This story is part of Hard Lessons, the NYCity News Service’s look at what city schools have learned from the pandemic.
Black students make up around a quarter of the city’s more than one million public-school pupils. However, Black instructors are disproportionately underrepresented among the faculty who teach them.
Only 19% of educators in New York City’s public schools are Black—and only 4% of the city’s educators are Black men.
The scarcity of Black men is glaring for a system in which Black male students are more likely to be chronically absent and are among those least likely to graduate from high school in four years.
To better understand this disparity, the NYCity News Service spoke with educators, students and activists of color to examine why the problem persists—and the ways it could be solved.
Why are there so few Black men in NYC education?
Experts say Black men often leave teaching because the pay does not match the amount of work and education required for the job.
Jose Vilson, executive director and co-founder of EduColor, an organization dedicated to social justice issues in education, said notoriously low salaries are a major deterrent. Public school teachers must complete the kind of professional certifications and higher education programs required of more lucrative careers. Yet they only receive a starting salary of $61,070 in New York.
“We have the similar rings that we have to jump through, and yet time and again, we’re not seeing salaries match that level of expertise and certification,” Vilson said.
Black male educators also leave the field when they bump up against cultural expectations about the markers of success.
Corey Carter, assistant director of the Sherman Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, works to increase the number of highly skilled Black male educators. He believes Black success often does not look like becoming a teacher; it’s not necessarily a profession held in high regard.
The challenges faced by Black students are another reason they may not want to return to the classroom as teachers.
“It’s like returning to the scene of a crime,” Carter said. “If you’ve been through school and you’ve been traumatized, abused, challenged or questioned, that’s not really an affirming space that you want to go back to.”
According to a poll by DonorsChoose, a nonprofit that supports public schools, Black teachers of all genders carry “additional responsibilities due to their race” and “spend more time mentoring and counseling students than teachers of any other demographic.”
Rather than teaching in the classroom, they are sometimes hired to work in administrative positions as deans or assistant principals. This means Black educators are often asked to act as disciplinarians.
“They are the folks who are going to take all the ‘bad kids’ and they’re going to ‘straighten them out,’” Vilson said. “That’s why you see so few [Black male teachers], because of how many Black men that really feel like their interest in working with children is about disciplining them. That’s not healthy or sustainable for anybody—much less for folks who are already disenfranchised in their own work.”
Why are more Black male teachers necessary in city schools?
To teach a diverse student body, faculty must also be diverse. Non-Black teachers, advocates say, are often lacking in cultural competence, an understanding of students who come from backgrounds different than their own.
This concept requires educators to develop personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, as well as an understanding of nuanced cultural signifiers such as African American Vernacular English. Ideally, these skills would lead to culturally responsive teaching and a lower likelihood of non-Black educators punishing or suspending students based on unconscious biases.
Muhamade Dukuray, a 26-year-old education major at the City University of New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College, never had a Black male teacher. Being suspended multiple times in middle school left him feeling that his non-Black teachers did not take the time to understand how he reacted to his world.
“I used to fight to prevent being bullied,” Dukuray said. “They used to suspend me straight home. After that, they saw that was of no effect. So there was in-house suspension.”
Reasons for suspension or expulsion often include cutting class, unexcused lateness, disruptive behavior and using obscene language. Though students of all races can be cited for these behaviors, Black male high school students in the city were suspended more than twice as often as their peers in 2019.
Suspensions and expulsions can help lead to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” advocates say, which disproportionately affects Black boys.
Marcus Carlos, who is now a middle school teacher, said he was suspended more than once as a city school student. The presence of more Black male educators would help decrease suspension and punishment rates for Black students, he said.
“If you put Black men in a position to help teach and lead these young Black boys,” he said, “it would help them out in situations where teachers that are not Black men can now understand the reasons why they do these things.”
What’s being done to fix this?
In recent years, many organizations have been created to increase representation in education. One of those initiatives, NYC Men Teach, recruits men of color to become educators.
Supported by CUNY, the city Department of Education and Teach for America, the program offers college students professional development and mentorship opportunities aimed at resolving racial disparities.
Carlos, a NYC Men Teach fellow, said the early career support helped him understand how to run a classroom. “The workshop system really helped me out as far as professionalism and in my development in moving up from a teacher’s assistant to a teacher,” he said.
Angel Bautista, another NYC Men Teach fellow, said the program provided him with crucial guidance when he transitioned from physical education to the classroom.
“When I first started my program in bilingual education, I was really lost in a sense,” he said. “They showed me how they were going to help me, what were the intentions, what were the goals. And everything was so clear. I think the goal setting was really important because they kept me on track.”
Bautista said the positive aspects of his job make teaching worthwhile.
“If you become a teacher, you don’t do it for the money,” he said. “It’s really like a passion that you have within you. But even if you’re skeptical about it, I feel like as a man of color, living in New York City, you have a lot of potential to teach and transform the lives of many, many kids, especially our boys.”