Here's How Houston Is Bringing More Men of Color Into Teaching

Aug 6, 2021 12:00:00 AM

by Kate Stoltzfus

How many teachers in your K-12 experience do you feel truly impacted you?

It’s a Saturday afternoon in early June, and urban education expert Kwame Simmons sits in a classroom at Westbury High School in Houston, leading a panel discussion that’s part of the district’s inaugural Men’s Leadership Summit. The subject? How to create better school experiences for young men, especially young men of color, so that more of them will consider careers in education. 

Simmons, an Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) faculty member, asks the panelists—three education leaders and two high school students—for a show of hands that correspond with the influential teachers who come to mind. None of them hold up more than three fingers. 

“We got about, you know, a 2.1, 2.2 average,” says Simmons. “And you probably had anywhere from 80 to 115 teachers.”

The results are not surprising to Simmons or to many of the dozen other students listening in the audience. As a former student and a Black male himself, Simmons knows that [pullquote]many males of color have not had an abundance of positive relationships with the educators in their lives.[/pullquote] Despite being generations apart, the Black, brown, and Latinx panelists share similar experiences that underscore a longing for more authentic connection and affinity with the people who teach them.  

In classrooms around the school, more than 100 other summit attendees discuss how to bridge that student-teacher disconnect. They explore pathways to education careers, as well as tangential issues that hinder or help budding leaders, like mental health supports, family and community partnerships, the digital divide, racial justice and anti-bias work, and career and technical education. 

In the last three years, under the direction of interim superintendent Grenita Lathan, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) has put significant energy into tackling a major challenge in education: how to get more men, especially men of color, to consider entering—and to stay in—a mostly white, mostly female profession.  The effort has led the district to cultivate an ambitious suite of new career-pipeline programs, leadership professional development opportunities, and recruitment-outreach efforts such as this summit.  

HISD is the largest school district in Texas and one of the most diverse, with more than 196,000 students at 280 schools, around 90 percent of whom are students of color. But of 27,195 district employees, only 26% are male; of that group, around 19% identify as teachers of color. Statewide, the numbers are even more glaring: Only 10% of Texas’ teacher workforce identifies as African American—and only 3% of that group are men. 

The same patterns exist at the national level. [pullquote]Only 2% of U.S. public school educators are Black men and 2% are Latinx men, while school leadership remains 78% white and 54% female.[/pullquote]  

Addressing Historically Complex Factors 

The factors that contribute to the lack of male educators in education are both well-known and complex. As Simmons’ panel discussion illustrated, many men of color do not have positive associations with schools or teachers. Nor are they typically encouraged to go into education or made aware of viable pathways to do so.  

For those who do go into teaching, little attention is given to creating conditions that will support them in staying. Teachers of color are more likely to teach in schools with high poverty rates and fewer supports. Black male teachers are especially likely to face racial microaggressions and social isolation. There are often expectations for them to be disciplinarians without recognition of teaching expertise, and they may face pressure (both internally and externally) to overwork in solving long-standing systemic challenges.  

Historical undercurrents also play a role. According to scholar Vanessa Siddle Walker, some 30,000 to 50,000 Black and Brown teachers were fired during the school desegregation and consolidation efforts that took place in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s "Brown v. Board" decision. Those numbers have never recovered, even as the gaps in representation continue to grow

Houston’s leaders are determined to reverse these such trends, and even set an example for other districts. The Men’s Leadership Summit, which included the in-person event at Westbury and a live stream broadcast to virtual attendees at five school sites, brought participants together over a shared set of goals—to recruit and retain more male teachers from a local pool and provide mentoring support for the high school students who are interested in education. Featuring a keynote address by school leadership expert Baruti Kafele, it was the first public push of the district’s efforts, but its leaders say it won’t be the last.  

“We're providing platforms like this summit for people to have an open dialogue,” says Kenneth Brantley II, the Houston district’s director of schools for the South Area.

We have to be willing to not have such brittle ears and listen, and not already have in our mind the direction that we think school leadership or school improvement should go or community development should go. We should be willing to listen to those who are on the ground.

Kenneth Brantley II

A PD Partnership 

Research shows that teacher diversity can play an important role in helping students of color to feel a sense of safety and belonging, have positive learning experiences with greater academic success, and imagine themselves in similar professions in the future. One study shows that Black students who had at least one Black teacher in elementary school were 7% more likely to graduate high school and 13% more likely to go to college than peers who did not. 

Despite such evidence, any new initiative to address the challenge requires determined leadership. Kenneth Davis, HISD’s area superintendent for the South, says he first broached the idea of a men’s leadership summit because he knew he’d have Lathan, the district’s then-interim superintendent,  on board. Lathan always brought “a level of honesty” to systemic problems, Davis said.  

Lathan’s successor as district superintendent is Millard House II, who most recently served as superintendent of the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Tennessee. In that position, he led similar pipeline efforts to increase diversity among teacher candidates, partnering with local universities and paying for interested staff members in the district to get teaching certifications. House said he plans to continue expanding Houston’s current initiatives to “ratchet up opportunities for all students to see people like them in the profession.”  

To plan and develop the summit, Houston partnered with ASCD’s Professional Learning Team, which has worked with the district’s office of leadership and teacher development. ASCD, the country's leading association for K-12 educator professional learning, has been a critical partner for the district over the last five years. The relationship involves weekly conversations about what the district needs for professional growth and the creation of tailored plans to help them get there. The team draws from a pool of over 120 faculty experts, then matches the district’s expertise, needs, and ideas to ASCD resources and supports. 

The Men’s Leadership Summit was a natural extension of this work. Rather than acting as fly-by experts who come in for a day, do a session, and leave, ASCD faculty like Simmons collaborate with HISD leaders like Lauren Ford, a senior manager for leadership development, to plan the kinds of follow-up training and skill-building that will benefit any one school’s unique group of leaders and build capacity to sustain the work over time. 

Because assistant principals, deans, and teacher specialists in the district’s south area studied leadership expert Baruti Kafele's book "Is My School a Better School Because I Lead It?," it was a natural fit to invite him as the summit keynote speaker. Likewise, Simmons had already led multiple in-person professional development sessions for Houston principals moving into administrative leadership roles, and the district wanted him back to lead a roundtable at the summit. 

As ASCD continues to grow with education, and as we continue to grow with education, I'm expecting us to meet those needs and challenges together for every one of the people that we serve ... We went from using ASCD as a resource to using ASCD as a partner in the work that we do.

Lauren Ford

A Multi-Level Leadership Pipeline

Beyond public awareness initiatives like the summit, the essence of the district’s effort to recruit and retain more men of color is a multi-tiered career pipeline program.  

During his first few years in the district as a middle and high school principal, area superintendent Davis focused on hiring more Black and Latinx men as teachers. Once he became an assistant superintendent, he started dual mentoring programs to help educators build closer relationships with students—the Ascending to Men program for male students and ROSES (Resilient Outstanding Sisters Exemplifying Success) program for young women. In those programs, educators at 75 schools follow students starting in third grade through graduation and guide them through the transition to careers and college pathways, even after they leave. The district also started a “Miles Ahead Scholars” program to help high-performing young men of color get into tier-one colleges and universities. 

The district’s latest “grow your own” initiative is a partnership with University of Houston’s Call Me MISTER program. The effort, an official extension of Clemson University’s effort by the same name, aims to increase the pool of Black and Brown teachers at low-resourced schools through outreach, mentorships, and financial support for degree programs. The district works to funnel in students who have already expressed teaching interest. Kemonta Jackson, Call Me MISTER’s program coordinator, says an explicit part of the program’s goal is to connect HISD students—from potential recruits to graduates already in the program—to the district’s employment paths, so that up-and-coming educators have walked the same school halls as the students they’ll be teaching.

Meanwhile, to develop the capacities of male educators already in the school system, Davis and other area superintendents work closely with Angela Milon, an officer of leadership and teacher development in the district. In partnership with Houston Community College and the University of Houston, Milon’s office seeks out one-off grants, such as the Department of Education’s TSL grant, to shore up financial support for current paraprofessionals, teachers, and administrators to pursue the certification pathways they need to be qualified for advancement opportunities. The district offers flexible course scheduling so that district employees can continue working while earning their credentials. 

Supporting Education Pathways 

District leaders stress that it’s important to help prospective male educators see the leadership value and impact of teaching, as opposed to just selling them on the prospect of advancing traditional administrative positions.   

We have to really change the narrative about how important it is to have males in the classroom.

Angela Milon

It’s important to give them a sense of “the leadership opportunities that exist right there [in the classroom] so they can see that you don't just have to have a one-track mind to get into administration. But it's giving them those opportunities, those creative spaces and marketing and valuing and sharing those stories about the impact [of teachers on children].” 

At the same time, says Davis, if educators are seeking opportunities outside of their classrooms, schools must find ways to support them to grow “at all levels and in all capacities” within the public education system.

That means tapping into the strengths of summit attendees like Tradell Washington, who started out as a bus driver in HISD to help pay for college. As he picked up and dropped off students every day, he realized just how passionate he was about connecting with them. Now, as a current area transportation manager for the district, Washington says the job is about so much more than making sure students arrive at school on time—he and other transportation employees are the “first line of defense” for motivating students before they get to the classroom. He wants to help lead drivers to “build, educate, and unify the next generation.”

The district’s leaders hope that [pullquote]sharing stories about all the positives of the profession—in addition to creating nuanced, systematic changes for educators of color—is one avenue toward expanding the appeal of education careers to men.[/pullquote] At the very least, Davis says, anyone who attends events such as the summit will see the career steps available in a district, as well as the tailored, culturally responsive ways current leaders of color are ready to support them.

“I know that this isn't a profession that shines and gleams all the time,” adds Ford. “You hardly ever hear a kid shout out, ‘I want to be a teacher.’ And that's the part that I'm excited about trying to infuse to someone else, because I didn't want to be one. We haven't marketed to our children the wonderful things that go on in education. We kind of just keep those stories to ourselves.”

Kate Stoltzfus

Kate Stoltzfus is a writer and editor for ASCD's Educational Leadership.

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