MEMPHIS, Tenn. – After losing his father at 14, James Gordon found comfort and father figures in school.
Gordon, now an elementary school principal in Memphis, can easily rattle off the names of the African-American male educators he had in middle and high school, many of whom he still speaks with.
As a student, he said, they were his beacons of light.
“I want to provide students with the experience that mirrored mine,” Gordon said.
The influence is apparent at Hickory Ridge Elementary School, where Gordon is the principal. The school has one of the highest percentages of African-American male educators in the district. Of the 45 educators and support staff at Hickory Ridge, 12 are men, and eight are men of color, Gordon said.
Representation matters. Nationally, about 2% of educators are African-American males, but research shows that for black boys in particular, having a teacher of the same race is correlated with a greater likelihood of college attendance. Same-race teachers also have positive effects on student behavior.
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In his first year as superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Joris Ray has focused on codifying what Gordon has achieved at Hickory Ridge so more students across the district see themselves in their educators.
Ray tasked Michael Lowe with becoming the first director of the newly created equity office, which oversees initiatives to recruit, retain and support new teachers of color.
Lowe is quick to commend Gordon, who has a track record of leading schools to “reward” status, the state’s top distinction.
“There’s a recipe, and that’s not happenstance,” Lowe said.
And Gordon is just as quick to say that success is all about discipline and connection with students.
The principal is determined to create the same tight-knit community feel he had in a rural hometown, even within the large Memphis district. Parents have his personal cellphone number. On Fridays, he exchanges suit and tie with more laid-back outfits and tennis shoes, something visible that kids like and can connect to.
That example is one of many ways for students to realize their principal is a down-to-earth person and not just a disciplinarian, Lowe said of Gordon.
“You have a principal with a pair of Air Jordans,” Lowe said. “(That) starts a conversation with a child.”
A platform for teacher support
One of the initiatives, Secure the Chalk, is a monthly meetup focused on teacher diversity and support.
Superintendent Ray describes the meeting as a place of refuge, where educators can experience fellowship with one another.
At January’s installment, the room in the district’s Teacher Learning Academy was decorated brightly in the theme of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” The hour-and-a-half session began with carnival food – including nachos and funnel cakes – and ended with “golden ticket” awards.
In between, Lowe led the discussion as attendees talked about how to listen to and connect with students who face many adverse experiences outside of the classroom. Sometimes the lights aren’t on at home and the food has spoiled, so homework doesn’t get done. Sometimes a car is their home. Sometimes students just need to cry about losing one of their heroes.
The consensus at the workshop is that the job at hand is difficult; encouraging, though, is that connection is what will spur academic achievement, and not the other way around.
“We found that these particular male teachers need someone to pour back into them,” Ray said in an earlier interview with The Commercial Appeal. The monthly meetups are about “creating a support system, not just for male teachers but for all teachers.”
Through Secure the Chalk, the district is focused on both recruitment and retention of men of color. The expectation for these teachers to act as “surrogate fathers and chief disciplinarians” can dissuade them from staying in the profession, according to information from the district.
“We want every black male teacher to be looked at as a resource in all school settings, and not just a relief responder for students who may be difficult to teach,” Jerica Phillips, deputy chief of communications for Shelby County Schools, wrote via email. “That means improving the working conditions in underserved schools.”
What the research says
Same-race teacher representation sparks positive outcomes that last into adulthood, potentially shrinking the academic achievement gaps for these students, Johns Hopkins University and American University researchers found.
The findings of these studies have great implications, particularly for districts like Shelby County that predominantly educate students of color.
According to state data for 2018-19, just over half of Shelby County teachers and three-quarters of administrators are African-American. Around 1% of teachers and less than 1% of administrators are Hispanic or Latino, state data shows.
In survey results shared at a Jan. 14 committee meeting, only 28% of parents agreed that the district has “done a good job” recruiting African-American and Latino male teachers, and 20% believe that the district is making appropriate investments in the African-American male initiative.
Oftentimes people want to “snap their fingers” and hire more teachers of color, but that can’t be done overnight, said Seth Gershenson, an author of the study and an associate professor in the school of public affairs at American University.
“I think most of the people involved in things like this recognize that it’s hard work, but also that it’s worthwhile,” Gershenson said.
Teachers surveyed, though, seem more attuned to the district’s new efforts than parents: 42% believe the district is making appropriate investments in the initiative, and about two-thirds of teachers think the district has done a good job recruiting teachers of color, per the survey results.
Even the most thoughtful initiatives won’t solve the problem overnight, but, if executed well, it can have an impact in the short run, Gershenson said.
Putting the research to practice
David Jamison followed a nontraditional path to arrive at his fifth-grade classroom at Hickory Ridge.
“When I became a male teacher, I wanted to be the … male teacher I never had growing up,” he said.
Over the last three years, he’s assisted principal Gordon in recruiting more men of color to teaching.
At the workshop, Gordon stressed that he would “take will over skill any day.” It’s easy to teach the pedagogy to teachers who want to connect, but attitude can’t be taught, he said.
Male teachers of color at Hickory Ridge previously held managerial positions at places like Macy’s, Sherwin-Williams and AutoZone, Gordon said. Men who never considered teaching are now working up a sweat as they walk back and forth between the board and the posters on the wall. Even on a Friday morning, students in class are attentive and eagerly waving their hands in the air to discuss homonyms.
Each day, Jamison’s students greet him with a special handshake and gather in a circle to sing “Hall of Fame,” adding in affirmations. None of the students are shy about singing, and they chant out the school’s mascot, the Rockets. Teachers created an acronym for the mascot, where each letter stands for another affirmation: C is for “collegiate,” K is for “knowledgeable,” S for “striving for success.”
“I have kids who say this every day,” Jamison said, “because I want them to realize that … there is power in your words.”
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