Inside Bakari Ali Haynes's classroom at John F. Kennedy High in Silver Spring, several African American boys were waving their hands for a chance to answer a question. This was all the more remarkable because Haynes teaches English -- a subject not generally regarded as cool among such students.
"How many of you thought of a childhood memory and wrote about it?" Haynes asked his ninth-grade class Friday. That's when the hands shot up. Only a week into the school year, Haynes had established his classroom as a place where black boys felt comfortable participating and had no need to slouch and hide in seats on the back row.
How had he done it?
"I relate to them," said Haynes, 28, who is one of the rarest kinds of public school teachers: an African American man. "I can pull out examples from my own experience to let them know that I was once in their shoes. That helps us bond. Then they are ready to enjoy my class. Getting them to enjoy learning, that is the key."
That is why new emphasis is being placed on hiring more African American male teachers -- in urban areas as well as in suburbs with high concentrations of black students. About 40 percent of the 1,558 students at Kennedy High are black. The school has eight African American male teachers.
Noting that 42 percent of the nation's public schools have no minority teachers at all, Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said recently: "The sad reality is that a child may go through all of his school life without a teacher who looks as I do." Weaver is African American.
Chukwunyere E. Okezie, director of a teacher training program for black men at Marygrove College in Detroit, is also concerned. "In a society where many women are single parents and positive male presence is lacking in the lives of some urban youth, the lack of male teachers as role models is even more profound," he wrote last year in Black Issues in Higher Education.
Of course, hiring more black men as teachers won't help unless they know their subject and how to teach it. But as Haynes has demonstrated in his six years as a teacher, establishing a bond with black male students allows for more creative teaching.
"When I was attending Trinity College, going to graduate school three nights a week, I'd explain to them the homework I did the previous night, and I'd bring in my transcripts," Haynes recalled. "I'd say, 'This is what I earned -- two A's. I'm teaching you, and I'm still learning. Now, if I can do that, maybe you can give me a little more. Pull that C up to a B. When they see that I'm going through the same thing that they are going through, a rapport begins to build."
Obviously, Haynes did not go into teaching for the money. The pay is far too low for what is required. But being a part of a student's success -- priceless.
"Initially, I wanted to write for a newspaper," Haynes said. "I always enjoyed reading newspapers, which I learned to do from mimicking my father. My mother and father always preached education from Day One, and I just loved reading."
Haynes was an undergraduate at Southern University in Baton Rouge. (He enrolled in a philosophy class taught by his grandfather.) "When I graduated, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so my mother suggested that I try substitute teaching for a while," he said.
From the day he entered a classroom, he felt at home. "I could see that it meant something to the black male students to have me as their teacher," Haynes said. "They needed to have a positive black man in their lives on a daily basis. They had heard people preach about the importance of education. But they wanted to see a black man who didn't just talk the talk. They wanted to see someone who walked the walk -- and who was also willing to walk with them."
Such insight and instinct for teaching do not come just from being black and male. But a black male teacher who possesses them is worth his weight in gold.