Tomorrow’s Test

America Needs More Black Men Leading Its Classrooms

They represent just 2 percent of teachers. A handful of programs are trying to fix that.

Ron Porter Jr. talks with students at Westinghouse High School.

Dani McClain

PITTSBURGH— Ron Porter Jr. had a rude awakening during his senior year at Millersville University in central Pennsylvania more than two decades ago. A student-athlete at the central Pennsylvania college, Porter thought that a bachelor’s degree in history was all he needed to become a teacher. He hadn’t consulted an academic adviser and didn’t realize he also needed to take other steps, such as completing classes in education theory and fulfilling student-teaching requirements. It wasn’t until a friend and classmate mentioned his own student-teaching plans that Porter realized his mistake.

By that point, it was too late. Porter, now 46, is hard on himself looking back. “Dummy, dummy, dummy,” he said of himself as a younger man. “No excuse. I could have done it 20 years ago.”

He can also do it now—Porter recently received a second chance to pursue his dream profession. He happened to be looking for a way into education at exactly the moment Point Park University, in his native Pittsburgh, was looking for people like him: black men who want to teach.

America’s teachers are disproportionally female (75 percent) and white (83 percent), according to recent federal data. Black men make up less than 2 percent of teachers, though minorities now make up a majority of students in public schools.

And while they are woefully underrepresented, black men can serve as crucial male role models: They have unique insight into the discrimination that can be experienced by students of color; and, when it comes to understanding the life and educational challenges experienced by many students, black male teachers can offer empathy that is often based on firsthand experience. Data also suggests that students of color are often unfairly penalized when graded by white teachers—but teachers of color don’t appear to exhibit this same grading bias against white children. In fact, the tendency of white teachers to grade black and Latino students more harshly could explain up to 22 percent of the achievement gap between white students and students of color, according to a 2008 study. The problem is obvious, but the solution so far has been lacking.

Increasing teacher diversity is one way to approach this problem. But black men are also especially difficult to recruit and retain in the classroom. Some might be repelled by their own negative experiences at school or believe the job means a string of bad-tempered kids and paltry paychecks. Others lack the financial means and support to make it through college and the teacher training process. Or, like Porter, they are enthusiastic about teaching but need a better understanding of how the certification process works, and mentors who can keep them on track.

In 2012, Point Park teamed up with three other western Pennsylvania colleges—Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), California University of Pennsylvania, and the Community College of Allegheny County—to increase the number of black males pursuing teacher certification. That year, black men made up just 1 percent of the 1700 students enrolled in education programs at the four colleges; they hoped to increase that to 5 percent within three years. With the help of a grant from the Heinz Foundation, they began hosting recruitment events for high school and community college students, training current teachers and counselors in how to promote teaching as an option to their students, and building a website and social media presence intended to change perceptions of the profession.

The Pennsylvania effort was one of a spate of similar new initiatives across the country aimed at addressing this national problem, including a South Carolina program that involves two dozen campuses statewide, a New Orleans program based at Southern University, and a districtwide effort in New York City.

The Pennsylvania schools’ program could be particularly helpful because the mismatch in Pittsburgh’s public schools is wide. While just over half of the 26,000 students are black and one-third are white, according to data from 2014, 85 percent of the district’s teachers were white and 14 percent were black. Closing this gap was one goal of Bob Millward, the IUP education professor who led the Pennsylvania initiative, and his colleagues.

They had a second goal as well: Helping prepare black men, who are disproportionately unemployed and underemployed, for stable, middle and upper-middle income jobs in education. While most new teachers start at a salary of around $40,000 in Pittsburgh’s public schools, it’s a clear path to a steady income. The average salary for a teacher in the district is just over $73,000, and teachers with a dozen years of experience in Allegheny County’s school districts earn between $90,000 and $100,000 a year, according to Millward’s research. Yet, one of the most enduring myths the project’s leaders encountered during their three years hosting recruitment events for prospective undergraduates was the belief that there’s no money in teaching.

This misperception may be one of several reasons why the participating colleges failed to reach their 5 percent enrollment goal. For now, four years later, the four colleges have boosted enrollment of black males in their undergraduate education programs only slightly, to between 1 and 2 percent, said Millward. The Heinz money has dried up, but efforts at IUP continue. Representatives from the school’s education department still meet with community college, high school and middle school students to get them thinking about careers in teaching. At Point Park, a 30-percent tuition discount for classroom paraprofessionals, including teacher’s aides and day care providers, was launched during the initiative and continues to this day. The funding helps aides attend the Pittsburgh college part-time to pursue an undergraduate education degree.

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Porter in his football uniform, 1987.

