Rick Hess Misses The Need For Grow Your Own Teachers Programs

Jul 9, 2024 2:45:32 PM


Rick Hess Misses The Need For Grow Your Own Teachers Programs

“This seems like the apotheosis of putting the needs of ‘the system’ over those of the kid.”

That’s the central point Rick Hess made in his recent response to an “Ask Rick” reader who probed him on his experience with “grow your own” teacher recruitment and development programs.

Rick has long been known for his openness to discussing differing viewpoints. So, Rick, I’ll take the opportunity to engage with you on this one.

Where Rick sees a problematic leveraging of the school's “special relationship with students,” I see a radically different dynamic. Our divergence in perception is informed by history and experience–both of which couldn't be more different.

As a Black boy growing up in Philadelphia, teaching was not a profession I was ever invited into. While society was fully prepared to push Black boys like me toward all manner of sports, music, and other forms of entertainment for the (white) masses, a career in education was not offered.  

In fact, for the vast majority of Black children, not only were we not being enticed to teach, but the hostility toward our personhood from schools and institutions was palpable across our lives.  Schools weren’t safe and welcoming for too many of us. That’s why, even today, Black men comprise just 2% of the teaching population in our schools. Most students will spend 13 years of public school without a single Black teacher, despite the overwhelming evidence of the positive impact of Black teachers on not just Black students but all students.

That didn’t change until after college, when I, along with other young Black men, was invited by Dr. Martin Ryder to pursue a career in teaching. This invitation transformed my life and career and the trajectories of the students I have taught.  

Such an invitation extended to the young people my organization works with now within our Teaching Pathways, a high-school CTE-connected Teaching Academy, is not misleading or underhanded. Indeed, it is an extension of the great Black educator tradition of involving our young people in the powerful work of teaching Black children.  

“We lift as we climb,” Mary Church Terrell’s well-known motto, is a central precept of that Black educator tradition. Grow-your-own programs dedicated to inviting historically underrepresented young people into the field are manifestations of that ideal. Effective educators who understand that we must train and develop our replacements are a model that extends our effectiveness far into the future.

When I work with high school or college students considering a career in teaching (or even open to exploring one), I simply tell them why I got into the work: I wanted to impact my community and future generations positively. Inviting students into teaching is no different than providing career-connected learning in other fields. Sharing my sense of purpose and the fulfillment and impact of effective teaching is nothing more than sharing my truth.

Rick seems to be arguing that grow-your-own programs represent a conflict of interest. But would we say the same about a pediatrician encouraging an interested young patient to pursue a medical career? Would we argue that publicly funded leadership development programs underhandedly funnel young people toward future careers as public servants?

No. Of course, we wouldn’t. But that’s not the main point.

The underlying reality illuminated by Rick’s objections to school systems trying to get better-prepared teachers through grow-your-own programs is that, once again, when those who are not proximate to communities comment on them, they often do so at great risk of misperception and misunderstanding. A fundamental misread of the historical roots of much of this work informs Rick’s apprehension and distrust.

Teaching has always been a part of Black culture. The ideas central to the “lifting while we climb” approach demonstrated in culturally responsive grow-your-own programs are nothing new to us, but they may be new to Rick and folks who are unfamiliar with that cultural tradition.

Rick and I agree that the design of these programs and how districts implement them matter. Grow-your-own pathways must be premised on culturally relevant pedagogies that reflect and value the identities of the young people enrolling in them. They also need to provide high-quality preparation and ongoing development support for early career teachers and deliver on the promises they make regarding financial support and job placements.  

The need to cultivate a teaching force that reflects our diversity and champions social justice is clear and urgent.  Well-designed and executed grow-your-own pathways can do that. Contrary to Rick’s argument, there’s nothing manipulative or misleading about offering young people an on-ramp to teaching. Black teachers understand that we must teach them well and let them lead the way.

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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