After a student has yet another outburst in his classroom, Tyler Wright can’t bear to see him write again. Wright, then a student teacher at Charleston Elementary School, took the child into the hallway to chat.
Within moments, the student started crying.
“He was telling me that he doesn’t really see his dad and stuff like that,” Wright said. “His father was supposed to come to see him but never did. At the end of the day, that was the main reason for the explosion, because the child was angry.”
Wright told him that he grew up in similar circumstances, but that despite what was going on at home, he still paid as much attention as he could. Wright said the conversation was meant to get the student to open up and improve his behavior.
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Wright became a full-time teacher at Stono Park Elementary in January, thanks to a program in Charleston aimed at making the teaching profession more accessible to black males, who are overrepresented in classrooms in South Carolina and around the United States.
Only 7% of America’s public school teachers were black in the 2017-18 school year, even though black students make up 15% of the student population, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Their absence in the classroom is deeply felt, especially in states like South Carolina, where nearly a fifth of students are black and less than 3% of teachers are black men.
Teachers who reflect their students’ identities can build connections between teachers and students — and help avoid misinterpreting behaviors that could contribute to disparities in discipline for black students, experts say. Research shows that black teachers can lead to improved academic performance and higher graduation rates for black students.
At a time of teacher shortages in South Carolina and across the country, the presence of black teachers can make it possible for black students to pursue careers in education themselves.
“The issue starts at a fairly young age,” said Eric Duncan, a policy team member at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “They get a negative impression of school because they are traditionally overdisciplined or misdiagnosed as having behavior challenges, when they may have other issues or challenges that should be addressed in a more culturally competent way.”
There are other barriers to education for black males. Many come from low-income families and face pressure to find higher-paying jobs, and there are licensure requirements that were deliberately designed to prevent people of color from becoming teachers, Duncan said.
Charleston, The Men of CHS Teach program is a partnership between the University of South Carolina and the Charleston County School District. It places new teachers in the elementary classroom even if they have not participated in a student teacher program and creates an alternative path for them to obtain a teaching license.
CCSD decided to focus on elementary teacher recruitment because it is generally difficult to fill these positions with males, and research shows that if black students have teachers of color in elementary school, they are less likely and more likely to drop out of high school. Consider college. For black boys from low-income backgrounds, those effects are even greater.
Organizers of the program hope to recruit 20 male teachers over the next five years About half of the district’s student population is nonwhite.
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Wright was one of the first members of the program. She decided she wanted to teach after working as a student-engagement specialist at a high school in the district. Years later, Wright is leading a classroom of her own.
The South Carolina districts that saw the largest increase in the number of black male teachers in recent years were Charleston, York 3, Richland 1 and Aiken, with a total of nearly 80 new hires from 2017 to 2021. However, they still have a small portion Black male teachers overall.
Statewide, the racial demographics of teachers changed little between 2016 and 2021, according to an analysis of state teacher workforce data.
Charleston’s program was inspired in part by Call Me Mister, a Clemson University program aimed at recruiting, training and certifying men of color to become elementary school teachers in South Carolina.
Mark Joseph, the program’s director, said they’ve seen a decline in applicants in recent years and have had to put more effort into recruiting. It’s a new era of education after the pandemic, Joseph said, and the program has had to adapt.
“We took a different approach in talking about leadership, in talking about college, in talking about things like being part of a program that provides support, encouragement, brotherhood and teamwork,” he said.
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He said, there is a realization that teachers are ambassadors of the teaching profession.
After all, the teachers they’re looking to hire aren’t coming out of thin air—they’re sitting in classrooms across South Carolina.