Darryl McKellar makes teaching look easy. Over 20 years in the classroom, the English teacher has mastered some of the job’s trickiest tasks.
He has a writing assignment for the 10th graders in his second period class today, based on a short story they read, “The Lottery.”
“When I say lottery, what do you think? Breanna, what do you think?”
“Drama,” she says.
“Why drama?” McKellar asks.
“When you win a lot of money, it causes a lot of controversy,” she says.
“Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Who said it?” McKellar asks.
There’s some murmuring. It sounds familiar, but these kids weren’t around in the ’90s. “It’s…a rapper?” one student ventures.
“Wait,” McKellar says, launching into a pretty spot on impression. “Uh huh, uh huh, baby, baby.” The students laugh.
“Biggie Smalls!” a student says.
McKellar nods. “Notorious B.I.G. But he also says we can’t expect to change the world until we do what? Change who? Change yourself.”
He looks pleased with himself as the students pair up and dive into the assignment. “I’m like Batman,” he says. “I use every trick in my utility belt to get a kid to buy into education.”
Role models in the classroom
For these students, having a teacher of color, like McKellar, who has high expectations, can relate to their experiences, and serve as a role model could make a big difference. When students of color have teachers of color, there’s evidence they learn more, finish high school at higher rates, and are more likely to go to college. For instance, one study found having at least one black teacher from third to fifth grade cut the high school dropout rate in half for black boys.
But the number of teachers of color in California isn’t keeping pace with the diversity of its student body.
Changing that is top of mind for Tony Thurmond, State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He has made closing the achievement gap for students of color a central part of his mission, and he says diversifying the teacher workforce is key.
“Even one teacher of color in a school is enough for students of color to do better academically,” he says, citing studies that show long term positive benefits.
Three quarters of California students are of color, compared to about a third of teachers. But in McKellar his students have something especially rare: Fewer than 10% of the state’s teachers are men of color and just 1% are black men like him.
McKellar’s ninth-grade students Elijah Foster and Tyler Banner say having a man in front of the class is still a new experience.
They’ve been taught almost exclusively by women, and they say having a male teacher changes the dynamic. “It feels like the man expects more out of you,” Banner says. “You see them as, like, the homie,” Foster adds. “Like a close friend — trustable.”
“They need to see someone in front of them who says, ‘This thing called education is going to work out just fine,’” McKellar says of his male students. “Me being in front of students, being a black man, and dispelling every stereotype about what we bring to the table, that’s my motivation.”
A teacher pipeline
For 28-year-old Fabian Flores, it’s not unusual to be one of the only men in his classes at California State University, Dominguez Hills College of Education.
So he’s finding the support of a group for aspiring male teachers of color lifesaving.
“I’m not alone, he said. “I’m not the only one struggling with this, I’m not the only male that wants to become an educator.”
Flores is part of a program called Future Minority Male Teachers of California, an experiment that got underway in 2017. The goal is to improve the pipeline for men of color who want to teach by focusing on recruitment from the local community, plus financial, instructional and emotional support from peers and veteran teachers. A handful of California State University colleges of education are testing the program, but there’s hope to expand systemwide.
McKellar is a mentor in the program at CSU Dominguez Hills, in Los Angeles. “I encourage them to use all of their experiences as a person of color,” he said.
He also tries to impart skills that he says aren’t always taught in teacher prep programs, like how to connect with students from a social-emotional standpoint.
“I’m giving you the cheat codes,” he said of his role as a mentor. “I’m giving you all the nuances I wasn’t privy to.”
Flores credits the program, and McKellar, for keeping him on the teaching track. He said he almost quit early on after a veteran teacher warned him away from the profession, saying it’s underpaid and undervalued.
“I was kinda on the ropes, like should I continue?” he said. “But getting into this program and speaking with the male educators helped me reject that type of thinking.”
The program also offers small scholarships to help pay for school. Research suggests that subsidizing the cost of teacher education is one of the best ways to remove barriers keeping people of color from joining the profession.
College graduates of color are disproportionately burdened by debt. On average, black college graduates owe over $7,000 more than white peers when they earn their BA. A few years later, that black-white gap has tripled to $25,000. When weighing a student loan load against a future salary, teaching can make for a tough proposition.
“I would not be here if it wasn’t for that extra money,” said Flores, who got a $5,000 scholarship.
Future Minority Male Teachers of California wants to get more men of color teaching in elementary grades, where they’re most rare, and where they could have the biggest impact on achievement gaps.
“That’s the real unicorn in education,” said John Davis, dean of the College of Education at CSU Dominguez Hills. “How do we get men of color to teach at that primary level?”
During the 2015-2016 school year, of the roughly 900 students preparing to become elementary school teachers at the six CSUs participating in the program, only 4% were Latino men, 1% were Asian men, and 0.4% were African-American men.
The efforts to change that are showing some promise: At Dominguez Hills, there were just two Latino elementary teacher candidates in the fall of 2017. The following year, there were 14; at CSULA, the number of Asian males rose from two to 11, and for black males from zero to three.
In general, at the six schools number went up significantly for Latinos, slightly for black men, and results were mixed for Asian men, rising in some cases, dropping in others.
California Department of Education leaders met with Future Minority Male Teachers of California directors earlier this year, and State Superintendent Thurmond says proposals are in the works to build out the program across the CSU system.
“California is really on the precipice of being the leader in teacher preparation,” Thurmond said. “But right now we’re pulling together resources to help expand some of these bright spots that we see.”
While the added support may help get men of color into and through teacher training and into classrooms, the next challenge is keeping them there.
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.