Black male teachers strive to be mentors and role models

Samuel Wakefield, a black male teacher in Atlanta, remembers during his first year with Teach for America siting in a cafeteria next to one of his brightest, most "precocious" second-grade students.

“Mr. Wakefield,” the African-American boy called out. “Will you be my daddy?”

“How do I respond to this?” Wakefield asked himself, reminiscing how, at that time in 2005, his young self also needed a father figure. “What is he expecting of me?”

Wakefield, who is now Atlanta Teach for America’s managing director of alumni and corp member leadership development, came to realize he was not just expected to be an educator. (TFA is an organization that places college graduates in low-income high schools as teachers.) In Atlanta classrooms, where a good portion of the students look like him, Wakefield said, he is expected to be a mentor and a role model.

In 2010 Wakefield and four other black Atlanta TFA teachers created the Black Male Leadership Association to encourage one another to live up to that expectation. What began as an informal support network blossomed into a structured institution with executive board meetings, scheduled social events, and even a 2013 summer convention of more than 100 black male teachers from across the nation.

Wakefield said the association’s climb stems in part from the fact that the number of black male teachers in Atlanta’s TFA rose from 5 percent in 2005 to 13 percent this year. The group saw a lack of support for a demographic that is underrepresented nationwide, he said, as black males make up less than 2 percent of U.S. teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“For many of our students across the country, they won’t see another face that looks like theirs (as a teacher) potentially until they get to college, and for many of them, that’s too late,” Wakefield said.

BMLA President and current Atlanta TFA corp member Evan Shields teaches at Banneker High School, where police patrol the hallways, lockdowns are normal events, just 66 percent of students graduated in 2011, and 96 percent of the student population is black. He said he can leverage the shared adverse experiences he has to connect with his students.

“(A student) having a positive black role model could make or break the difference in him dropping out of school and him going to college,” Shields said.

Jamal Days, a freshman Algebra student, said he has a stronger “cohesiveness” with Shields than some of his other teachers.

“He has experienced what most of us have experienced,” he said. “He knows it all. … It’s like anything you have, he can top it and then tell you how to fix it.”

Wakefield said it wasn’t always this smooth. When he was a corp member, African-American males were the most under-performing teachers in Atlanta’s TFA, based on efficacy, retention and survey results, Wakefield said.

“It was really problematic because, in my opinion, these are the ones we need to succeed the most,” he said, “given the opportunity they have to be the example.”

Shields said BMLA’s focus on professional development made him realize a black male educator’s responsibility to set the tone, be a leader and make an impact.

“The picture of black males in any city … is at one of its lowest points in society,” he said. Still, he said, “a black educator not only has the opportunity to mold your children, but to mold perception and reset perception.”

The core of BMLA, Wakefield said, is making sure these black male educators are as effective as possible. But the work of BMLA has expanded and now includes encouraging the success of the members’ students, aspiring to create another batch of black male leaders and teachers.