Black History Month is an opportunity to remind all Americans of the important role Black teachers have played since Reconstruction in empowering communities politically and socially. But today, it is particularly critical to convince more African Americans to join the profession. The U.S. faces a looming teacher crisis and:

  • African Americans are an especially underutilized talent pool, making up 15% of students, but only 7% of teachers.
  • African American high school students aspire to teach at only half the rate of Whites. (SRF Student Survey, Fall 2019)

Consistent with SRF’s commitment to supporting teachers as they prepare students for life after high school, we highlight two resources particularly relevant to any teacher who wants to use Black History Month as an opportunity to encourage their African American students to follow in their footsteps and become educators. SRF’s research has found students cite teachers as among the most important influences on their career choices no matter the field they choose. But for those students who aspire to become educators, their own teachers are an even greater influence than parents.

We understand why teachers are such a powerful source of influence as we listen to “Every Kid Needs a Champion”  – an uplifting and inspiring Ted Talk by the late Dr. Rita Pierson. Pierson, a third-generation African American educator, taught students facing some of the longest odds of success, and before that watched her mother do the same. For Dr. Pierson, teaching was more than a job. “We’re educators. We’re born to make a difference,” she proclaimed. And she made that difference through human connection – relationships. As she explained, human connection is central to:

  • Learning – Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.
  • Motivation – Teachers must simultaneously raise self-esteem and academic performance to avoid demoralization.
  • Reward – Those relationships that fuel student success become a lasting legacy for each educator.

Black History Month

Art by @SylviaDuckworth

For those moved more by statistics than emotional appeals, Erica and Michael Hines’ article “Want to Support Black Students? Invest in Black Teachers,” summarizes a variety of empirical research in making the case that schools need Black teachers among their faculty to boost the educational outcomes of Black students. These outcomes range from high school graduation rates, to college aspirations, to fewer incidents of exclusionary discipline.  As they explain, “…[F]or every Black teacher who enters a school building, Black students are able to see a mirror reflecting their own experiences and perspectives, and a window into their future.” But at a time when too few young adults of any race are considering teaching careers, Hines and Hines assert extra effort is required to attract African Americans to the teaching profession due to:

  • Scarcity – Proportionately fewer African American than White students make it into the pool eligible to become teachers due to higher high school dropout rates and lower rates of college matriculation and graduation.
  • Limited Financial Resources – Fewer African American than White students can afford to forego at least a year’s salary while completing student teaching, as well as bearing the extra costs associated with state licensure exams.
  • Cultural Isolation – African American students are more likely to be retained in programs where they have safe spaces to discuss and solve the unique challenges they face.

Black History Month is a great opportunity to devote special attention to African American students. Teachers have unique opportunities to help mitigate the looming teacher shortage. But the operative word is help. The responsibility rests with a far broader range of stakeholders. Policymakers, administrators, and the private sector have critical roles to play so more teachers feel teaching is a good choice for their students – and so more aspiring educators achieve their goals.  Steps to consider include:

  • Raising Compensation – Cuts to public education funding over the last four decades have not only made it harder to attract and retain teachers. They undoubtedly have made it more difficult for teachers to encourage students to enter the field. Those cuts also are putting the teaching profession out of reach for many financially strapped students. Policymakers need to examine why teachers should earn a daily wage averaging 20% less than others with similar qualifications.
  • Financial Support for Aspiring Educators – Teaching is financially out-of-reach for many talented low-income would-be educators. State or local grants for graduates who pledge to return home to teach or programs such as the National Center for Teacher Residencies’ Black Educator Initiative can be win-win propositions for students, districts, and the private sector which needs a well-educated workforce.
  • Post-pandemic Internships – Months of remote learning have fueled learning loss that may feel almost impossible to mitigate – particularly in high-poverty districts. State or federal funded peer tutoring internships (similar to the federal work-study program) could narrow gaps, provide employment to students who must hold after-school jobs, and inspire more low-income students, including but not limited to African Americans, to consider teaching careers.

Whether stakeholders answer the call to boost the appeal of teaching and avert the negative effects of the teacher shortage will be critical to determining how the U.S fares in the global economy and how the American Dream fares in the 21st Century.

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