Just 2 percent of the 3 million teachers in the U.S. are black males. In Philadelphia, educator Sharif El-Mekki is leading an effort to encourage more black men to pursue careers in education.
While acknowledging it is not the only solution, he says seeing more black men in teaching roles could help close the achievement gap for black boys, who on average struggle more in school, with far lower graduation rates than white boys or girls.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with El-Mekki (@selmekki), principal at Mastery Charter School – Shoemaker in West Philadelphia and a member of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice.
On “The Fellowship”
“The Fellowship is a group of black male educators who committed to social justice, so our full name is “The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice.” We look at schools and classrooms as ground zero to righting many of the social ills that plague our communities and nation, and what we would like to do is just increase the diversity within our district. Right now, about 4.5 percent of Philadelphia’s classroom are black men and a significant number of students go through school without ever experiencing a highly effective black male educator and we want to change that. And so we use our partners in the school district and charter world to come up with basically three pillars in how we were gonna try to address this.
“So we have three have ways that we’re doing this. One, we’re continuing the Black Male Educators Convenings, because what we found in our research, even when cities and districts increase their black men as educators, they are not able to retain them. So we wanted to have convenings that offer professional development and make sure that folks felt supported. The second pillar, we want to advocate, so we wanna talk to universities, policy makers, current and aspiring educators, and then the third piece was really to influence the pipeline. We know we cannot do it from a traditional lens. Last year, only 28 black men graduated from Pennsylvania’s teacher colleges, so that’s 28 for an entire state. And none of the 17 founders of The Fellowship considered teaching when we were in middle and high school.”
On becoming a teacher
“I knew I wanted to deal with social justice issues, but I thought it was through the court rooms. And, it wasn’t until after I had graduated college that someone said, ‘You know what? I really see you as a teacher, have you ever considered that?’ And then I went back to school to do that.”
On being shot during a pick-up football game
“Bartram High School, southwest Philadelphia, right off of Woodland Avenue. Football game on a Sunday, we had been playing there for quite some time. Some other guys showed up and wanted to play, and one was upset that I tackled him too hard, and what I did not realize was that he had friends in the stands with guns. And they came over and handed him a gun, and he told him to shoot me, and if he didn’t they would. So, fortunately I survived that, which also influenced my road to the classroom because I ended up working at the Youth Study Center which is a center for children waiting to be adjudicated.”
On his upbringing
“Both of my parents were — they met in the Black Panther Party, and I guess our upbringing was always around figuring out how to address social justice issues through empowering communities. Even going through that traumatic experience [of getting shot], I was still able to understand that this young man likely has gone through some trauma of his own. I even met his mother and his child, and I understood like, wow, here’s another young man and this may continue a cycle where the father is going to jail and the son is growing up fatherless, and how can I get involved and not just say, ‘Hey, I was a victim,’ and that’s that? How do I make sure that my heart doesn’t become hardened because of that? And I thought the Youth Study Center was the best route at that time.”
On specific problems that black male teachers face
“I think one of them is just being the lone person in your school. So, if you’re in a school with 50 teachers and you’re the sole black male, you know, your voice may not be heard. And your frustrations, you may have to elevate your voice and then you’re seen like, well, that’s the angry black guy, so disregard that. So there are a lot of different things. We also found from our research in a surveys, black men felt pigeonholed, that because they had really good relationships with some students who may struggle, that people looked as the person to mentor for the building, and so they become this father figure for many students, some who they didn’t teach directly, but they found themselves feeling that pull and divide of how to navigate that space.”
On a response to those who say black male educators cannot solve all of the problems facing students
“There are very few times when there is a silver bullet that solves everything. What’s within our focus of control is to help, for me, as a black male educator, to support other current and aspiring black male educators. I can’t wait until poverty is resolved, I can’t wait until housing is addressed. What I can do is make sure that the students in front of me — black, white or hispanic, whatever — have windows and a mirror. Right now, black children in particular, they only see windows. They see it in society, they see it in media, they see everyone else’s lives projected. And so we have to be careful of what novels we put in front of them, that there’s a balance. We have to make sure that what teachers we’ve put in front of them, there’s a balance.
“On the flip side, white students, in particular, they don’t know have windows, they have mirrors. They’re constantly reinforced, their positive racial identity is constantly reinforced in different ways, and what they don’t see is a diversity in those that manage situations or those that are in charge and have authority, they don’t see a diversity in that. And so that windows and mirror philosophy is very important to our work, and we believe firmly that having a more diverse teaching force is a huge part of addressing some of the issues that we have in our schools and classrooms.”