A 7th grade ‘discipline problem’ becomes a winner when 3 black men become his teacher

Chris is a young man who struggles mightily with his academic work and has a reputation among teachers and students as a “discipline problem.” Needless to say, his suburban middle school is not his happy place.

But Chris was relaxed and confident standing in front of his 7th grade English class, performing a spoken word piece he had written about his family. The piece was so vivid and so heartfelt that his class voted for him as class winner to present as part of a poetry slam in front of the entire school.

What was different about this experience for Chris? He had three black men teaching him this art form, two of them young men from his community who were fresh out of college and who knew how to make language arts come alive for a student who rarely experiences success around reading or writing.

Chris’ language arts teacher is the only black male teacher in this diverse 900-student school, which seems a bit outrageous given the demographics of this school until you consider that only 2 percent of all teachers in the U.S. are black males.

It’s probably no accident that Chris landed in this teacher’s class, and the three men laughed about how unusual this experience must have seemed to the students in this class, both black and white, who too rarely benefit from the teaching leadership of one black man—let alone three at once.

I’ve had the chance to see Chris in a few of his worst moments, so it was a thrill to see him soar during one of his best. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that something so fundamental as a role model could have such a profound effect on his demeanor and confidence.

It’s also a thrill to see this issue finally getting the attention it deserves, culminating in an awe-inspiring first-ever national Black Male Educators Convening last month in Philadelphia.  These educators’ commitment is testament enough, even without considering what the research says about the importance of black teachers, especially in the elementary and middle school grades.

This is a wakeup call for diverse suburban schools. Stop making excuses about how hard it is to recruit black male teachers. It should be easier in these schools because they can address three things that discourage black men from pursuing teaching careers. The teachers won’t be disconnected from the mission of their school, as they would be in an overwhelmingly white school. Suburban schools typically offer higher pay, more long-term stability, and better working conditions than high-poverty schools. They can avoid the tired trope of hiring black men only as athletic coaches or disciplinarians and recruit them as academic leaders.

This is no-brainer. Two percent is not acceptable. Diversity matters, not just symbolically but academically. It matters to all students, because a diverse teaching force brings new ideas and new leaders into the mix; it energizes students and chips away stereotypes.

It’s especially important to kids like Chris, because what stands between the label of “discipline problem” and winning a class poetry contest is very often having a champion (or a few champions) in which you can see yourself.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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