Imere Williams has known he wanted to be a teacher since he was 5 years old.
“I just love being in school,” he said. “I was a good student. I just loved being in an educational atmosphere.”
As Williams grew older, he said, he began to see education could also be a “weapon” against poverty and adversity. Now studying education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, he says he wants to give inner-city students the tools they need to succeed – and potentially to become educators themselves. “I want to see Black and brown students go to college,” he said. “I want to see more diversity in education.”
Williams is one of four Philadelphia high school graduates awarded the first fellowships from the Black Teacher Pipeline project, an initiative that aims to recruit and train the next generation of Black educators, giving them opportunities for practical experience and professional development as well as guidance and financial support.
The Center for Black Educator Development launched the project in partnership with the United Negro College Fund as “a way to develop leaders to be able to lead within schools and communities,” Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the center, said in an interview. The fellows commit to teaching in one of the project’s partner cities — currently Philadelphia, Camden, and Detroit, and possibly expanding to as many as 10 cities over the next decade — and receive financial and professional support along the way.
“We’re excited that the inaugural group is four Black men,” El-Mekki said. “We didn’t plan it that way.”
Research suggests Black teachers, especially Black male teachers, have a positive effect on students. Yet only a small percentage of public school teachers are Black men, and Black teachers tend to leave the profession at a higher rate than white teachers. Only about 7% of teachers nationwide are Black; Black men account for about 2% of teachers.
In Philly, about 24% of teachers are Black. Of those, 4% are men, according to the district.
“I think it’s important for students to have Black male teachers, because it allows them to see themselves,” said Folly Kouevi, a Howard University fellow in the Pipeline. “When I saw my Black teachers, it was more than just somebody doing a job to teach me,” he said. “It was like being with my uncle, my family.”
Those teachers, he said, motivated him to focus on school and get involved with activities. “It’s so crucial, because the presence alone does make a huge difference,” Kouevi said. “And that’s why I choose to be an educator.”
It’s especially important for elementary school students to have that experience, said Mimi Woldeyohannes, the center’s director for strategic partnerships. “We don’t see a lot of Black male educators in the early grades,” she told Chalkbeat.
For young boys in particular, “if they don’t see other males, they think, ‘That’s a women’s profession,’” said Shayna Terrell, the center’s director of pipeline programming. “If I don’t see anybody who looks like me in those positions, what are my thoughts of that position?”
That’s a stereotype across American society, and a big reason it’s important for Black men to teach younger children, Terrell said. “We need all children to have positive relationships with Black men in America,” she said.
“We need them in the classroom, teaching,” added Woldeyohannes.
Black men in schools tend to be in disciplinary roles — vice principal, for example — rather than inspiring students in classrooms, said Pipeline fellow Horace Ryans. “Nobody really loves the person disciplining them,” he said. “We see them as the bad guys.”
“One of the beautiful things as an educator you can do, you have the ability to shape minds and share knowledge — which really is a lost art,” said Ryans, a Morehouse College sociology major with a minor in social studies. “Teachers can become social justice advocates” by focusing on “creating good humans,” he said.
“Teaching is inherently a leadership position,” El-Mekki said. “Teaching in the Black community has always been a leadership role. It’s civic leadership.”
Fellow Bryce Thompson, a freshman at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, credits the Pipeline program with showing him he could teach others. As a high school student in Philadelphia, he taught Black-focused literature, history, and life skills to students in a summer program through the center. “It means a lot to me as a young person — I’m from West Philly — to be able to distribute knowledge,” he said. “They put me in a good position to teach others what I needed to be taught at their age.”
The COVID pandemic has put teachers nationwide under an enormous strain, with many saying they have considered leaving the profession. Most haven’t yet. But there may not be as many new teachers coming up as there used to be. The number of young people going to college has dropped, and “there’s an even smaller pool who decided they’re going to major in education,” Terrell said.
Financial barriers, policies like strict rules for grade point averages, and certification tests are all hurdles for many students, and to make things worse, “the profession isn’t even marketed to our demographic,” she said.
Terrell said she sees all this as an opportunity for the Pipeline Project to change the narrative and “let people know we need them now more than ever to join forces and teach.”
“I think our fellowship is a step in that direction,” she said.
“Right now is definitely the time we should be reimagining education,” Woldeyohannes said. With the teacher shortage and states moving to limit teaching about racism, “this is the time we need to ensure we have educators that are going to be representative of our constantly evolving generation,” she said. Those teachers can “create curriculums that have a better understanding of culturally responsive practices that will resonate with students regardless of background,” she added.
Black history “is always something we had to fight for,” said Terrell. “The center seeks to continue that mission.”
The students in the pipeline are optimistic. With the project bringing more Black men into the field, “we’re going to have radical change,” said Williams. “We’re really going to change the field of education rapidly. I’m just excited about what’s to come,” he said.