Paul Darden, 38, is an author and middle school history teacher at M.S. 180 in the Bronx’s Co-op City. It’s after school hours. He’s standing in the front entryway of the middle school building tucked behind Harry Truman High. Wearing a black fitted cap and a collared, brown checkered shirt sans a tie, Darden is reminiscing about one of the two male teachers of color that he can remember having while growing up in the city. One was a Dominican teacher in high school, he said, and the other was a guidance counselor at Bronx Community College. “He taught me how to tie a tie,” said Darden. “I never forgot it.” 

The lack of teachers of color, especially men, to match the racial makeup of the city’s schools remains a problem, according to an analysis of data by the Amsterdam News. This despite unanimous agreement on the importance of students of color seeing people like themselves at the front of the classroom and a variety of initiatives to address the shortfall.

Out of the city’s 1.1 million students, about 25% are Black and 40% are Hispanic/Latino. In an informal poll conducted by the Amsterdam News via social media, some said they couldn’t recall having a Black teacher more than once or twice past a certain grade. 

And, over the last 20 years or so, data from the New York State Education Dept (NYSED) indicates that teachers who identify as Black/African American or Hispanic/Latino in the city’s public schools account for less than 18% of the total teaching staff. The majority of teachers have been and still are those who identify as white.

The state’s numbers show that the proportion of white teachers in public schools has decreased from 58% to 55% over the last four years, while the number of Hispanic/Latino teachers has gone down from 15% to 14% and Black teachers has gone up overall from 17% to 18%. 

The New York City Education Dept (DOE) said the “percent of teachers that are non-white” citywide is at 46% for 2022, having gone up steadily from 42% in 2017-2018. The DOE did not provide a specific breakdown of non-white races or ethnicities by school year. A spokesperson for the DOE said that she “can’t speak to the State’s data” regarding a discrepancy in teacher totals. The state’s data team said that data collection methods changed over the last two decades, but shouldn’t be any less accurate. 

At the college level, City University of New York (CUNY) officials said they saw a slight overall reduction in teachers from 2020, but not “a reduction in the representation of faculty of color.” 

“Representation matters and it is important for our students to see people who [look] like themselves as educators and role models more broadly,” said Councilmember Rita Joseph, who chairs the education committee. She was a teacher at P.S. 6 in Brooklyn for 22 years, before running for city council last year. “This disparity means that students often do not have role models in academic settings that look like them.” 

Councilmember Farah Louis said that in a multicultural city, it’s crucial that representation and cultural competency are a part of enriching the educational experience for students. “Our children deserve to see themselves in positions of leadership so that they can be inspired to pursue their dreams without hesitation,” said Louis in a statement. 

Louis said that diversity within the teaching profession does exist, but cannot improve if the city fails to address the existing challenges hindering recruitment of more men and educators of color. She said it’s also important to allocate funds to support teachers’ salaries and give them more resources.

Councilmember Mercedes Narcisse, another member of the education committee, said that she will aim to enact measures that will make teachers reflective of the population of the city. “Until that occurs, New York City deserves an ‘F’ for failing to recruit and attract people of color into the noble profession of teaching,” said Narcisse. 

Joseph added that studies show that kids do better in school when teachers look more like their students. “We need more qualified, driven teachers of color in our public schools which is why I support actively recruiting teachers at a wide variety of schools, including HBCUs,” she said. The DOE spokesperson agreed that research showed students of color doing better academically with teachers of color. “And this administration is committed to recruiting educators that reflect the rich diversity of New York City,” said the DOE. 

According to an analysis from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at NYU, 4.7% of the public school teacher workforce in 2003-2004 were Black males. That number fell to 3.7% in 2015-2016. The Huffington Post reported that “disproportionate turnover rates’’ among Black educators and men of color weren’t always about salary or classroom resources. Teachers most often leave because they feel they are not given the leeway to do their jobs effectively, said HuffPost.

Paul Darden Credit: Ariama C. Long photo

“It’s also just not one of those glamorous, sexy careers,” added Darden about being a teacher.

Darden spoke of an environment of “micromanagement” in “grossly underfunded schools.” He said he prefers public schools to charter schools though. When he worked at a predominantly white charter school and a white-run public school, he was unhappy. 

He alleged that one principal tried to “discontinue’’ him, or essentially blacklist him, from working in the district. The Amsterdam News reached out to One World Middle School at Edenwald but could only confirm that Darden had worked there in previous years. No response has been given to a request for further information about the circumstances of Darden leaving. Regardless, he said he likes the leadership style his principal has now. He considers his middle school an “anomaly” since it has quite a few Black male teachers and is led by a Black male principal.

The percentage of Black male teachers has since rebounded a little to 4% of the workforce according to the state’s 2020-2021 data. The city’s DOE said that men of color teachers hired in public schools have increased annually from 2015, as well as hiring for teachers of color overall.

Darden can’t remember his old guidance counselor’s name, but the lasting image he has of him is of a bald dark skinned man in a classic suit, taking him aside, and smirking while he snapped off his clip-on and taught  him how to tie a real one. Darden’s parents divorced when he was young. His mother moved him and his brother to the Bronx from Texas and worked two jobs to support them. His brother was in and out of juvenile detention and his father was absent, he said.

“It was more than tying a tie. He recognized me and took the time to teach me something he was not being paid for,” said Darden. He said moments like these with teachers who believed in him are why he became a teacher himself. 

Darden posited that the reason you don’t see many Black male teachers is because so many young men he knew growing up in his community were arrested, for things like marijuana possession, and ended up with a felony, meaning they couldn’t get financial aid and just opted out of college or any career choices in academia. 

Councilmember Alexa Aviles said it’s important to promote career pathways and recruitment programs that invite, invest in, and support diversity in schools, like NYC Teaching Fellows and the Leaders in Education Apprenticeship Program (LEAP). The fellowship helps prepare college graduates and career changers to become teachers, and LEAP is a graduate program that prepares teachers to become assistant principals and principals. The DOE said that in 2019 and 2020, 20% of participants in these kinds of teaching training programs identified as men of color and 70% as people of color.

“If our kids don’t see themselves reflected in teaching staff, school leadership, or curriculum, how can we expect them to be invested in and connected to their work?” said Aviles.

Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx Credit: Ariama C. Long photo

L’Heureux Lewis-Mccoy, an associate professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, said that it’s a lot harder for groups that have been marginalized by racism to make it to college or graduate school. “Those same structures of racism and classism and gender inequity play out there,” he said, “so by the time you get to who gets hired out of college, the people doing the hiring predominantly are middle class and up, or from white backgrounds.”

Historically, said Lewis-McCoy, prior to desegregation Black students often had Black teachers from their local community who could serve as role models. “One of the things that was an outgrowth of desegregation in pursuit of integration was the demolition of not only all-Black schools in many cases but the reduction of the Black teaching force.”

Resources were taken away from the Black community and its schools. Teachers lost their livelihoods, said Lewis-McCoy.

The city’s public school system is also a wildly different landscape in 2022 than the one teachers were operating in even 20 years ago, thanks in large part to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, shifting ideas about curriculums, and the advancement of technology over time. But, anecdotally, teachers aren’t exactly sticking around and reaching tenure as much as they used to said interviewees.

Janella Hinds is the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) vice president for academic high schools and a social studies teacher at Public Service High School in Brooklyn. Students compete to get into one of nine specialized high schools in New York City. Hinds has championed equity for students, leading the 2014 UFT specialized high school task force that called for the elimination and revamping of the controversial single-test admission process for specialized high schools (SHSAT). 

The test itself is highly criticized for not adequately representing Black and Brown students, and admitting only a tiny fraction of them, into the city’s most elite schools each year. “It’s not an intuitive test. If you knew strategies and were able to practice, you’d do well,” said Hinds. “I think that specialized high schools don’t reflect the talent and the brilliance of NYC students. And that assessment, whether or not it’s racist, I think the impact of the test has played out in ways that are racist.”  

Hinds’ father was also a public school teacher. She used to work for a youth nonprofit and became a teacher like him in 1997. Hinds said that there was definitely work to be done around recruitment and retention of teachers in the city as well. 

She said the move to remote learning because of the COVID crisis in 2020 was deeply “destabilizing” for a majority of teachers. That sense of going into a building and coming home to constant, ongoing access to students and families felt like an erosion of boundaries, and has left people uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure that teachers were actually leaving as much as voicing their frustration or retiring early because of it. 

Janella Hinds Credit: Ariama C. Long photo

There’s about 78,000 teachers employed in the city’s public schools, said the DOE. Amsterdam News inquired how many teachers, particularly teachers of color, have left or retired since 2020. A DOE spokesperson said that teacher retention “remains strong and is similar to our overall teacher retention rate of 94%.” 

Pre-pandemic, Darden, Hinds, and Lewis-McCoy spoke of a turnover happening in schools. “Growing up in the 2000s, late ’90s, you could go back to your school, 5, 6, 7, 10 years after, and go see your favorite teacher who was still there teaching. Now, after you graduate you might have an entire new roster of teachers,” said Darden.

Lewis-McCoy used to work at CUNY’s City College and now researches the intersecting roles of race, class, and place for NYU. He made the move to NYU because he got married, had two children, and his salary and benefits at CUNY weren’t suitable to survive rent and childcare costs in the city, he said. 

CUNY said that in fall of 2021, the university system had 7,110 full-time faculty and 11,892 part-time. About 39% of the full-time faculty (up from 35% in 2016) and 43% of part-time faculty are minority, meaning Asian, Black, Hispanic, American Indian or other. CUNY also has seven Black college presidents, which is unprecedented. 

Lewis-McCoy said he often has to explain that his interactions with students of color are fundamentally different when it comes to conversations about race and school. “Many scholars haven’t even come to embrace the reality that you can’t get the same answers from everyone because who’s asking the questions matters,” he said. “So when I have gone to places and given talks one of the first things that people ask me is, ‘You study race, identity, and class. Isn’t this ‘me-search’ instead of research?’”

It’s called perceived legitimacy, and it’s something that comes up in the hiring process, he said. That is to suggest that the research Black scholars do about their own communities “isn’t taken seriously” because it’s not seen as rigorous or objective enough by white scholars. Those kinds of barriers led to less Black faculty and adjuncts being hired, said Lewis-McCoy. 

“Thanks to the governor’s support, the university will also be hiring approximately 540 new full-time faculty which will also end up helping our ongoing efforts to increase the diversity of our faculty,” said CUNY’s press office in response to an Amsterdam News inquiry.  

Lewis-McCoy pointed out that another major issue that does get overlooked are the power and gender dynamics in play when hiring or advancing the careers of Black men versus Black women in academia. “While Black men are less represented in the teaching profession than Black women, they move up the administrative ladder faster than Black women,” said Lewis-McCoy.

He said that because of gender stereotyping, many Black male teachers are “pushed” into administrative or disciplinary roles whether they want to be there or not. Sometimes it’s a negotiating point in terms of salary or position because there are so few in the city, and the “glass escalator’’ which describes professions traditionally dominated by women, moves men up more quickly.

“People say there’s a Black male in the building so if there are Black boys he can keep them in order. There’s some gender stereotyping that we have to be mindful of,” said Lewis-McCoy.

“I’m hopeful that the kind of partnerships that the new Chancellor [David Banks] stresses and maximized in his previous work will be incorporated into many more school communities,” said Hinds. Schools Chancellor David C. Banks was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams this January. Banks already had a long history of championing high school reform initiatives and empowering Black and Brown youth, especially boys, through education. To many, both he and Adams represent the hope that things are finally changing. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here: bit.ly/amnews1

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