Area Schools Face Shortage of Black Male Teachers

Will Thomas, a social studies teacher at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High in Prince George's County, where in 2008 only 12 percent of teachers were black men.
Will Thomas, a social studies teacher at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High in Prince George's County, where in 2008 only 12 percent of teachers were black men. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tynita Johnson had attended predominantly black schools in Prince George's County for 10 years when she walked into Will Thomas's AP government class last August and found something she had never seen.

"I was kind of shocked," said Tynita, 15, of Upper Marlboro. "I have never had a black male teacher before, except for P.E."

Tynita's experience is remarkably common. Only 2 percent of the nation's 4.8 million teachers are black men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, Thomas, a social studies teacher at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School, never had a black teacher himself.

"I love teaching, and I feel like I am needed," said Thomas, 33, of Bowie. "We need black male teachers in our classrooms because that is the closest connection we are able to make to children. It is critical for all students to see black men in the classrooms involved in trying to make sure they learn and enjoy being in school."

The shortage of black male teachers compounds the difficulties that many African American boys face in school. About half of black male students do not complete high school in four years, statistics show. Black males also tend to score lower on standardized tests, take fewer Advanced Placement courses and are suspended and expelled at higher rates than other groups, officials said.

Educators said black male teachers expose students to black men as authority figures, help minority students feel that they belong, motivate black students to achieve, demonstrate positive male-female relationships to black girls and provide African American youths with role models and mentors.

"There are two axes in most American classrooms: a female axis and an Anglo cultural axis," said Janice Hale, director of the Institute for the Study of the African American Child at Detroit's Wayne State University. White girls fare best because they belong to both groups. White boys and black girls fit into one. "But black boys can't get under the female or the cultural banner," she said.

Howard University Provost Alvin Thornton, a former Prince George's school board member who conceived a black male achievement program for students 15 years ago, said students who don't see teachers who resemble themselves "grow up to think they don't contribute to knowledge."

"I think it is necessary that students be exposed to a knowledge transfer system that is diverse in terms of those who are transferring the knowledge," he said. "And that diversity should look much like the community."

Black males also leave teaching at a higher rate than their colleagues, according to a 2003 study by the National Education Association, a national teacher's union. Half of black males leave the profession before retirement, compared with 30 percent of all teachers.

"There was a time when teaching was almost the only profession that African Americans could get into that would give them recognition, respect and a little salary," said Reginald Weaver, a former NEA president. "As other areas of employment have opened up, many minorities entered into those."

Thomas is bucking the trend. He was hired to teach middle school social studies in Prince George's 10 years ago and moved to high school two years ago. He was chosen Prince George's Teacher of the Year and Maryland's 2009 Teacher of the Year, and he has no intention of taking more lucrative job offers that have come his way since.

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