The day I decided to become an educator was, ironically, the same day I could have disengaged from the education system for good. I was a 2nd grader who was dark, male, and fat. After clinging to the climbing ropes and losing to the stopwatch during a physical fitness test, I was crushed when my teacher told me I would “never amount to anything.” While experiences like this cause many young people, especially Black boys, to want nothing to do with school, I made up my mind on that day that I would become a teacher so I could bring about change in a system that was not created to serve people who looked like me, and to provide much needed-healing and motivation for little boys and girls who needed it.
When I entered the classroom as a new teacher on an emergency certification, I was excited to make a difference. But I often felt pigeonholed into stereotypical roles, asked to serve as a disciplinarian for young Black boys or to teach more basic, non-academic classes. My instructional leadership potential and intellectual brilliance were not recognized.
My experience as a Black male educator is not unique. Teachers of color make up only about 6% of Pennsylvania’s teacher workforce, compared to 36% students of color, and Black men represent less than 2%. While many school systems express a desire for more Black male educators, especially as research continues to confirm our positive effects on students, we remain some of the least respected personnel in American education. It is well documented that we are often viewed as “disciplinarians first and teachers second,” expected us to serve as overseers of the school-to-prison pipeline rather than transformational educators. We are also often locked into teaching electives, introductory courses, and remedial classes rather than advanced courses because we are not seen as academics.
Over time, I have silenced the little boy inside who repeats the echoes of his 2nd-grade teacher, and I have embraced my formidable talents, skills, and power as an educator. I am proud to give my students a quality and culturally responsive education, and I know that my students need me. Teachers of color, and specifically Black male educators, are precious and should be protected. A 2017 study found that low-income Black students who have a Black teacher for at least one year in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider college.
But until we change our schools and systems, we will continue to face a shortage of Black male educators like me. We must explicitly focus on the recruitment, retention, and professional development of teachers of color in order to increase student engagement and decrease student drop-out rates.
At the state level, our lawmakers must implement policies to support the recruitment, retention, and professional development of teachers of color. In Pennsylvania, Senate Bill 99, sponsored by Senator Vincent Hughes and Senator Ryan Aument, would create pathways into teaching for underrepresented youth, provide funding for educator preparation programs to diversify the workforce, and remove barriers to certification that disproportionately impact teachers of color. Although the bill has bipartisan support, it is still awaiting a vote in the Senate Education Committee. A House version sponsored by Representative Jason Ortitay and Representative Gina Curry is soon to be filed in the House Education Committee. Other measures are also needed to make teaching a profession that students of all races can access and make a living in.
At the school level, administrators need to be trained to respect Black male educators as intellectual and professional leaders, and not view us as security. We are more than a single, isolated muscle; we are the brain. Instead of reducing Black male educators to overseers who keep Black and Brown children in line, administrators would do better to value their craft and learn from their non-traditional, culturally responsive methods of delivering instruction. Schools need to work to create spaces where teachers of color can feel safe and supported. Cultural responsiveness training for teachers and principals can help teach them to foster culturally affirming environments free of bias and microaggressions against teachers and students of color. We also need to encourage students of all races to enter the teaching profession, with special attention paid to Black boys, who are so often overlooked by the education system.
Ensuring that teachers and professional staff are reflective of the students and community they serve shouldn’t be a bipartisan issue. It is a human rights issue. If we make enough progress, maybe more students will eventually want to become teachers—not out of a determination to change a cruelly broken school system, but because of inspiration gained from an education in which they were treated with dignity.
Durrell Burns teaches 9th grade English and Public Speaking at Harrisburg High School: John Harris Campus. He is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow.