In the Classroom, Black Male Teachers are the Superheroes. We Need More of Them.
By Francis Pina
I wanted to be a superhero so badly when I was five that I would grab my red bath towel, tuck it into the back of my shirt collar, and run around the apartment with my arms outstretched. Superheroes were on the clothes I wore and in the cartoons I watched.
I have since exchanged my red bath towel for business casual and have shifted my admiration from superheroes to super teachers. It’s because of super teachers that I chose to become a teacher myself. I believe that teachers of color, especially Black male teachers like myself, are wearing superhero capes. We are superheroes because we serve as a role model of possibilities for Black boys, present a counter narrative of negative representations of Black males in media, and continually navigate the complex educational and societal systems that often splinter our identities.
Reflecting on my love of superheroes has made me think about whom kids might idolize as real-life superheroes. When I was about eight years old, I began to idolize athletes. I would save money to buy a favorite athlete’s jersey and I tried to emulate them. I have witnessed that same look of admiration on my students’ faces as see their peers in their favorite athletes’ jerseys. I have wondered how I can get my students to view teachers in the same way. Imagine if my students believed that they can become and choose to be teachers. As Martellus Bennett puts it, “a jersey isn’t the only cape a black boy can wear.” I want my students of color to realize that teachers are the real superheroes and that they too can wear the same capes.
Overwhelmingly, the successful Black men I saw growing up were either athletes or hip-hop artists. Because of this, I used to think it was easier to become a professional athlete than a lawyer. If my students are to see it to believe it, then teachers of color, especially Black male teachers, need to be intentionally more visible.
One way to make teachers of color more visible is to ensure that their numbers don’t decrease and, in fact, increase. Teachers of color currently make up nearly 20 percent of all public school teachers, but that percentage is dismal when you look at Black men like myself. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2018 that only two out of every 20 elementary and middle school teachers are Black, and out of all public school teachers, just two percent are Black men. It is rare for a student of color to be taught by multiple Black teachers. While the teaching force overall has become more diverse, my generation of millennials, one of the most diverse generational groups in the workforce, has entered the teaching profession at a lower rate than previous generations. The overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in our schools has surpassed the number of white students five years ago, and continues to grow. The recruitment and retention of teachers of color is important and we cannot rely on changing population demographics to automatically shift the make-up of our teaching force over time. We need to proactively do so.
One way to help recruitment is to form districtwide outreach committees for teachers of color. For example, in Massachusetts where I live and teach, such committees could connect with organizations like Boston Public Schools ALANA Educators, programs like City Year, and professional groups like Profound Gentlemen who are already working towards recruiting and retaining teachers of color and facilitate collaboration between them and the district. Through this, teacher of colors across districts and state can meet each other, and potentially serve as peer supports and mentors. This could lower the attrition rates that stem from teachers of color feeling isolated and not supported in the profession.
Another way to make teachers of color more visible is for local districts to publicly celebrate the work of teachers of color within their district. Local districts could do this by establishing a teachers of color appreciation day or week and encourage schools to share highlights, achievements, and successes of their teachers of color. Teachers of color could further amplify the work by highlighting it in their classrooms to inspire students to become teacher superheroes in their own right.
Students and teachers of color benefit from connecting with other teachers of color. That benefit is the superhero cape I and other teachers of color wear. I hope that his cape serves as a reminder to teachers of color, district, and state leaders “that with great power, comes great responsibility” to be visible and recruit others into the profession.
Francis Pina is a 9th and 10th grade mathematics teacher at Charlestown High School in the Boston Public Schools district and a Teach Plus Commonwealth Senior Fellow.