For the first time in my life, I found myself in a room of hundreds of people, and there was only a handful of White people there. I had been invited to attend The Inaugural National Black Male Educators Convening and was expecting it to be a little awkward for me. It was. I was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me. I was asked to behave and respond in ways that made me uncomfortable. There were jokes and references I didn’t get, times I felt excluded from the conversation being had. I was keenly aware of how every person interacted with me and constantly questioned what they were thinking about me and my presence. In other words, throughout the weekend, I got just the smallest window into the experience of many Black male educators and students in our schools. I did so without checking even a small amount of the privilege afforded to me as a White male. I did so while being embraced and encouraged by many of the event’s organizers and presenters. But still, there were many times that “we” didn’t include me that made me both hyper-aware of my own skin color and also of how rarely education conversations, even those about race, are not framed for White people. There was a moment, early on the first day, where one of the presenters asked every Black male teacher in the room to stand. I reflected on all the Black male teachers I had during my own childhood in Milwaukee. By “all” I mean “one,” Mr. Holland, my third-grade teacher. I also thought about, in 12 years of teaching in four districts, the one Black male classroom teacher I have worked with. Nationally, somewhere around 2 percent of our teachers are Black males. During the conference, a presenter would yell that number out, and the crowd would respond, “Not enough!” In Minnesota, that number is under 1 percent. Not enough, not enough, not enough. Part of the power of the weekend was in hearing from Black male teachers about Black male teaching. What I heard, over and over, is that the path each one of these educators traveled from being student to becoming a teacher was consistently, persistently, more difficult than mine. From the challenges as a K-12 student of succeeding—or even being seen, or supported, or loved—to the questioning and policing of Black male bodies as adults in schools, each one of the teachers I met spends too much energy and time simply existing in schools. Once in the classroom, there was the pressure to succeed, the expectation to connect and translate and control Black students, the weight of the work. I also heard, over and over, about the power of Black excellence. I heard about the impact these men had on students, on their buildings, on their districts and states and beyond. My notes from the conference are littered with writers and thinkers to research, books I need to buy and read, and concepts I need to reflect on. Some were from presenters and PowerPoints, but so, so many are from conversations with teachers at meals, between sessions and over drinks at night. Someone said it, and it stands as a floating quote in my journal, word-for-word from someone whose name I did not capture, but expressed by all in attendance: “We know we are excellent, because excellence was required for us to get here.” Two percent is not enough, not nearly enough. But I’m a White guy. Lots of you reading this are White people, and we’re likely all guilty of at some point saying or thinking, “We just need more Black men who want to be teachers,” as if there’s nothing to be done about it, as if there’s no part of our work or the system we work in that impacts Black men’s desire or eligibility to teach. Because in conversations involving systemic racism, we still can’t stop saying that it’s Black people’s fault. So, what do we do? While speaking in a panel at the conference, Peggy Brookins, who runs the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said, “ Will is the largest barrier to getting more Black male educators.” So, what would it look like if we treated a diverse teaching force as a necessity for a successful education system? We know what works because a lot of it is being done in small ways, in too few places. We know we need more and better pathways to bring Black men into education. We also know we need to better support them when they get there, and tackle the persistent racial bias that makes it harder to be a person of color in a school building. I’ve often wondered if we couldn’t launch a large-scale program to welcome to the profession the people of color already working in schools, the people who often already do the hardest parts of teaching. Think about it, we could give them a summer of intensive classes as a bridge from the work they do into a classroom. We could support them there for two years, offer coaching and mentoring to help them grow into the role before becoming fully licensed. So, like Teach For America, but not for Ivy League kids. Whatever our work, whatever our ideas, it’s time to get to it. On the flight home from Philadelphia, desperate for and unable to sleep, my mind continued to spin on all that I saw and heard and learned over the weekend. I could not shake this one thing John King said, this thing that for me works well as a true call to action: “To the extent that we have failed Brown v. Board, we have failed our country.” It’s time we recognize teacher diversity as something non-negotiable for schools.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."