Porter was never under the illusion that teaching meant low pay. Growing up, his parents reinforced the idea that being an educator was an esteemed profession. He remembers the pride he felt at the ceremony where his mother was awarded a Ph.D. in psychology in the mid-1970s. She went on to serve for many years as a dean at the University of Pittsburgh. Porter’s parents, who both had postsecondary degrees, always told him that upon finishing high school, he had two options: college or the military. His successes on the football field at Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School helped him secure a scholarship to Millersville. Sports were the carrot that enticed him to study; he needed decent grades to stay eligible to play, he said. Porter recalls being a C student in college but always taking a particular interest in his history classes, the subject he had hoped to teach.

And yet, even with his mess-up, Porter found a way into education. Upon graduating, he took a job teaching U.S. history to eighth-grade students at a private school outside Atlanta. He only earned $9 or $10 an hour—far less than the salary and benefits he could have secured as a certified teacher, but stuck with it for a year-and-a-half. From there, his career path took him in a different direction: A friend helped him get a job at IBM. He later went on to work at various nonprofit organizations back in his hometown, at one point helping to connect young men in a fatherhood program with jobs. He also counseled freshmen at the University of Pittsburgh. Then, in 2010, Porter got an opportunity to work as a long-term substitute teacher back at his high school alma mater in Pittsburgh. Eager for the chance to be a role model at an institution that shaped his own life, he took the job.

Westinghouse High School is situated in the city’s Homewood neighborhood, a black enclave on Pittsburgh’s east side. Head shots of esteemed graduates fill one wall just inside the school’s entrance—almost all of them black people who went on to gain recognition in media, politics, and business in the city and nationwide, including jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and radio talk show host Bev Smith. Porter attended the school in the mid-’80s, when crack cocaine wreaked havoc on many of the community’s families. But he remembers those days with pride, citing the football talent that was concentrated on the team.

Despite the noteworthy graduates, the school’s reputation has declined in recent years. In 2014, none of the school’s students received scores of proficient or advanced on the state’s standardized science test. Students at the school are overwhelmingly low-income, with 84 percent eligible to receive a free or reduced lunch. During the 2009–2010 school year, students had no access to advanced math classes or gifted and talented classes, according to data compiled by ProPublica.

The school has had a revolving door of principals and educational experiments, including a short-lived attempt in 2011 to separate it into two single-sex programs that co-existed in the same building. That same year, the district reorganized Westinghouse from a high school to a combined high- and middle-school program serving students in the sixth through 12th grades. In Porter’s view, the changes haven’t helped much. “It’s not a school that parents are lining up to send their kids to, to say the least,” he said.

But Porter and others like him could help change that. While a newcomer might be wary of the troubling stats and make unfair assumptions about the students, his roots in Homewood give Porter a greater understanding of what these students are going through.  

When he started in 2010, his job was to work alternately as a behavior specialist—“just trying to keep peace in the building”—as well as a long-term sub teaching history and anthropology to high school students, and reading to 7th graders. (The history teacher on staff was on leave after getting injured while breaking up a fight.) He fit in with students quickly—he already knew many of them when he arrived, some from his days coaching them in Little League. He also felt familiar enough with the environment to trust his instincts, understanding when to veer from instruction to address something catastrophic that had happened in the community, such as when a student was shot or killed.

Planning lessons, writing tests, and lecturing reminded Porter that teaching had been his calling years ago. Because he didn’t have formal training, he instead employed methods he remembered from his own favorite teachers, asking students to sit quietly, listen, and write down what he wrote on the board. It worked for his students, he said, and he recalls the thrill of seeing his words connect with them. “You’ve got their whole attention in the palm of your hand and you just know it,” he said. He got the same rush helping students understand why Hitler invaded Poland as he did helping coach the school’s football team and girls’ softball team.

The neighborhood’s youth are close to his heart. He grew up with many of their parents and today lives just five minutes from Homewood, which he said gives him an edge when it comes to discipline and classroom management. “I can go to some kids, ‘Don’t make me call your dad, man. Because your dad was over at my house last night.’ ”

Now a junior, Maya Alford had Porter as a history teacher her freshman year. She recalls his passion for African American history and his commitment to giving back to the community he came from. While Alford’s relationship with her own father is strong, she said Porter had a particularly strong impact on students who lacked close ties with their dads. “You come to school looking for something you don’t have at home,” she said.

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If Porter’s story shows the influence that black men can have in the classroom, it also illustrates the circuitous path many take to get there.

Harold Grant was a manager in retail before his frustration with that line of work helped him remember how much he’d loved his high school history classes. He began to think about becoming a teacher. But at the time, Grant was in his early 30s and a single father to two young sons, ages 6 and 2. To support his family, he had to work nights at a General Motors plant while working toward his teaching credentials. An eventual stipend from a fellowship program for African American students at the University of Pittsburgh was enormously helpful. Grant went on to teach in Pittsburgh schools for 15 years and is now the parliamentarian and staff representative for Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

About a year ago, Porter recommitted to earning his full teaching credentials and enrolled in Point Park’s master of education program, where he participated in the Pennsylvania consortium’s recruitment efforts. He still carries a black backpack that advertises the program (“Ever Consider Teaching?”). Porter wants a classroom of his own, not another long-term substitute gig. Last summer, he took an introductory course focused on classroom management and lesson planning. “Taking the class really opened my eyes to what being a good teacher is all about,” he said. “Once you identify how different students learn, you’re able to adjust how you teach.”

Porter with his mother Barbara Porter and his aunt, Gloria Lamar, on his graduation day at Millersville University.

But Porter’s own education has been on hold this academic year since he learned that his mother, with whom he is close, is ill. “My head wasn’t into it,” he said of his decision to take a break. His experience shows one of the major challenges of getting more midcareer black men through the certification process (one of the Pennsylvania program’s goals): Being older than the average student often means having other responsibilities that vie for your attention.

Despite the latest detour, Porter believes he will someday finish the degree and get a full-time teaching job. The pull of attaining a new kind of security remains strong. “Having my master’s is very, very important to me,” he said. “With certification, you’re like a made man.”

For now, he is continuing his nontraditional teacher training. He no longer works at Westinghouse, and since January has been employed by an alternative school that serves the nearby Penn Hills School District for high school students who have been expelled or temporarily removed from the schools where they’re enrolled. Sometimes, they have weapons or drug violations. Sometimes they’re involved in the court system. At the Penn Hills school, he’s more of a counselor than a teacher: Porter’s job is to deescalate situations that threaten to become violent and calm flaring tempers.

On a recent visit there, it was hard for a newcomer to imagine things getting rowdy. It felt more like a small suite of offices than a high school: There’s one open area where the dozen or so students in attendance work independently or one-on-one with teachers, surrounded by smaller classrooms. The students—a mix of teenage boys and girls, all black on the day I visited—finished lunches of tacos, salad, and juice in the large room while Porter met with the school’s counselor and principal to discuss various issues that had come up.

After lunch, Porter gathered the students for a group session before they headed back into their academic classes, as he does every day. Each student checks in with a high and a low from their lives. Then they have a free-ranging discussion about something that’s in the news or some aspect of black history. Sometimes they watch music videos that Porter feels can communicate something meaningful. One student put on Tupac’s 1991 hit “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” about the perils of teenage parenting, and sang along to the lyrics. Porter followed that up with the video to Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” set in Brazil. One student stared at the screen in awe: “There’s black people in Brazil?” she asked. “Yep, they look just like you and me,” Porter replied.

The students are quick to explain how Porter’s presence enriches their experience and differs from the connection they feel to their teachers, most of whom are white. “Most of them can’t relate to what we’ve been through,” one student remarked. “When Mr. Porter’s around, I feel more comfortable,” another said.

The cultural disconnect between students and staff may be one major reason that black students are three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, according to federal data released in 2014. Porter recalled that on his first day at the alternative school, he watched a black student being written up by a white teacher for calling that teacher bro. In Porter’s view, there was nothing offensive or disrespectful about the student’s use of the word, but the teacher didn’t know that, he said. What may seem a small misunderstanding can have a significant effect on the student’s education. An accumulation of write-ups can lead to a suspension or removal to another school—like the alternative one where Porter now works.

Porter’s ability to see alternate solutions to problems in education—the wisdom of engaging an agitated student in a conversation rather than immediately writing him up, for example—is precisely what will make him an important addition to the teaching corps, said the school’s principal, Ron Graham. Graham is also a black man who also took a nontraditional path into education: He finished his undergraduate degree at 40 and went on to get two master’s degrees, all while juggling night school and supporting his young family.

Echoing the encouragement offered by the Pennsylvania program, Graham advises Porter, who has an 8-year-old son, and other middle-age black men considering the education field, to take it slow and avoid becoming so overwhelmed by various responsibilities that they drop out all together. The end goal is too important, he says.

“It’s not just their interaction with the kids, it’s their impact on the system,” Graham said. “There are also teachable moments for the [nonblack] teachers. The presence of an African American male or any African-American at the table changes the conversation.”

As long as they have a seat.

Tomorrow’s Test is a weeklong series looking at the challenges, tensions, and opportunities as the United States shifts to a majority-minority student population in its public schools—a milestone the country as a whole will reach within the next generation. It is a collaboration with the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School, a nonprofit education reporting fellowship.

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