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Amid Teacher Shortage, Black Male Educators Point to Why There Aren’t More of Them

Marvin Burton, Jr. poses for a photo this year with his wife and three sons. Courtesy of Marvin Burton Jr.

This article originally appeared on ABC News.

Educator Marvin Burton Jr. is a self-described renaissance man.

“You have to be that type of teacher now,” Burton Jr. told ABC News, adding, “It’s never a dull moment. I don’t know of a teacher that’s not tired when they leave from just the daily work — the daily grind.”

The advanced, professionally-certified vocal music instructor has taught everything from special education to English language arts over the past three school years because he said a nationwide teacher shortage has forced him in different directions. Burton Jr. said he’s “totally exhausted” most evenings when leaving Drew-Freeman Middle School in Suitland, Maryland, driving to pick up his three sons in Temple Hills before commuting another half an hour home to Brandywine.

This is not unusual for pandemic-era teachers. Many have cited burnout and stress as primary issues amid COVID-19. The National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) 2022 School Pulse Panel reported 42% of all principals — not just those with current vacancies — said that teachers and staff leaving the profession became a “more pressing concern” during the last school year. And as schools with large numbers of minority students are suffering the worst staff shortages, NCES found about four in 10 schools with more than 75% minority populations, like Drew-Freeman, have multiple teaching vacancies.

But educators like Burton Jr. who spoke with ABC News this year described conditions that stretched beyond the pandemic in which Black male teachers were under-appreciated and outstretched — with their numbers dwindling in the wake of what one advocate, speaking of staffing, has called a “five-alarm crisis.”

“I really feel like we’re skipped over — point-blank, period,” Burton Jr. said. “The way that the [education] system is laid out, I am always looked to as a disciplinarian, as the one that has the classroom management skills, as the one that is, you know, kind of firm footed,” he added.

Despite the current National Teacher of the Year honor going to Kurt Russell, a Black male history teacher in Ohio, who said the teacher workforce should look more like the demographics of the student population, the shortage of Black men in the profession has been evident for years. NCES’ National Teacher and Principal Survey from 2017-2018 found Black men make up less than 2% of the nation’s teachers.

Travis J. Bristol is pictured in an undated portrait. Courtesy of Travis J. Bristol

Travis J. Bristol of the University of California, Berkeley, said the numbers do not appear to be trending in a positive direction.

“Often, people talk about the 1.9 [but] that number has fallen slightly: 1.7% of all U.S. public school teachers are Black men,” Bristol told ABC News.

Bristol pointed to what some researchers have called the “cradle to carceral” pipeline — from birth to prison or government-backed punishment — as one of the main hurdles for Black boys who could become teachers, because Black children have been disproportionately suspended and expelled since preschool, according to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, with boys receiving more than 75% of out-of-school suspensions.

Bristol believes that stark picture is often a reflection of society and has shrunk the pool of candidates.

“The Black male teacher shortage will end when we as a country begin to learn how to love Black boys,” said the associate professor of teacher education and education policy at the University of California’s School of Education. He added: “You can’t recruit people or create pathways for people in the profession until we stop suspending and expelling them before they even have an opportunity to enter the profession.”

Diversifying the school workforce has tangible benefits on instruction as well as representation, according to analyses. The National Bureau of Labor Economics found Black boys are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college when taught by at least one Black teacher in elementary school, but NCES’ survey on public school experiences with COVID-19 showed nearly 70% of principals reported too few candidates as the biggest challenge to hiring teachers for the 2022-2023 school year.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has announced several strategies to aid in the shortage by supporting teachers with $285-plus million in grant competitions this fiscal year.

“We are treating our efforts to recruit, prepare, and retain a talented and diverse educator workforce with the same level of urgency we brought to reopening our schools during the height of the pandemic,” Cardona said in a statement this fall.

Sharif El-Mekki poses for an undated portrait at Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus, where he served as principal for 11 years and attended as a student for summer school in 1987. Center for Black Educator Development

Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development (CBED), who co-founded the Black Male Educators for Social Justice fellowship to inspire new generations of Black men to work for social justice through teaching, hopes school communities hire educators with varied cultural backgrounds and experiences who come from the communities that their students live in.

But El-Mekki told ABC News he sees the bleak number of Black teachers as an “engineered” byproduct of the Supreme Court’s famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the justices found that racially segregating children was unconstitutional in public schools. Response to the historic integration case paradoxically pushed thousands of Black teachers out of their classrooms and harmed the Black male teacher, El-Mekki said.

“The impact of Brown v. Board is multi-tiered,” El-Mekki explained. “The interpretation of Brown v. Board was even more damaging. The idea that it promoted — that in order for a Black child to have excellence, it had to be in proximity of whiteness — automatically erases a Black educator.”

Leslie T. Fenwick, PhD, is author of Jim Crow’s Pink Slip and Dean Emerita, Howard University. Courtesy of Leslie T. Fenwick

“[Brown] was about having Black children have access to the resources that supported public education at the level it was being supported for white children,” according to Leslie T. Fenwick, dean emerita and professor of education policy at Howard University.

Fenwick’s book “Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership” recounts how the Supreme Court decision was met by a fierce, mostly Southern “white resistance” from lawmakers, elected officials, superintendents and other constituents in 17 states — from Virginia to Texas — which fueled the exit of 100,000 Black teachers and principals.


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