Leveling the Playing Field: Transforming Students of Color into Inspiring Teachers

There are many factors that contribute to the U.S. teacher shortage and specifically the dearth of teachers of color: views of the profession, lack of positive role models, salary, college affordability, and rigor of teacher preparation programs, to name a few. But to attribute the current K-12 teacher crisis to one or even all of these circumstances would be to underplay the historical inequities that helped precipitate the current situation for communities of color.

[Above: Graduating MiSTERs at Clemson University proudly wear their Call Me MiSTER blazers and hold their framed pledges, which symbolize their completion of the Call Me MiSTER program, at the initiative’s Annual Leadership Institute.]

“Anything that is a problem in the majority community is exacerbated within the minority community,” says Mikkaka Overstreet, PhD, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville (UofL). “We’re having trouble [recruiting and] retaining teachers period, but it’s an open wound when you’re [talking] about minority teachers.”

Mikkaka Overstreet (left) with other MTRP staff at the project’s anniversary celebration.

Blake West, a senior policy analyst in the National Education Association’s (NEA) Center for Great Public Schools, traces the origins of this dilemma to our country’s segregated past.

“Even though Brown v. Board of Education was an important landmark [case] recognizing the inherent inequality of segregated schools, the response of school districts across the country was to integrate student populations but fire all of their black teachers,” explains West. “For immigrant families from Mexico and Central America, systemic racism made routes to higher education a challenge regardless of how young people came to the U.S., and the years it takes to obtain citizenship means many potentially gifted Hispanic teachers [have been] shut out.”

As society began “closing routes” to the teaching profession for people of color, West says generations of students lost access to role models — a trend that he believes has, for the most part, continued. “While the percentage of minority teachers joining the profession has remained relatively flat or [is only] slightly increasing, the diversity of our schools — and nation — has continued to grow,” he points out.

UofL students Christopher Mudd and Kennedy Bibb attend the MTRP 30th Anniversary Celebration.

This rise in diversity, West says, makes increasing the number of teachers of color a national imperative. “Without teachers from underrepresented populations in all schools, we face a generation of Caucasian students who do not understand the professional equality of all races, nor do they come to appreciate the value of diverse cultures,” West says. “Our ability to compete internationally is increasingly challenged by a lack of understanding developed by students through interaction with diverse peers and teachers.”

But the benefits of having teachers of all races and ethnicities in the classroom extend beyond increased cultural competence. A recent study published by Johns Hopkins University shows that low-income African American students who had at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades were 39 percent more likely to complete high school and 29 percent more likely to consider going to college. Additionally, other studies have shown that teachers of color have higher expectations for underrepresented students.

While some claim that African Americans and Hispanics, for example, aren’t interested in becoming teachers, others argue that this view is only a perpetuation of many Americans’ perspective of the profession. “A lot of people who aren’t teachers or educators have no idea what goes into preparing [for the profession], so [we need to] create a more professionalized view of teachers,” says Tiffany Cain, a senior policy analyst in NEA’s Teacher Quality division. “They’re certified just like a doctor is certified; not just anybody can be a teacher, [just like] not anybody can be a doctor.”

At UofL, Overstreet says many of her students indicate that people have often tried to dissuade them from teaching, saying things like “it doesn’t pay enough or that people won’t respect them.”

“I think too often teaching is not presented as a career path to students of color,” says Overstreet. “And until someone, particularly someone who looks like them and is a teacher — like myself — says to them, ‘Have you thought about this? This is an option,’ [they don’t] consider it.”

Some colleges and universities, however, are working to address this and other barriers to the teaching profession for students of color.

Avenues to the Profession
Established in 1985 in response to the need for more teachers of color in Kentucky, the Minority Teacher Recruitment Project (MTRP) is a partnership among UofL’s College of Education and Human Development, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), and the schools that make up the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative (OVEC). The cornerstone of the program, of which Overstreet is the director, is the Minority Teacher Scholarship, made possible through a grant from the Kentucky Department of Education. The award is available to full-time minority students — undergraduate or graduate — who are residents of Kentucky and are pursuing initial teacher certification at UofL.

Students apply to MTRP once admitted to the university, and those eligible receive $2,500 per semester, for a max total of $20,000. While Overstreet says that everyone who has applied and qualified for the award has received it thus far — typically 50 to 60 people each year — students can still be part of the program even if they don’t qualify for the scholarship. Also, students can join MTRP at any point during their time at UofL.

Overstreet believes the funds serve a critical role in making teaching a more accessible career for people of color. “When you’re in a marginalized or disenfranchised community, you haven’t necessarily had the same opportunities and the same access, and there are barriers in your way that are not there for other people,” she says. “We want to remove as many of those as possible, and financial barriers are sometimes the most difficult to get past no matter your determination, grit, or resilience.”

MTRP participants are also provided additional resources and support: one-on-one advising from Overstreet so that she can check on their progress, as well as mentorship from members of UofL’s Black Graduate Student Association. While mentors are currently available only by request, Overstreet and her graduate assistant are working to expand this part of the program by bringing MTRP alumni who are currently teaching back to serve in mentoring roles.

Furthermore, students take part in regular academic, professional-development, fellowship, and networking events throughout the semester, including workshops focused on building résumés and preparing for Praxis, the teaching certification test.

According to Cain, passing Praxis is one of the looming hurdles minorities face to becoming teachers, not to mention covering the cost of the test. At UofL, MTRP provides its students with the resources they need to get certified. “We offer workshops, as well as materials that [students] can check out, like the [best] Praxis prep books, so they can be more prepared for the test,” Overstreet says. “We’re also working on and will soon be offering Praxis scholarships to help pay for those tests, because they’re rather expensive.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of MTRP is its recruitment efforts, which target individuals in three areas: high school students, community college students, and professionals seeking a career change. Overstreet conducts extensive outreach, which includes both attending and hosting events such as information sessions, career fairs, and on-campus admissions events; mailings to high school counselors and community organizations; professional development for working adults interested in teaching; and partnerships with local community colleges.

MTRP also receives referrals from UofL’s admissions office regarding incoming students of color who may be interested in teaching, says Overstreet. “Our office of admissions offers the Porter Scholarship, which is for black students, and a scholarship for Hispanic students as well. So … they identify students of color who may be interested in education,” she says. “Sometimes they’ve declared it as a major, and sometimes they’re undecided, but their interest letter or their essay [mentions] wanting to help people, work with children, or give back to the community — something that indicates this person might be interested in education — so we reach out to them.”

There may be something to this approach, says Cain. “Studies have shown that non-education majors performed better on Praxis exams than education majors,” she says. “So that’s another strategy to consider — reaching out to non-education majors; maybe they’re majoring in math and hadn’t thought about becoming a math teacher.”

Tackling recruitment from three angles, Overstreet says, allows MTRP to address some of the issues regarding access to the profession for individuals from underrepresented and underserved communities.

“We need to consider all of our avenues. Clearly the traditional college student is one option, but it’s not the only one,” she says. “Some of our best teachers are people who started out in business or another field. Also, the typical four-year college route is not always accessible to everyone, so particularly if we’re thinking about disenfranchised populations, then that may not have been the path that worked for them. We need to go where they are.”

MTRP, however, is limited to recruiting in Kentucky, and students who receive financial assistance through the program must teach in K-12 schools in the state, which Overstreet says usually isn’t a problem as JCPS “does a good job of snagging up as many” MTRP graduates as possible.

“They have to teach for the same amount of time that they get the money,” Overstreet says, adding that for teachers serving in critical needs areas, this requirement is less. “If there’s a desperate need for high school math teachers, and you teach high school math, then your requirement is cut in half. So, if you received the scholarship for four years, you’d only be required to teach [in the state] for two.”

Dispositional Development
Nationwide, black male teachers make up just 2 percent of the K-12 teaching workforce. In the state of South Carolina, however, their numbers have been known to be even lower; in the early 2000s, only 1 percent of teachers in the state were African American men. One program, however, has been successful in its effort to recruit and retain more male teachers of color.

Clemson University MiSTERs outside of Tillman Hall

Recognizing the problem and with a goal to fix it, Clemson University launched the Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Initiative in 2000, in collaboration with the historically black institutions Claflin University, Benedict College, and Morris College; three years later, South Carolina State University joined the initiative. Since 2003, the Call Me MiSTER network has expanded to include 21 colleges and universities, including two-year colleges, in South Carolina. Institutions in a few other states have also adopted the program over the years.

Participating institutions in South Carolina recruit in cohorts of three to five “MiSTERs” every year, with 15 to 17 enrolled at each college at any given time. The application process includes several essay questions and an interview; however, the only requirements are that students were born in South Carolina and have been admitted to a participating college. Other than these criteria, Executive Director of Call Me MiSTER Roy Jones, PhD, says they follow no specific formula for selecting students.

Roy Jones

“What we found is that there’s no perfect profile,” he says. “No two MiSTERs are the same, but we have to find what the quality, the virtue, and the attributes are in MiSTERs that we can bring out. … That’s what we look for.— we look for potential — because you can be an effective college student, but I may not want to see you in a classroom.”

Once in the program, students take all the same classes together and reside together in living-learning communities, providing one another much-needed peer support; they also receive some tuition assistance to help cover the cost of books and additional fees. However, the core of Call Me MiSTER is the co-curricular experience, which the men participate in on top of their major requirements. Once each week, they meet individually with program coordinators — MiSTERs at Clemson meet with coordinator Winston Holton — to gauge their progress and collectively to engage in group discussion on topics “focused on the dispositional development of the cohort and each individual,” says Jones.

Call Me MiSTER graduate Corey Terry works with children in the classroom.

This aspect of the program, he says, helps students develop relationships and address aspects of their background or family lives that may hinder their ability to become thoughtful teachers and role models for children. “Some of them, because of their circumstances, come with a lot of pent-up hostility toward authority and attitudes toward peer relationships that can [cause] conflict with adults generally and authority specifically,” Jones says. “[As a teacher,] you have to facilitate growth and development, so you have to learn how to tell your story in a way that is developmental and empowering, not damaging.”

By creating opportunities for MiSTERs to open up to their peers and receive feedback, the program helps students deal with issues, build confidence, and learn to trust others — all critical characteristics for teachers to have, especially for those who may end up being the only black man employed at a school.

Also key to helping participants develop relationships and trust are mentors. Jones says Call Me MiSTER uses a trilateral mentoring model in which everyone involved in the program — himself, coordinators, alumni, and MiSTERs themselves — all serve as mentors to participants. “You can’t really know and learn how to mentor effectively,” he says, “unless you’ve been a mentee yourself and know what it takes. We don’t take students coming in as juniors and seniors unless they’ve been transferred from one of our two-year colleges and we’ve already been working with them, because we know that peer influence is so incredibly powerful.”

Call Me MiSTER’s approach helps build and sustain a support network for the men even after they’ve graduated and entered the K-12 teaching workforce. In fact, Jones says that alumni stay connected and often share best practices with one another — confirming Jones’ oft-repeated phrase, “Once a MiSTER, always a MiSTER.”

Alumni, along with other working teachers, come to Clemson in the summer to supervise students in the program’s seven-week summer experience. Through this opportunity, MiSTERs complete paid internships in which they work with students in kindergarten through high school at several local sites, including community centers and faith-based institutions, among others. “They’re learning to hone their skills, develop lesson plans, engage in enrichment activities, and provide instruction,” says Jones, adding that the MiSTERs serve nearly 800 students each summer.

Also during the summer experience, the MiSTERs participate in seminars, workshops, and a four-day Summer Leadership Institute. In addition, Call Me MiSTER hosts an annual summit, which rotates among the 21 participating institutions and attracts approximately 200 MiSTERs and program staff each year.

Because Call Me MiSTER was founded to specifically address the lack of black male teachers working in South Carolina, one requirement of the program is that graduates must teach at public K-12 schools in the state. “The condition of receiving support from us is they have to give back a year for every year they received support from Call Me MiSTER,” says Jones. “What’s beautiful about that is that since 2004, 95 percent [of them] are still in the classroom and still in the state.”

Call Me MiSTER’s success graduating and channeling highly qualified black male teachers into public K-12 schools — the program also boasts 203 fully certified graduates and a 100 percent employment rate — has resulted in more and more students clamoring to enter the program. “We’ve gotten to the point where we can’t even accept all the students who are interested and qualified … because we just don’t have the resources,” says Jones. “In South Carolina, it’s cool to be a MiSTER.”

Additionally, for years, Jones has been helping other colleges across the country establish similar programs. “It was a concept and a mission that caught fire in South Carolina because everyone recognized the problem,” he says. “… We were just trying to address the shortage of black male educators in South Carolina. We didn’t know it was going to wind up serving as a model for the nation.”

A Work in Progress
While initiatives like MTRP and Call Me MiSTER do well to address many of the factors that keep people of color from entering teaching — college affordability, mentoring, personal issues, and support networks — there is still much work to do to attract individuals from these communities across the country to the profession, not to mention retain them.

“I think, for the most part, teachers express leaving the profession because of pay, not having a voice, and working conditions,” says Cain at the NEA. “It’s hard to tell promising students to become teachers — that they’d be excellent teachers — but that they’re not going to make a lot of money.”

The NEA is working to address this issue by advocating and lobbying for increased salaries and improved working conditions for all teachers, as well as preparing future educators for Praxis and awarding grants to states to aid in these efforts. In addition to ensuring college affordability and academic support, West recommends that states implement loan-forgiveness programs and that colleges expand their use of residencies and even offer free degree programs in teacher preparation.

Removing roadblocks to teaching for all people will go a long way to improving access to the profession for many individuals of color who, because of their life circumstances, are often stymied by lower expectations, Overstreet says.

“One of the mistakes that people sometimes make is thinking that [by] trying to level the playing field and be more inclusive, we are lowering our standards, and that’s certainly not the case,” she says. “Just because someone has to take a different path or needs different supports doesn’t mean we are lowering our expectations [in terms of] the quality of teachers we want in the field. … Some of the best teachers are in communities that are not privy to the same [advantages] as other communities, and we’re not holding that against them. We’re giving them what they need to get through. We just have to get them in the door.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.