at recruitment fairs at Cheyney, Lincoln and Delaware State, we should be at recruitment fairs at various HBCUs across the country.
“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has also relaxed the rules in teacher certification, making it easier now for teachers to leave other states and to come here to teach,” he said.
El-Mekki believes that the number of Black male educators will increase within five to 10 years.
“A couple years ago, Philadelphia had an increase in the number of Black male teachers who were hired,” El-Mekki said. “We can continue with that trajectory if we do it rapidly, seamlessly and thoughtfully.
“There needs to be things in place that are aligned to policy, funding and support,” he said. “We also need to make sure that people are not just looking at recruitment, but also retention. If we do those things, we will absolutely see an increase of Black male educators in the future.”