Why we need more black male teachers now

OPINION - This is an issue that should be addressed every day of the year, not just during Black History Month...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Throughout history, black men have played pivotal roles in the development of this nation. Despite the legacies of these giants, according to “A Call For Change,” a 2010 study released by Council of Great City Schools, only 12 percent of black male students are proficient in reading by fourth grade, and by the eighth grade, their proficiency rate drops to nine percent. Black men make up only five percent of our nation’s college students, while they represent 36 percent of our prison population. We must change this grim reality — the stakes are too high and the consequences too dire.

Although many teachers across our country are working hard to ensure their students receive the academic tools necessary to reach their full potential we still need more talented educators doing this vital work. In particular, in our low-income communities where a majority of students are African-American or Latino, we need more outstanding teachers from diverse backgrounds to serve as role models and classroom leaders. This is especially true when it comes to our black boys. Today, only two percent of teachers in this country are black men.

As an African-American male working at Teach For America and committed to ensuring educational excellence for our kids growing up in poverty, I frequently think back on my classroom experience. It was during my time as a teacher in Houston’s fifth ward that I first understood the scope of the educational inequity that exists between black boys and their wealthier white peers. From the moment I stepped in front of my kids, it was obvious-the gap had nothing to do with their ability or desire to learn. Instead, it was rooted in the extra challenges poverty was throwing in their path, coupled by a tragic lack of educational opportunity.

Raised in a mostly single-parent household by my mother in Buffalo, N.Y, I know firsthand what an education can do to make or break a child’s future. My mother made it her mission to ensure I had something better than what my zip code offered me as a black boy. With her efforts and the critical help of a handful of incredible teachers and mentors, I got to and through a prestigious college. Too many of my childhood friends weren’t as fortunate.

And as an adult, I continue to be shocked by the messages we repeatedly heard. Society was telling us loud and clear: black boys from a neighborhood like mine were incapable of academic and life success. For many of my peers, this message permeated their beings and they chose life paths that did not include attaining academic achievement.

In my current role, I have the opportunity to see the powerful impact African-American male teachers are having on their kids across the country — Luqman Abdur Rahman is one such example. Luqman entered the classroom through Teach For America in 2008 and today is teaching 7th grade math at KIPP Ways Academy in Atlanta. As a classroom leader, he is mindful of ways to build long term successful traits and mindsets and open pathways of opportunity for his kids. In turn, his students recognize that their potential to succeed is limitless and dependent on their work ethic and desire. With each passing day in his classroom, Luqman’s students know they have the ability to achieve and have a firm belief that they will attend and succeed in college.

This is an issue that should be addressed every day of the year, not just during Black History Month. While it is going to take a relentless, all-hands-on-deck effort, the problem facing our black boys is 100 percent solvable. Our teachers and principals are absolutely critical players in this solution.

At Teach For America, we’ve seen that our most effective educators and school leaders come from all backgrounds, but when such individuals share the background of their students, they have the potential to have a profound additional impact. It is imperative that more of our successful black men, more of our Luqmans, make the challenging and courageous choice to enter the classroom and provide our boys with examples of what is possible.

Kwame Griffith, who taught fourth and fifth grade students in Houston, is now a senior vice president of regional operations at Teach For America, overseeing TFA operations in Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina and South Carolina.