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The Journey of Black Male Teachers in Early Childhood Classrooms
by Dr. Robert Simmons
I am from a place where being home before the streetlights came on meant just that. I am from a neighborhood in Detroit where drugs and guns were more common than schoolbooks. I am from a place where milkcrate basketball hoops brought out the best in us. I am from a place where my past informed my “why” for becoming a Black male teacher. I am a Black male teacher from here to eternity.
On a fall day in 1997, I walked into a classroom with 25 eight-year-old Black children from the same neighborhood in Detroit. Their eyes looked like mine. Their hair looked like mine. Their potential looked like mine. Yet — I was the first Black male teacher they had ever experienced. Those moments as a Black male teacher in the classroom will live forever in my heart. My students taught me lessons about resilience and faith and demonstrated daily that their brilliance was more than a standardized test performance — something deeply rooted in their eternal optimism, despite tremendous odds. Now, years later as a Black male educator, I have found myself talking to a new generation of Black male teachers who teach in early childhood classrooms. I find myself talking as a friend, mentor, advisor, and researcher. Certainly, some things have changed since 1997, however, the profound need for Black male educators has not.
Recent discussions in K-12 and teacher preparation programs have highlighted the need for more Black male educators in schools and communities. It is worth acknowledging this new sense of urgency because Black male teachers only represent two percent of teachers in the classroom. Furthermore, we must acknowledge both the and the community-based efforts — the Griot Program in Detroit, Call Me Mister in South Carolina, and Men Equipped to Nurture in Maryland, to name a few — that addressed this issue without the funding now pumped into various non-profits founded by white leaders. While critics of these initiatives have suggested that the rationale for this renewed interest is a desire to improve the academic outcomes of Black children and enhancing students’ sense of belonging — there is little attention given to the sense of belonging Black male teachers in early childhood classrooms may or may not be experiencing.
Isolation and alienation is part of our journey
The desks were small. The classrooms had lots of colors. The walls were plastered with all sorts of images of Black leaders and images of Africa. At the front of these early childhood classrooms were Black male teachers. Their deep voices echoed through the hallways when the doors opened. Their compassion for students — all Black children — was palpable from wiping tears from students’ eyes that struggled with the content, and hugging those who needed a warm embrace. That is how we as Black male teachers ensured a sense of belonging for students. During my visits to their classrooms and conversations over coffee, I realized these Black men did their work in the spirit of bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress, 1994) — their work was about the freedom and liberation of Black children.
One of the most poignant conversations I had with the three Black men was about their struggle to find a sense of belonging, not only in their schools but in the school district. They were the only Black male teachers in the building and felt isolated in faculty and staff meetings. Yet — their white colleagues decided that they were the caretakers of all the “naughty” Black male students and, when needed, sent these kids to their classrooms, even in the middle of their instructional time. Understandably, these men were outraged, not just at the assertion that they could support and mentor Black students, but with the ways in which their white colleagues framed the behaviors of Black students. With tears in his eyes, Malcolm, the youngest educator in the group, told me, “Black kids need to be loved. They don’t need to be fixed; they need to be loved. They need hugs at moments of crisis, and to be celebrated at moments of triumph.” Malcolm’s sentiments were echoed among the other Black men along with their frustrations about being the lone Black teacher in their buildings. Despite the overwhelming sense of isolation, they were resolute in their desire to remain in the classroom. Healing the bruises is tough, as one suggested, but they were assured knowing that their ancestors went through far worse.
Embracing the next generation of Black male early childhood teachers
Numerous efforts have emerged over the last five years to support the growth and development of Black men teaching early childhood education. While some are hyperlocal and delivering significant impact, others have taken their work nationally. One of the most significant efforts has been “a grow your own” strategy in Washington DC. The Leading Men Fellowship, hosted by The Literacy Lab, began as a partnership with the Office of Innovation and Research and the Empowering Males of Color Initiative (District of Columbia Public Schools) in 2017. With funding from the Kellogg Foundation, the Leading Men Fellowship was designed to address a significant gap in the DC Public Schools considering only 20 male teachers of color worked in early childhood classrooms in 2017. Utilizing deep training in early literacy instruction, Leading Men Fellows provide one-on-one instruction and serve as role models for many children who have never interacted with a Black man in an instructional capacity within a school setting. The program targets high school graduates one to two years out of high school but also embraces the opportunity for college graduates. With significant success including increasing the number of black male teachers in early childhood, the Leading Men Fellowship has expanded beyond DC and now operates in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Richmond, and Kansas City. Both Torren Cooper (kindergarten teacher in DC) and Kenvin Lacayo (dean of students in DC) are shining examples of targeted efforts to recruit and retain Black male educators in early childhood classrooms.
Other programs of note are:
My memory of wanting to become a teacher goes back to my senior in high school. My passion for teaching can be traced to my deep belief in equity and justice. Despite my passion and deep-seeded desire to be a teacher, Black male teachers in early childhood classrooms remain absent in the lives of far too many youths. This invisibility of Black teachers reminds me of the numbing thoughts Ralph Ellison wrote in the classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who hunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. (p. 3)
With thoughts of the Invisible Man on my mind, as well as my lived experience as a Black early childhood teacher, I challenge everyone to embrace their “visibility.” How can we support Black male teachers? How can we recruit Black male teachers? How can we help retain Black male teachers? Let’s start by acknowledging the experiences of those who are currently standing in front of children in early childhood classrooms.
Robert Simmons, EdD began his career as a middle school STEM teacher in the Detroit Public Schools where he was nominated twice as the Walt Disney National Teacher of the Year. Robert currently serves as a senior professorial lecturer of education policy and leadership in the School of Education at American University. Dr. Simmons’ research seeks to illuminate the lived realities of historically marginalized communities across multiple K-12 contexts. Dr. Simmons’ work has been published in several national refereed journals including Urban Education; Journal of African American Males in Urban Education; and the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy.