(photo: New York City Department of Education)
Every day I stand in front of my classroom, filled with black and brown faces, intensely aware that I am the only black man teaching at my school -- but I am hardly the only one that feels this. New York City schools employ fewer black male teachers today than 20 years ago; only 3.7 percent of city teachers share my identity.
Without male teachers of color, thousands of students walk into schools each day where not even a single adult shares an important part of their identity. These students are missing out on the academic and social advantages of having a teacher of color. Studies show that having a race and gender match between student and teacher can help reverse some of the challenges black male students face -- higher dropout and suspension rates coupled with lower likelihood to attend and graduate from college.
It is time for New York to seriously invest in recruiting excellent black male educators.
A diverse teacher workforce had a deep impact on my life. Growing up in Miami, I was one of the few black boys in my schools. Fortunately, black educators like Mr. Carter, my mentor and role model, pushed me to become the learner and educator I am today. He validated my voice and writing in English, a subject where black boys did not typically fit in. Mr. Carter, and other black male teachers, put me on the trajectory to become a lifelong educator.
When I started educating a new generation of black students, I carried on the mission Mr. Carter sowed in me. In my classroom, I am not just a teacher or track coach. To my black students, I am a father, uncle, big brother, and mentor.
Brandon, a student from years ago, told me that having a role model that looked and spoke like him teaching history put him on the path to studying history and returning home as an educator himself. Last week, Brandon used his spring break to shadow and co-teach in my Manhattan classroom. He is joining the next generation of black educators making a difference in the lives of black kids.
When our students open their eyes to new subjects, career paths, and futures they never saw for themselves, that’s where we see our true impact. Our connection goes beyond academics and test results; I see myself 20 years ago and they see me as someone they can become.
The debate over how schools support black boys facing systemic racism and poverty often overlooks the impact teachers of color, and specifically black male teachers, can have. Our school system marginalizes our black students by suspending them at higher rates and limits their access to higher level courses.
Having a same-race teacher improves academic and social performance, shown by The Institute for Labor Economics. It found that when a black male student from a low-income background has one black teacher in elementary school they are 39% less likely to drop out of school and more likely to attend college.
Additionally, there are lessons that only a black man can pass on to a black boy -- how to survive an encounter with the police, how to code switch, how to resolve disputes with your words -- which is why studies show black students are suspended less by black teachers. Having a black male teacher is one way to address these problems and ensure our black boys are on the path to graduation, college, and success beyond.
While teachers have offered pathways to end the chronic shortage of black male teachers, New York has not done enough. Recently, Educators for Excellence-New York, a teacher-led advocacy group, released recommendations aimed at increasing teacher diversity in New York by investing in preparation programs that excel at recruiting and training excellent teachers of color. Unfortunately, state leadership continually fails to sufficiently address this issue.
Governor Cuomo and the Legislature included money in this year’s state budget to recruit 250 teachers of color by 2024 -- in a state that produces nearly 10% of all new American teachers each year. This is a small, positive step. But in a system where 40% of our students are males of color, these proposals are insufficient.
Truth be told, it goes beyond funding. It’s time for political leaders to authentically implement inclusion and expand effective initiatives that will develop, support, and sustain a pipeline for black male educators into the classroom.
As Educators for Excellence-New York recommends, it is time for the state to identify and support teacher preparation programs that are successfully recruiting and training men of color to teach. These programs must include teacher residencies that provide extended in-classroom experience in the schools that need educators of color the most.
Additionally, it is time to for school districts to prioritize hiring and retention strategies that address the unique challenges facing men of color as they enter and grow in the profession. With a sustained approach, New York can become a leader in what it looks like to address teacher shortages and close the educator diversity gap.
Across New York, there are young men sitting in classrooms, just like I once was, whose lives could be changed by a role model at the front of their classroom that looks like them.
Ashley Toussaint is a public high school teacher in Manhattan and a member of Educators for Excellence-New York.