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Spend the week with high school teacher and basketball coach Ed Bradley and you’ll likely hear someone ask him for help making a breakthrough with a challenging student.

“As a black male on campus, you fill a lot of roles,” he shared during a recent online meetup for male educators of color.

Black male teachers are often asked to mentor or motivate students, particularly male students of color, who their white colleagues may have trouble reaching. These same teachers are often called on to handle discipline issues.

Another participant at the meetup said such demands can also be opportunities. He went into teaching with the goal of building strong relationships with students of color. The pressure to deliver tough love to his colleagues’ students can be draining, but he said he doesn’t mind because he believes black kids need someone who looks like them in their corner.

Related: Black college presidents matter; we should lead from the top

Research suggests that black students thrive when they have black teachers. And yet, very often students of color don’t have much exposure to teachers who look like them. Black teachers account for 27 percent of the state’s teacher workforce, according to a Mississippi Today report, but black students represent almost half of the students attending the state’s public schools. The gap in teacher representation is wide.

The Mississippi Association of Educators, a teachers’ union, launched a weekly virtual meetup for male educators of color one year ago, with an eye toward making this gap smaller. Every Thursday educators with up to five years’ experience log in for a video chat to discuss strategies, vent and learn from each other. Bradley, who has 15 years of teaching experience, acts as a mentor. He shares his own experiences as a reference point and encourages the group to outline professional development goals. It’s the type of support that the union hopes will help teachers grow in the classroom while empowering them to pursue leadership roles.

Almost half of Mississippi’s public school students are black, but black teachers make up only 27 percent of the state’s teacher workforce.

Kaypounyers Maye, a former English teacher who now works for the union, knows the need for such a community. The stress factors that drive away black male educators, he said, go beyond the state’s low teacher pay.

“Research shows that teachers stay in the classroom when they feel supported,” Maye said. He advocates tackling the “systemic and cultural barriers” that can create roadblocks for teachers of color.

Related: Black boys need the guidance and mentorship of black male teachers

Davis Dixon, formerly with The Education Trust, was part of a team of researchers who dug deep into why black teachers leave the classroom. The research was published in the nonprofit’s 2019 report “If You Listen, We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How We can Disrupt the Turnover.” Dixon, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at Hampton University, said retention efforts like the one in Mississippi ultimately need buy-in from administrators too.

School leaders, he said, should question whether they’ve set up environments that allow teachers to link their values and beliefs to the classroom.

During last week’s online session, when one of the teachers said his class had seemed chattier than usual recently, Bradly took note. Classroom management, Bradley said later in an interview, is a universal challenge for new teachers. He planned to make it a focus of future sessions. But he also wants the group to feel comfortable talking to their principals about other supports they need.

If teachers of color don’t speak up, Bradley said, school leaders may not be aware that they so often feel pulled, voluntarily or not, to intervene when a student is acting out.

“There is some pressure there,” Bradley said. “I don’t feel like the world is going to end if I don’t step in, but I know there’s probably that one kid that’s not going to make it to the end of the day if I don’t.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about male educators of color was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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