After clinging to the climbing ropes and losing to the stopwatch during a physical fitness test, I was devastated when my teacher told me I would “never amount to anything.” I was in second grade, significantly overweight, and crushed by my teacher’s words.
While experiences like this cause many young people, especially Black boys like me, to want nothing to do with school, I made up my mind on that day that I would become a teacher. I wanted to change a system that was not created to serve people who look like me; I wanted to provide much-needed healing and motivation to the next generation of children.
When I entered the classroom as a new teacher on an emergency certification in 2017, I was excited to make a difference. But I often felt pigeonholed into stereotypical roles — asked to serve as a disciplinarian for young Black boys or to teach more intro-level elective classes. Schools recognized neither my intellect nor my leadership potential.
My experience as a Black male educator is not unique. Students of color are 36% of Pennsylvania learners, but teachers of color make up only 6% of the state’s teacher workforce. Black men represent less than 2% of teachers. While many school systems say they want more Black male educators, especially as research confirms our positive effects on students, we remain some of the least respected personnel in American education.
It is well documented that we are seen as “disciplinarians first and teachers second.” We are often locked into teaching electives, introductory courses, and remedial classes. Meanwhile, colleagues view us as overseers of the school-to-prison pipeline — responsible for monitoring behavior and punitive discipline — rather than transformational teachers and leaders.
Over time, I have silenced the little boy in me inclined to believe the cruel words of his second grade teacher, and I have embraced my brilliance and power as an educator. I am proud to give my ninth grade English and public speaking students a quality and culturally responsive education. A 2017 study found that low-income Black students who have a Black teacher for at least one year in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider college.
But until we change our schools and systems, we will continue to face a shortage of Black male educators. We must focus on the recruitment, retention, and professional development of teachers of color.
We remain some of the least respected personnel in American education.
A bill with bipartisan support currently making its way through the statehouse could open pathways to teaching careers for underrepresented youth. Senate Bill 99 would fund educator preparation programs aimed at diversifying the teaching workforce, and it would remove barriers to certification that disproportionately impact teachers of color. Other measures, such as competitive salaries, more pathways into the profession, and teacher residency programs, are also needed to make teaching more attractive to a diverse talent pool.
At the school level, administrators need to be trained to respect Black male educators as intellectual and professional leaders and not view us as campus security there to keep Black and brown children in line. Schools need to embrace non-traditional, culturally responsive teaching methods; create spaces where teachers of color can feel safe and supported, and train other educators to foster school environments free from bias and microaggressions. We also need to encourage students of all races to enter the teaching profession, with special attention paid to Black boys, who are so often overlooked by the education system.
It is not a partisan issue; it’s a human rights issue. We need to ensure that educators reflect the students and communities they serve. We must also make sure that once in classrooms, those teachers can thrive.
A version of this piece appeared in the Pennsylvania Capital Star.
Durrell Burns teaches ninth grade English and public speaking at Harrisburg High School: John Harris Campus. He is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow.