MPR News with Angela Davis

The power of Black male educators

Five Black men smiling at camera
(From left) Michael Walker, the director of Black student achievement for Minneapolis Public Schools; Michael Thomas, superintendent Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools; Eric Robinson, retired teacher; Derek Francis, executive director of equity and school climate for Minneapolis Public Schools; Lee Hawkins, American Public Media special correspondent.
MPR News

Do you remember a teacher who really made a difference in your life as a child? A teacher who really saw you and encouraged you?

Minnesota schools have a persistent opportunity gap, with Native American children, Black children and other children of color less likely to graduate high school than their white peers.

Research has shown that having teachers and school staff of color can help students of color succeed. But nationally only seven percent of teachers are Black, and only two percent are Black men. 

American Public Media special correspondent Lee Hawkins spoke about identity, curriculum, recruitment and more with four Black men who are educators.


  • Michael Walker, the Director of Black student achievement for Minneapolis Public Schools

  • Michael Thomas, superintendent of Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools

  • Eric Robinson, a retired teacher

  • Derek Francis, Executive Director of Equity and School Climate for Minneapolis Public Schools. He previously managed the district’s counseling services. 

The following is a partial transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

Lee Hawkins: Thank you all for being here. I'm really excited about the opportunity to bring you brothers together into this discussion. So thank you. Only two percent of the nation's teachers are Black males. That's a tough number to swallow. But here's something that's mind blowing for you all to digest: across the state of Minnesota, there are only 1.45 percent Black teachers, male or female. So that's even less than the percentage of Black male teachers across the nation. Only 1.45 percent Black teachers in a state where Black people make up seven percent of the population. What does this mean for Black children for Minnesota, particularly boys? And what will their educational experience be like as a result?

Michael Walker: Well, we already know that representation matters if we got to make sure that we have people that look like them in front of the classrooms, right? And when we think about how that impacts the growth and development of young people, is that when we see folks that look like us, it gives us the ability to see that we have that possibility to be an educator as well.

The school system is not designed for them to feel valued, to feel welcomed. The cultural aspects of our schools are a little different than what our Black students are experiencing. So it's not designed for them. And so we have to really think about how do we address that piece? The other components of why the experience is different: what about our curriculum? Like how is the curriculum set up? We have a Eurocentric curriculum, again, that is not centering the experiences of our Black people. And so how do we change? That is some of the things that we have to address.

Hawkins: Michael Thomas, what does this mean for the kids who are in these classrooms? Without people who look like them?

Michael Thomas: Yeah, I take it right back to the psychology of one's health and in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. When a young person doesn't have a sense of belonging, they're going to struggle no matter what that gap might be. In this case, a lot of our young Black students, specifically young Black boys to your question, they don't see themselves in the curriculum, they don't see themselves in terms of adult authority in the school systems. And so it becomes very psychologically isolating, and with no outlet or sense of support.

That's where you begin to see a young, immature mind trying to make decisions for themselves that are well beyond their comprehension. So that's where we might see some kids falling off. Because they don't have the ability to make some of the best decisions without, you know, the struggles that they're going through, and not being able to have somebody that they can trust to go to, to help kind of process and support them through some of the challenges.

I would just center there first, and you can fast forward 30 years as adults. Many of us sitting in this room, were oftentimes maybe the only one — only teacher, only administrator in a system — where we also had that level of isolation and had to navigate very carefully our own existence to kind of stay alive in that system. So, I think that's where I would say first, how do we address Is that social — psychological need of our kids.

Hawkins: Derek [Francis], you're counseling kids. When kids come into your office and you're doing the counseling, do you ever get the feeling “wow, this person could really use some diversity in terms of the people who are educating them?”

Derek Francis: Oh, man, that is, I think the thing that comes to mind, especially when you're thinking about career development, especially for our youth, the exposure to seeing someone who looks like you. So many times when students, they have just the what they see on TV, so I show up as a Black person in the school, and then I start to teach lesson around. “Well, guess what, let me show you pictures of people who look like you. And they're doctors, they're lawyers, they're educators.” And it opens the mind. I think that's so neat, because it's really exposing them to their hope and future. I start to share students, “you have so many different career opportunities. Here's some schools where You see students that look like you.” And that makes a difference.

If you have a counselor that hasn't been around or seen Black people or Black students do some of these successful things, you might limit them from your own views. So at some point for someone to say, “Oh, I see you, I've seen people who have looked like you do some of these things. And that's going to be you.”

Hawkins: It's so interesting that you say that because people of all races have stories of being counseled out of going into certain careers by their counselor because their counselor didn't believe in them. I particularly remember a story of a woman who is very, very prominent in the science field, a Black woman that I went to school with who talking about being counseled away from STEM… and right now, she's one of the top people at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. So many people have these “Hi, how you like me now?” stories, and it's sad because you shouldn't have to hear those stories. You should be able to say, “I have the support from my village from the beginning.”

Before we get too deep into this, it's really important that we frame the problem that we're addressing right now: Boys collectively, of course of all races, are not performing academically, and socially, as strong as girls. We know that. In the case of Black boys, they're not an exception. And as the effort to close the racial opportunity gap continues, it's important to look at how our educational system can do a better job with Black boys. And if we're going to discuss the issue, we need to be transparent and candid. From what you see right now, from what you see statistically and in the classroom, are Black boys underperforming? Eric, you want to take that?

Eric Robinson: Right now students are looking at this as a Eurocentric type of system. And, you know, maybe when you're younger, elementary age, there's a little bit of hope. But then as they get more toward high school or middle school, then that starts to dwindle as far as improving their reading or math goals. So that follows them. I mean, working with high school students in a charter school and knowing that they can't get anything… any higher than a fourth-grade reading level. It comes back to having that presence of a Black teacher in the classroom. To, you know, just say that you can do this, you have value you're worthy of careers that you think you don't think you're capable of doing.

Hawkins: I wanted to shift this over to you, Michael [Walker], because … you're the director of Black student achievement for Minneapolis Public Schools, are Black boys underperforming?

Walker: I know you start off by saying there’s an opportunity gap. And what I tend to believe and the kind of research that I've done, it's really a belief gap, right? It's about what do our adults believe about our Black males? Do we believe that they are able to accomplish success? Do we believe that they're able to achieve whatever goal there is that they're trying to achieve? If we don't have that belief as adults, then we're going to treat them or have expectations that are lower, right? Because I don't believe that you can be a doctor, I don't believe that you can be a lawyer. I don’t believe that you can be a scientist, right? And so it really starts with the adults. And so that's kind of the focus of our work.

And then some of the work that we do, it’s really how do we change the beliefs of the educators so that they can see value in our Black students, specifically our Black males. And so I don't believe in an achievement gap. I don't believe that the young people are Black males are underperforming. I believe that the system has been designed and created and the belief of them in that system has created the outcomes that we see.

Hawkins: In talking about improving outcomes, it's important to introduce some data that I think is just mind-blowing. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University studied about 100,000 Black students who entered third grade at North Carolina public schools between 2001 and 2005. About 13 percent of the students ended up dropping out of high school, while about half graduated, but with no plans to pursue college, OK? However, low-income Black students who were assigned to at least one Black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade, were not only less likely to drop out of school, but 18 percent more likely to express interest in college when they graduated. And persistently low-income Black boys who had at least one Black teacher, in third, fourth or fifth grade, were 29 percent more likely to say that they were considering college.

And I spoke to Nicholas Papageorge, who was the lead researcher on this study at Johns Hopkins. And he told me that the big difference is that Black teachers tend to have higher expectations for Black students. Michael, when we were in the green room you were talking about when you were working in Osseo. “I'm Dr. Thomas, I believe in you. And you're going to come in here, and you're going to perform up to your potential.” Tell me about that experience.

Thomas: I'll say, it stems back to when I was in sixth grade. I actually had a sixth-grade teacher who called me the n-word, and said I wasn't going to amount to anything. Now don't get me wrong. I'm sure I was a handful, and maybe wasn't always making the best choices. But to have an adult teacher who had power and influence over me, kind of cut me down at that level. I'm 50 years old, I've never forgotten what that felt like, right. So fast forward to myself being an educator, I knew very well, I was never going to let a young Black kid — basically a mini-me — experience what I experienced.

I had a lot of positive Black men in my life, who countered that. And that was part of my job when I was a principal. Yes, I'm here to serve all kids. And that was a non-negotiable. I also knew I had to bring a point of emphasis for my kids of color. And that was very clear based upon my data. And if you were Black, and you live in a certain zip code and you're coming to my school, I can predict outcomes, unfortunately.

So for me, it was to have a tough conversation, I remember I got criticized for pulling a lot of the Black students together and essentially letting them know, “You're not on track to graduate. And if you continue on this path, you're not going to find success in life.” And there was a lot of backlash to “why would you break confidentiality?” and, you know, having families know each other's business. I'm like, this is a small community. If we don't talk about this and put truth out there, I need the families to come and join me in helping these young men and young girls find a better path in life. And so we were successful in my junior high, closing that achievement gap by almost 45 percent in a period of three years. Because the intentionality was data driven. I could see it, no one can deny it, the numbers are here.

But going back to what Dr. Walker was just saying, it was about a mindset shift. Kids don't come to our schools. They're not dumb, right? These kids are looking to become successful, whatever that means for them. And it's our jobs as adults to be that bridge to that. But if I don't believe as an adult, if I don't believe that this young kid can ever achieve something, you know, subconsciously, it's going to come out in my practice. I'm not gonna call on Eric, you know, call on everybody else in the classroom. I'm not gonna call on Eric. I'm gonna be, you know, writing discipline referrals for young Mr. Francis. if he was my kid. That comes out. Because you can't necessarily change beliefs. Although there's a belief gap. I totally believe that. But I can manage the behaviors that are manifestations of what you believe. And that's what my job was as a principal, as an administrator, to look at the adult behaviors that were derived from their belief sets of what kids are going to do well, and who's not going to do well. And then those were the tough conversations that allowed us to really kind of peel that onion back and get to the core of what we needed to get to.

Hawkins: I'll tell you, it must be hard. Years later, when you're seeing that Black kid that was in your class and he's on TV now or he's, he's the superintendent of schools. Are you reading about kids? You taught and then in the school system and you didn't believe in them. It's an educational journey for a lot of educators in this country.

There's one critical thing growing up in Minnesota taught me. And that's that it's not always about malice or racial animus. A lot of times it's about people not having experience with Black people. You haven't been around Black people in your life. And that means you're bringing a lot of this bias and prejudice into the classroom, to the point that you're still you're nervous around the kid. Am I right about it? … [Cross talk in agreement.]

Francis: The thing is too, the way it comes out, even the way… you hear it in the language… it's always in opposition. So the students who are doing well, “that's such a good kid, they're great family, they're their siblings were smart.” Or if it's a student who is a Black student, “they're in the hall again.” The way it's around, not giving the same amount of grace when an assignment is missing, or a student might be a minute late walking in the room. It's a different tone.

The students I know, see it too. They’ll notice with Black students, the staff is more short with or doesn't call on as much. And I think also too, as a Black staff at a school, I've had times where I can tell staff will kind of dance around saying certain things to me, because they know I'll pick up on what they're really trying to say about that student or their family. And so I do think it's a lack of exposure. You can just tell. Maybe their friendship group might not be as diverse. I think, as educators, being aware of that. Because if you're going to work for Black students, and say that you're working in that neighborhood, or working in an inner city, you have to be cautious and aware of the experiences and have that humility to say, “hey, I don't know what that's like." Let me listen and glean some knowledge from my Black colleagues that are here.” I think that's so important to have that kind of humility.

Robinson: I think that bias… has a lot to do with it, because the white teachers they would have in mind, well, this is how they would behave. I remember when I started early in education, there was just one teacher, and I was working with the Black students to Black boys. And it was always every day, the same two or three would like a revolving door, you know, instead of this person, this male person giving grace or, you know, understanding, “Well, why are these students doing this?” or, you know, trying to work with that student.

But the teachers would have this in mind that they all behave the same way. And, you know, what I've noticed — just to switch gears here — what I've noticed, as far as administrators, right? Principals, you like the assistant principal, was working always with behavior, you know, and that was the role of Black male working in behavior, well, they can take care of these students because they know how to handle them.

But it goes beyond that, you know. Literally it goes beyond that, because if there were Black male teachers in the classroom, then those things wouldn't occur. There wouldn't be suspensions, and, you know, with over-suspending students, students of color males. And I know… about this individual that actually, he graduated this June, and he was in my ethnic studies class a couple of quarters ago. And he never passed. Never, never, in fact, he would disrespect me by calling me Eric by my first name. And toward the middle of the summer. He came in, he owed certain assignments and everything. The teachers were working with them, and they had compassion on him and they knew he had to get graduated. And he graduated, he got everything done. And when he was seeing me, he would call me Mr. Eric, you know, because he was succeeding.

You know, years ago, certain behaviors would come out and everything. And teachers would overlook that day. They gave him time they gave him a rope, you know, just “Hey, you can do this.” And he did it, you know, But in some schools, right, some classrooms, they're not given that chance, if a student is gifted, maybe their behavior is helter-skelter. However, there's something beneath that. Teachers don't always see that. They don't, they look at the behavior first, instead of getting to know their student.

Hawkins: You mentioned, people expecting the same behavior from all of the Black students. And it reminded me of my cousin who went to my high school, North St. Paul, Senior High School, who actually receipt was called to the office, about a matter that pertained to another Black student, where they actually thought he was the black student that they were talking to. And, you know, I've experienced this in corporate America, where I've been called the name of another Black reporter. Whereas you know, and so, that's how deep the issue is. This whole idea of people not knowing how to deal with black people, sometimes not even knowing the difference between Black label.

Thomas: Well, and also, you know, to your question earlier — and Eric, you as well just brought up — they bring one of the four of us in to handle these Black kids. Right? And again, we're all passionate Black men who care deeply about our communities and cared deeply about, you know, Black kids, no doubt. But we're more than that. Right? And we, even as professional men have with degrees, we get relegated, and trapped, right? Just like Hollywood, right? You can act this part.

I'll never forget my very first year as a principal. That was the narrative, you know, and one of the staff came up to me and said, “Hey, just want to let you know, staff are all really happy that you're coming here. And finally, me on the handle a lot of the behaviors is behavior issues of, you know, these students of color.” And I thought to myself, wow… and my very first staff meeting, you know, August workshop week comes up. And one of the statements I said to my staff — which was all white minus one person — was, “just because you're white, doesn't mean you're not right.” And don't think that's going to exonerate you from accountability for all kids in the school. Right?

It gets to that fear piece, Lee, that you were speaking to, like, they don't want to say something, because either they're afraid of being called racist, or whatever it might be, or they just don't know. But at the end of the day, your expectations that you have for some kids need to apply to all kids. And you can't lead from a place of fear. And you can't expect me as a Black person to own your issue. Right? So that was my push to really get my staff to embrace that this is about you, not so much about the student.

Hawkins: Dr. Michael Thomas, we had a conversation and I asked you to send me a copy of your dissertation. The reason I asked for him is because it studies African American male school leaders in predominantly white school systems, and how they negotiate their racial identity without committing cultural sacrifice. And I want to read this sentence that you wrote, you said, and I quote:

“It is said that being a school administrator is a very lonely and challenging position to have, one must continually negotiate who they authentically are, in an effort to remain in the position,” you wrote.

It was 1996, when you wrote this, now that you're a superintendent, and you're actually living this, do you think that you were way ahead of things? I mean, because it seems like that's what we're talking about now is that as educators trying to influence the Black male achievement equation, you're going through your own sort of identity issues with people projecting things on you?

Thomas: That's a deep question, Lee. And yeah, there, you know, when I was the only in a system, it was a real lonely place. On top of that, when you're in higher levels of leadership, there aren't a lot of people you can go to and talk to, because you might feel as though you can't do the job. And you don't ask those kinds of questions, right? And I've had colleagues, they go, “oh, here goes Michael, he's on that Black stuff again.” Right? I mean, colleagues! And I'm sitting here thinking, “if you're saying this to me as an adult, what are you doing with kids when you close your classroom door?” Right?

At the same time, because my deep commitment to ensuring that young Black students didn't experience what I went through, and I could still continue to blaze a trail for them to have a much better-beaten path to go down. I could only say and do so much before the system then would squeeze me out. Right? And so, oftentimes, I felt caught. Because my heart is committed to doing the right thing, and I know me, I know exactly who I am and what I'm about. And thus the name of my title of my dissertation, which is a play off of Sidney Poitier movie, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Right? How how much of my authentic Blackness can I be, before my plate is pulled from the table? Right. And it's a real delicate dance. And this is a negotiation, beyond education that people of color in this country do every single day.

Hawkins: What I hear you talking about is that identity continues to be an issue, the expectations, what people project on you certain stereotypes, certain expectations, and that this is something that you must carry with you everywhere, as you navigate through the professional world. So if we are experiencing this as grown, Black men, let's talk about identity, and the challenge of identity that Black boys are facing every day. And how did they work through that or not?

Francis: Oh, man, there's so much when you talk about identity, I think about it. The first part is, how it shows up as the academic system. So when you're looking at the schoolwork, how often are you seeing yourself mirrored in that work, seeing people that look like you that you're learning about. This past month, Juneteenth, how many students sit and hear about Juneteenth or learn about the history of it. And so just imagine the liberation that comes with being a Black person hearing someone teach you about the true freedom that people who look like you had to fight for and how delayed it was.

But also, I think, especially in Minnesota, our schools have this unspoken toxic culture of attacking students who are marginalized, and it shows up in schools through social media, it shows up in things that are said to students about their identity. So many students talk about how schools don't do anything to speak up when they're attacked as a Black student. Would that bother you? I'm here to learn, I'm here to get an education. I'm hearing these things on an ongoing basis, or I'm seeing other people being called these negative things, either on social media, or in real life. And I have to absorb that day in and day out. And then if I don't have someone at school protecting me to understand what that feels like, that's hard.

So I think that's one of the ways we really need to step up as educators to say, hey, we're gonna call out when we hear at sporting events, people making monkey sounds to the Black athletes, that should not be happening in schools, students posting on social media, calling other kids downward, we got wouldn't, because how would I feel safe going to school if I know that there are seeing that happen? And no one's speaking up?

Hawkins: There's that problem of the external pressure that Black kids are feeling. But there's also the internalization of some of these stereotypes. And I know Dr. Roland Fryer, at Yale talked about a while back, the acting white phenomenon. Where there was actually a social penalty put on kids, the higher their grades, the less socially acceptable they were. And now we're starting to see that sort of shift, which is nice to see that there's that Black male achievement or Black student achievement is not as stigmatized as it once was, but working as the director of Black student achievement in Minneapolis. What do you see along the lines of identity that these kids are dealing with, that our kids are dealing with every day?

Walker: I think it goes back to kind of what Derek mentioned earlier about the curriculum, right? So when we're looking at the curriculum that we have in our schools, we are sharing identity, right? But we're sharing a Eurocentric identity. So in those classrooms, students our white students are getting taught about how they have discovered this, how they have created and invented this, all these great things that they have done, right? Which, okay, fine. Where's that for the other groups in our school system, right? How are we not uplifting those narratives and those stories?

So in our program in Minneapolis public schools, we have a class called BLACK — it stands for Building Lives, Acquiring Cultural Knowledge — where it is designed to teach some Afro-centric curriculum and to show them the benefits that they have created and what they have done for this society in this country, but also goes back to before we came to this country where things were better and things were invented on the continent of Africa. So they understand the foundation of that. So it's not just what happened here on the states, right?

And that is important, right? Because when we think about schooling, and I'll just experience from myself, I learned about being enslaved. That was the foundation of what they told me about myself, right? So if that's the foundation that you are sharing with these young people, well, we are intentionally creating a thought and an idea in these kids minds of who they can be and where they came from. So we have to undo that and show that there is a much better place. Yeah, enslavement was a portion of our history, but it's not all of our history, right?

Hawkins: If you're going to teach enslavement, then teach enslaver, right? and what the role of Thomas Jefferson was, right with his biracial children, some who are buried right here in Madison, Wisconsin. Let's go to that cemetery. Let's bring the classroom to the cemetery to see the kids that Thomas Jefferson had with Sally Hemings. It's important to teach all of that, but the complexity and the nuance of it all.

Eric, you taught ethnic studies, right?

Robinson: Yeah.. and if I could piggyback on you, doctor, the same thing, you know identity. When students first come into that classroom, I say, “Well, what is your story? Know your story.” However, it may be in your, in your family, but it still goes back to slavery. You know, none of us have color, or Indigenous Natives, have not had a certain history, you know, through the colonists. So, I know the boy talks about a double consciousness. Right. And we experienced that as adults, as a Black man. But the students they need to know who they are, and where they've come from, and where they're heading.

Hawkins: I mean, you taught ethnic studies, at a time in which there is a national backlash against teaching of ethnic studies, right? People calling it critical race theory — which it isn't. It's American history. So tell me about ethnic studies in teaching it and, and the effect that that has on not only students of color, but students in general of all races.

Robinson: I think the point where I come from, when I'm teaching that class, I want to co taught that class is not just African Americans, but Indigenous Natives, Asian Americans, you know our whole global society has been affected by colonialists. And not just England, but Portuguese and Spaniards. So this is an area that our kids, our Black kids, our students, they come from communities where, you know, they're not exposed to it in education. I've learned some of this while I was teaching, you know, research, because I hadn't had this in elementary, middle, even in undergraduate, master's. I had none of this and I had to learn it on my own, so I can teach it. So if this can happen to me, can you imagine what our students are dealing with? You know, they're not exposed to it.

Hawkins: I want to shift the conversation. Let's talk a little bit about the school to prison pipeline. Growing up, there were two places in Minnesota that you had to avoid if you were a young Black boy, it was Totem Town and Red Wing. Those were juvenile detention centers that people went to, and many came back and they were never the same. In fact, I can remember the precise days that some people were literally placed by a teacher on the school to prison pipeline. It was: You got in a fight. You had marijuana. You had a knife. You'll never amount to anything, get out of my class right now. You're out of here.

And that's just enough to ruin a kid's life. And you're sending them into a community, unfortunately, where they do feel accepted. And that begins the school to prison pipeline. I know people who are still in prison right now that I went to school with. Is that something that you see and how do you make the schools more sensitive to the trauma that leads kids to make the mistakes that lead them into juvenile detention?

Walker: Yeah. And you talked about the ones that are like front and center that we see all the time. Right? Right. So whatever, those are the ones that we see, but there's other school to prison pipeline that may be invisible to, to the outside world.

Hawkins: Like what?

Walker: Like, directing our kids into special education programs and labeling them as EBD. Because now you get on this transition, and now you’re in a “level four” setting. And now you’re in an enclosed school… that’s another, maybe less direct way that we may not see on the outside. So do those things happen? Yes, of course, they happen.

What we have to start to do is really, again, center, what are we talking about? Are we really looking at behavior from a Eurocentric lens? Right? We talked about student not being able to fill the full range of emotions, our Black students with the social and emotional learning? Well, if I get angry, my anger may show up differently. That doesn't mean that I am a threat. That doesn't mean that I should be sent down to the SRO office or whatever, I'm just upset right now. And give me time to go through my emotions and go through that. But I don't get an opportunity to do that. And so now I am put into this category that I am violent, that I am a threat. And now, anything that I do, gets heightened. So, what we're talking about here is confirmation bias. Right? So now we have educators who are looking to confirm their bias that they already have about these Black students by when they make one act.

Thomas: And they’ll push the button until the trigger pops. Now that student is… like Dr. Walker just said. And in the thing is, it's those both macro and micro… acts that are committed particularly on young kids of color, and a lot of the prevention work that Michael has done with the BLACK program. I remember years ago, when I was doing project COFI, in St. Paul Public Schools, same thing. It was doing a lot of co-teaching with my colleagues, giving them an additional lens to look through that they just weren't… They didn't get trained in their teacher prep programs, right? Or they weren't comfortable. They weren't, you know, fill in the blank, as we've just talked about earlier. But we've all seen our colleagues, particularly our white colleagues who, who may have that light turn on for themselves, like, “Oh, I see that now.”

So I don't want to, you know, be in this doomsday conversation, right? That nothing is going well. There's a lot of improvement, no doubt. But there are — I'll speak for myself, I know these brothers, and probably validate too, but we've all seen opportunities where, where teachers get it, and they lean into that space. And they take that and now, they are part of that conversation of helping this young kid. But that goes back to us just not being the ones relegated to that space. It's way bigger than the four of us. We can do a lot. But you know, we don't have “S”s on our chests or wear red capes to work.

Hawkins: We're gonna wrap up in a minute. But I just have two more questions. Why aren't there more Black men teaching in the classroom? And what can be done to recruit and retain more?

Robinson: Yeah, this thing about recruitment. I went through a program through St. Thomas. And I already had my BA in another area. But I was recruited by an individual who saw something in me and said, “Well, yeah, you know, you'd be a great teacher.” Two men: first Dr. Terrell, and this man that was a recruiter. I think our universities — we have quite a few within the Twin Cities — need to send out those recruiters to our schools. Because, like we mentioned earlier, your gift is gifted students in the classrooms, Black boys and girls in the classrooms already. Those that might be in high schools, junior seniors, and recruiters from these universities or these, you know, these schools, these colleges, need to go into these high schools and have some type of programs, with incentives, to get these young men or women out, and say “Hey, this is for the community. You can do this.”

It might be me, but it has to be somebody from these colleges that knows what's going on in the schools and collaborate with these schools and have them go in and recruit. Or communities, whatever community access, organizations, nonprofits that are out there, as well. I mean, you have, I can't think of it off the top of my head, but that's what needs to be done.

Francis: As I'm hearing this, because I'm from Minnesota. Minneapolis, Twin Cities area born and raised. I went to Champlin Park High School, Anoka-Hennepin area. And I had one Black teacher my entire K-12 career. And then, when I was in high school, I had a white teacher who saw me working with elementary kids through the child care occupation course. And she started saying, “Whoa! You're talented, you're good.” And I share this because it was something that I carried with me.

When I went to get my licensure to be a school counselor, I originally wanted to be a news anchor. And I started volunteering after I didn't get a gig as a news anchor. And then my teacher, I saw her again, she was like “You know have you ever think about going into counseling.” And then when I got to the University of Minnesota, I met a professor there that would speak into me, it was like you're talented. And mind you, I was the only black man in my course in high school and in my program for school counseling. And so the importance of that belief, that encouragement. And so that's something I carry with me.

And I say this also to white listeners out there, don't think you can't do the work. Don't think for a second that it's only… it because there's not enough Black people in education for us to wait for just us to do it. So white educators, we need you. We're in this all together. And so speak into... have that belief in your heart about Black boys. See the potential and the skills, we see it speak into it, because who knows where that seed will land. And so I think it's so important. That's what we really need to do. And I do that. That's why I want to be a school counselor, because I know the power of not just having that belief, but it's speaking that word for people.

Hawkins: Dr. Walker, I know one thing that you said that was powerful — of the many things you've said — was: If we're not creating an environment where Black men or Black boys feel comfortable in the educational setting, what makes them want to come back?

Walker: I say it all the time. We're probably the only profession that has students for 13 years to recruit. So if our Black boys are getting a horrible experience going through the school system, why would they choose to come back and work in it? So the first thing we have to do is give them a better experience. Meaning: Do we value them while they're in the school system? Do we see that they're great and their genius, is what Derek is speaking about. If we can do that, then we may have more of them interested in this profession.

The second thing is what Derek said is, who is being directly speaking that into students? Hey, you know what, Michael Thomas, as a second grader, you would be a really good teacher one day you ever thought about that profession?

Hawkins: Is that what happened [to you] Mike?

Walker: It didn't happen with me. But I'll tell you, it happened with my daughter. So my daughter, who's going to be a senior at Hampton University next year, is an elementary education major. And it was that intentionality from my mother-in-law. She was a first grade teacher. And long ago when my daughter was a little girl said, “you'd be a great teacher, you know?” and she's never forgotten that and so she will be graduating and anybody looking to hire a dynamic teacher?


Hawkins: In the Green Room, you said, “Are you sure you want to do that?"

Walker: I did! You know, I had to have that conversation. I mean, given what's going on in education these days, I mean, it can be a scary space. But my daughter, she's committed to kids, you know, and she's been working at that youth program and champion, you know, she graduate from Champlain Park High School as well. Derek was her counselor and, you know, again, I mean, I credit you know, people like Mr. Francis, who really helped, you know, stay in touch with her to keep her inspired to be great.

Listen to the full conversation with the audio player above.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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