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black male teachers
Audience members look on during a meeting where Education Secretary Arne Duncan, filmmaker Spike Lee, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and others called for more black men to become teachers, at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore

The National Interest: Once a month, this column is tackling broader questions about what the country should do about gaps in achievement and opportunity, especially for boys of color, in a partnership with The Root.

I recently attended an all-black, all-male meeting focused on increasing the number of black men in teaching. It’s an accomplishment and a novelty to see a group of black men working together toward a common cause as critical as this one. We did some good work, but I realized that when it comes to improving education and teaching, there should never be a meeting, panel, think tank or photo op that doesn’t prominently involve black women.

Football huddles around education agendas increase the likelihood men will sidestep inequities created by sexism, which make the teaching profession unattractive and unsustainable for everyone. Schools and students need more male teachers of color, but we certainly don’t need schools to be more paternalistic.

A case for more male teachers of color is easy to make. According to 2012 National Center for Education Statistics data, black men represent approximately 2 percent of all teachers, which is the same percentage as Latino men. It’s not just students of color who would benefit from more exposure to more black and Latino men heading the classroom. White children need to see black men teachers as much as black kids do, if we are ever to change the conscious and unconscious bias that afflicts policy makers.

The call to increase males in the teaching profession has been sounded across the country. Individual programs under President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative like the New York City Young Men’s Initiative set goals of significantly increasing the percentage of male teachers of color in teaching. Several other programs assemble and train specifically men as the solution to the gender gap in teaching.  Call Me Mister, The Honore Center for Undergraduate Achievement, The Fellowship – Black Male Educators Convening (BMEC) and the Boston Teacher Residency Male Educator of Color Networking Group, and Brothers Empowered to Teach (BE2T) are all quality programs that we should want to see grow.

“If black men enter the teaching profession en masse, they will work in conditions shaped by sexism.”

But from preschool to college, if a black person teaches you, it’s very likely to be a woman. All but 2 percent of all black preschool teachers are women, according to an analysis 2014 Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) data. Women represent 80 percent among all black elementary teachers. In high schools, men are more representative of the entire black population at 48 percent. However, in the college ranks women represent 57 percent of all black instructors.

If black men enter the teaching profession en masse, they will work in conditions shaped by sexism. Jobs dominated by women pay lower wages. Women teachers aren’t promoted like men. According to AASA, The School Superintendents Association, only 14 percent of all superintendents are women – a far cry from the 72 percent of all K-12 educators in this country who are women.

Black men may see these stark inequities as opportunities – but  advantages of white male privilege don’t carry over because of racism. “The experiences of black male teachers, in many ways, mirror the experiences of black female teachers,” says Travis Bristol, assistant professor of education at Boston University. “Often when I have shared findings from my previous study on the socio-emotional challenges black men face in the teaching profession – black women in the audience have reminded me, ‘We face similar challenges.’”

Related: Black and brown boys don’t need to learn “grit,” they need schools to stop being racist

Consequently, the best way for men of color to enter and stay in the teaching profession is to look more like feminist allies than members of the same fraternity.

Corralling men into schools doesn’t address the conditions that lead to the deeper problem of attrition. Contrary to popular belief, more people of color are becoming teachers. According to the Albert Shanker Institute’s report, “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education,” the overall share of minority teachers increased from 1987 to 2012, but the attrition rate for teachers of color negated those gains. Women and to a lesser extent men are entering the field, but they’re not staying. “The strongest complaints of minority teachers relate to a lack of collective voice in educational decisions and a lack of professional autonomy in the classroom,” the report states.

Children need to see black men working alongside women in non-discriminatory environments, and joining together is the only way to improve the profession for everyone. The aforementioned programs need not feed old conventions about masculinity. That does a disservice to both women and men of color.

We do need black men to practice working, learning and celebrating together. Many black male gatherings provide the space for healing to end the self-inflicted violence that literally kills us daily. But most of these assemblies don’t repudiate the problem black men have with masculinity, which is core to our problems.

When it comes to women dominated education, the economic and social advancement of black men can and should come out of an agenda focused on women’s equity. We can end the black civil rights tradition of men being the storefront to women’s operational excellence by being pictured in anti-sexist movements to advance women teachers. This isn’t a photo op. Attracting and retaining more black male teachers actually requires improving the conditions of black women in schools.

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