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How Black men work to incorporate joy in the classroom—and why retaining them is key
A viral video gave viewers a glimpse into how Black male teachers can motivate a classroom of Black students.
It may have been one of the biggest moments in Harlie McCary’s eight years of life.
The second grader at Biscayne Elementary Leadership Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, was under pressure to correctly answer a question on a math quiz. Surrounded by her classmates, all eyes were on her.
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In a video of this moment, Dwayne Taylor, her second-grade teacher, can be heard making a wager with his class. If Harlie gets the answer correct, the entire class will receive “free time” — the equivalent of free tickets to a Beyoncé concert for a classroom full of 8-year-olds. If she answers incorrectly, however, the class will be forced to continue learning.
"Harlie, it's up to you," the teacher said in the video. "We made a bet. If Harlie gets this right, then we can have free time. If she don't, then we still working."
When Harlie answers the question correctly (“seven”), the classroom bursts into cheers as though they’ve just won the NBA finals. Every time you watch, you notice something new — one student is crying tears of joy, and another student in the back is simply looking on with intense pride.
Harlie spoke with Action News Jax’s Nick Gibson following her big moment, saying, “I love math. We love to play and have free time.”
Gibson also spoke with Judah Johnson, the 7-year-old seen crying and hugging his classmate after Harlie’s answer. “I like praying because when I pray, everything goes right. And when she got the answer right, I started crying because I was so happy and excited,” he explained.
The joy emanating from the children can be felt through the video, and it’s enough to put a smile on your face. But there’s another somewhat unique aspect of the viral moment that’s worth pointing out: the voice of Dwayne Taylor, a Black man, in the video.
“When I first saw the video, it reminded me of my first year of teaching,” said Patrick Harris, a middle school teacher in Michigan and author of The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers. “When you're a Black male teacher, there’s just a certain heart and soul that Black teachers generally, but especially Black men, bring to this work.”
“It’s the relationship building; it’s the ability to reset some of the many tropes about what men can or cannot do,” he explained.
Dwayne Taylor, the teacher in the viral video, is one of the rare Black male teachers found in classrooms across the country — and experts believe more Black men in schools can help improve academic outcomes for Black students. Students taught by a teacher of the same ethnicity as them are better learners and develop strong problem-solving skills by the time they reach 7, around the same age as Taylor’s students, according to a recent study.
“Researchers have found that teachers of color are more likely to provide culturally relevant pedagogy, and when they do, they are able to better connect with students whose culture and experiences are often not reflected in standard school curricula and approaches,” said Michael Gottfried, author of the study and professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
Black men are severely underrepresented in the classroom. In the 2020–21 school year, less than 2% of public school teachers were Black men, a survey found. The numbers have worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw teachers of all backgrounds leaving the teaching profession. But in a field where Black men were already scarce, America’s schools can’t afford to lose any more.
There are plenty of obstacles preventing Black men from entering the field and staying once they’re in. The poor salaries tend to steer them away, coupled with the structural racism in education they endure and the growing public scrutiny as attacks on lessons Republicans have labeled “critical race theory” ramp up — even though most teachers say they don’t teach it. Black men are even disproportionately penalized when it comes to teacher performance.
D’Angelo Farmer, a principal at an elementary school in Michigan, said low pay is one of the main factors preventing more Black men from pursuing teaching as a career.
“When I first graduated college, I had a baby right after. [So Black men might] think, ‘if I want to be the head of the household financially and be able to take care of a family, why would I go into teaching?’” said Farmer, who taught for ten years before transitioning into administration. “I don't know if it's all men, but Black men, you see yourself as being a leader in your household. You can't really do that and be a teacher, especially starting off.”
Teachers, more generally, are struggling across demographics to afford basic needs and provide for their families as costs rise. Many teachers can’t even afford to live near the schools where they teach. This goes double for Black teachers, who are likely to have more debt and no generational wealth to fall back on.
But there are organizations, like the Minnesota-based nonprofit Black Men Teach, that exist to support Black male educators, both culturally and even financially in some cases.
Black Men Teach paid off $50,000 worth of student loans for Thetis White — a game-changer for the teacher. Teachers of color tend to carry more student loan debt than their white counterparts and disproportionately teach in schools that are underresourced. These factors often lead to Black teachers leaving the profession altogether. The nonprofit doesn’t just provide financial support, but it also recruits, mentors, places, and works to retain Black men in schools.
There’s also the Michigan-based nonprofit Black Male Educators Alliance. The organization has evolved from an initial mission of increasing the number of Black men in Michigan classrooms, which is still an integral part of what they do, but they’ve expanded their mission to transform the educational system so that all children have an opportunity to become successful. BMEA does this by recruiting and retaining Black men in the classroom, providing wellness programs and therapy, and mentorship opportunities through fellowships.
“We have our teacher wellness program that we do, and we focus on what does it mean to take care of yourself as a Black male educator,” said Curtis Lewis, the CEO and founder of BMEA. “But also what's your identity and how does your identity influence your role with schools and in classrooms?”
Lewis stressed that the retention of Black male teachers is critical.
“Once we put them in schools, it’s like if you put somebody into a burning building … they’re going to burn up,” the former principal said of the lack of support Black men receive in schools. “We have to get people the support and put them in spaces where they can be successful. And many of our schools are not those spaces.”
“We have to deal with this on multiple levels.”
Dwayne Taylor said he appreciates the love and support for his students but declined an interview for this story.
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