Local Alabama Program Shows Promise in Putting More Black, Male Teachers in Classrooms
This article originally appeared on AL.com and is reprinted with permission.
When Wesley Lindsey first met his fourth-grade student, the boy, who is also Black, was reading on a preschool level.
Other teachers had referred the student to special education numerous times and wouldn’t even let him walk in the hallway alone due to behavioral problems.
From fall to spring, Lindsey managed to coach the young boy to nearly a third-grade level. The behavior problems stopped, and the student started mimicking Lindsey in the classroom, telling other students to quiet down and do their work.
“He never had someone who was willing to sit down with him and talk him through his problems,” Lindsey said. “Being a Black man, knowing what it feels like to be a Black boy, and just be mad sometimes — to another person it would seem like he was a threat. But to me… I know how to handle it. I know what this looks like.”
Lindsey is a recent graduate of the Males of Alabama Education (MALE) Initiative, a new program out of Alabama A&M University that trains and supports Black male teachers. The program, now in its third year, is one of a handful of new initiatives at the local, college and advocacy level aimed at recruiting and retaining male educators of color in Alabama.
Nationwide, Black men make up about 2% of the teaching workforce. In Alabama, that percentage is slightly higher — around 4.4%, according to state data. But it’s far from representative of the student population and is a rate that’s traditionally much lower in elementary classes like Lindsey’s, which are more likely to be led by white women.
“That just shows more growth when you have someone who looks like you and you feel more comfortable around them,” said Lindsey, who was the only male teacher and just one of four Black teachers at the Huntsville elementary school. “He saw that I cared.”
Placing more Black men in the classrooms can have real effects on children, and can vastly improve outcomes for Black male students in particular. But because Black male teachers are such a rarity in the classroom, they’re sometimes also asked to take on disciplinary roles, which can add to the everyday stressors that already come with being underrepresented in the workforce.
“The first year is always challenging because you’re having to learn the system, but also being the only person that looked like me, I felt like I had to do more, or I had something to prove,” Lindsey said.
Recruiting and retaining more teachers like Lindsey can not only help bridge achievement gaps, but they can also be a key lever in solving teacher shortages, experts and advocates say.
But as Alabama contends with critical shortages of teachers in a variety of regions and subject areas, the state department of education has no specific plans to recruit and retain Black male teachers — or any teachers of color — who can fill those gaps. That means the onus is on new teachers, trainers and advocates to see efforts through.
“The teacher diversity issue is always a factor, no matter what,” said Pamela Fossett of the Alabama Education Association. “And while we are addressing the teacher shortage issue, we can definitely address the diversity issue at the same time.”
Lindsey and Fossett say on-the-ground, local initiatives to recruit and retain more Black male teachers are already seeing some success, but they hope they can continue to grow.
An ‘untapped’ resource
Alabama has the largest number of historically Black colleges and universities in the nation, which have a long tradition of preparing teachers to educate Black children.
They make up more than a quarter of the state’s four-year institutions and enroll 40% of all Black undergraduates — a stat that state leaders say is key to improving teacher diversity, but is still “untapped, in some respects,” according to Barbara Cooper, who led the state department’s early diversity initiatives.
“Some places, we’re doing much better at recruitment of teachers, but HBCUs are certainly an area where we can continue to grow,” Cooper said. “As we continue to expand these programs, it’s critical for us to continue to try to build upon these higher ed partnerships so that we have the teachers for the pipeline that will be needed for the additional funding that benefits us for more classrooms.”
The state doesn’t track where candidates at minority-serving programs go on to teach, but some institutions, like Alabama A&M University, are known for growing local talent and placing large numbers of Black teachers in Alabama schools.
“A lot of it is driven by passion—a passion for education, a passion for what it means to be a teacher, what it means to be an educator,” Samantha Strachan, an associate professor of science education, said of the students she trains. “They love the children who they’re going to be serving… Some of them see it as an opportunity to give back, especially to marginalized communities.”
A&M also has taken steps, in concert with local districts, partner programs and state leaders, to earn a spot as the third-leading producer of Black male teachers in Alabama, according to a 2019 report from university leaders.
The vast majority of the college’s recent teaching graduates are working in Alabama schools, with over half teaching in Huntsville City, A&M’s internal data showed. In 2019, 25-30% of graduates at the college were Black men.
That year, after talks with state legislators and partner colleges, the university received part of a $500,000 grant from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education to launch the MALE Initiative, a program aimed at filling a critical gap in the state’s teaching workforce.
“We’re very grateful for that, because it allows us to focus on a specific group of students who may need extra support to get through their programs,” Strachan, who co-directs the program, said of the funding, which supports up to seven new Black male candidates per year.
Strachan said the goal of the initiative was to not only train and recruit, but to support, mentor and provide financial assistance to Black male teaching candidates. So far, 19 men, including Lindsey, have enrolled in the program, and eight of them are currently teaching in classrooms, Strachan said.
‘He showed us that it was possible’
Teaching came naturally for Lindsey, who had coached each of his three younger brothers to spell their names as a child. But as one of few men in his teaching program, and one of fewer men in his school, he began to doubt what he thought was a true calling.
“At one point, I didn’t know if teaching was right for me,” said Lindsey, who joined the program as a master’s student at A&M in 2020, after teaching for a year on an emergency certification. “But after being in the MALE program and seeing other men doing exactly what I’m doing, it gave me that motivation to keep moving forward with it.”
Strachan, who has researched the trajectories of Black male science teachers, said some of the most common barriers for Black men entering the teaching field are certification requirements and fees, as well as notoriously low pay.
“If you’re trying to start a family and you’re in your late 20s, early 30s, a teacher’s salary can barely support yourself,” Lindsey said.
The MALE program grants up to $10,000 in tuition assistance, and the program offers to pay certification and testing fees—which, for Lindsey’s elementary teaching requirements, cost upwards of $2,500. The funding allowed him to go back to teaching at his Huntsville school fully certified and with minimal debt.
The program also provides ongoing mentorship after graduation. Members attend monthly sessions with Black male teachers and school leaders, who Lindsey credits for helping him through a difficult year.
Sometimes the sessions were simple—like how to make classrooms more inviting. Other times, members had in-depth discussions about instruction and leadership.
“Everything we thought that males didn’t do, he did it and showed us that it was possible,” Lindsey said of a former mentor. “He wasn’t just a disciplinary person. He knew how to do a lesson plan. He knew about the political side of education and showed us that this was for everyone; this was not just for women.”
‘They can’t be who they can’t see’
Advocates and experts say mentoring is critical for Black male teachers’ success and can have positive impacts on retention, classroom instruction and student outcomes.
“If we do recruit them, sometimes it’s hard to keep them,” said Fossett, who runs a program at the AEA to help retain Black male educators. “They become discouraged. If the coaching and mentoring is not there, if they don’t feel like they’re developing and growing… they may leave.”
There isn’t much data available on the success of AEA’s program, which provides coaching for teachers, but Fossett said she was “shocked” to see such high growth in its second year. The cohort started last year with about 10 or 11 people. This year, she said, the AEA had over 50 members join the program.
The AEA also partnered with the Alabama State Department of Education to launch Future Teachers of Alabama, a grow-your-own program that encourages school-aged children to become teachers. That model has shown some success in parts of the state, Fossett said, but she stressed that having Black male teachers as role models is key.
“They can’t be who they can’t see,” Fossett said. “And so that’s why when we recognize these talents and specific skills that some of our students exhibit, we have to be very intentional about saying, ‘Hey, you might be a good teacher one day. Would you like to be a teacher? Would you like to be an educator?’”
Efforts to train and support Black male teachers are increasing across the state. Just outside of Birmingham, Midfield City Schools just launched a grow your own program aimed at Black male students. At Athens State University, which also received funding from ACHE, graduates of the Men of Kennis program are beginning their placements in Alabama schools. And in Tuscaloosa, a local HBCU is partnering with a community college to launch a similar Black male teaching initiative.
While it’s difficult to tell how many are leaving the profession, state data shows some growth in the percentage of new Black male teachers, which made up nearly 5% of new teachers this year.
Now as a PhD candidate at Auburn University, Lindsey is studying ways to get more Black male teachers in Alabama classrooms. He’s hopeful that local initiatives could pave the way for more wide scale reform — whether that’s through pay bumps, limiting certification barriers, or tuition assistance — to boost those numbers.
“This really needs to be bigger than just one university in the state of Alabama,” he said.