Needed: More African-American teachers in Michigan’s public schools


This young Black male student had come over from Flint to attend Lansing Community College, but then he started skipping my class. When I asked about that, he said he was unhappy being the only Black person in the class. I asked a Black male science professor to talk with him.  Whatever words passed between the two encouraged my student. His attendance improved, and he passed my course.

We need more Black teachers, but what the nation has is a preponderance of white ones. The need to beef up the ranks of Black teachers is urgent.

That’s why Black people should investigate Michigan’s programs to increase the number of teachers. There are two: Future Proud Michigan Educator Grow Your Own for those who are already school employees, and Talented Together for everyone else.

As of December 2023, 139  school districts have received $128 million in grants from Grow Your Own. Of that, $66 million will reimburse costs for school staff to become certified teachers.

The goal is to increase the numbers of certified teachers in areas of shortage, which is pretty much our entire state. We need thousands of teachers. If all of them were Black, that wouldn’t be too many.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported last spring that for every ethnic group, except one, the percentage of K-12 students outstrips the percentage of teachers by about two to one. The one group where the percentage of teachers is far higher than students is whites.

In the 2020-‘21 school year, American public schoolteachers were 80 percent white and public school students were 43 percent white; African Americans made up 6 percent of teachers and 12 percent of students. Of the nearly 3 million American teachers, 23 percent were men and 77 percent were women.

We are talking about white women dominating the U.S. teaching profession.

I suspect the situation is the same in Michigan, but state data did not include whites. It showed that compared to the U.S., Michigan has a higher percentage of Black students attending public school.

Do we need all those white women as teachers? At first, we did, yes, absolutely. History shows white women have been faithful to the mission of educating Black people despite the penalty.

“The Norton Anthology of African American Literature,” edited Henry Louis Gates Jr., host of the PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” says that a South Carolina law of 1739 said that any person who “who shall hereafter teach, or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, …  shall, for every offense forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds current money.”

But white women had little fear of the fine because they home-schooled Blacks. For instance, abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography that he was taught “the A, B, C” by “my mistress,” the white wife of his enslaver.

Teaching Black people to read and write was a dignified profession that also met the Christian standard. It made them good people.

The legendary Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically Black college, was established in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary by two white women from Massachusetts.  In its second year of existence, the seminary gained the support of oil titan John D. Rockefeller. The school was renamed in 1884 for his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller.

Contemporary culture balances these white savior stories with stories of how Black educators are lifting the race up. 

Oscar-award-winning actor Denzel Washington played the teacher Melvin B. Tolson, a Black debate team coach at Wiley College, a historically Black school in Texas. Based on a true story, “The Great Debaters” (2007) shows Tolson’s efforts to place his debate team on equal footing with white teams, which resulted in his team winning a national championship. Critics called the film “inspiring.” 

Knowing the dynamics that slavery plays in the background, Black teachers as a rule feel a mission to inspire their students. Consider nationally known educator Mary McCloud Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, who set the standard of education at historically Black colleges and universities.

In Detroit, public schoolteacher Catherine C. Blackwell lead the 1970s effort to heighten awareness of African and African American contributions to the U.S.A.  A Detroit elementary school is named for her.

A product of the Lansing Public Schools, Vivian Byrd Riddle attended Michigan State University and then came back to Lansing to teach foreign language. A westside elementary school is named for her.

At the Lansing People’s Assembly program in fall 2023, a half-dozen Black Lansing teachers complained about being excluded, either formally or informally, from instructing Black Lansing public school students.

Yet, as Superintendent Ben Shuldiner campaigns to increase enrollment of all students, he touts the accomplishments of Steven Lonzo, a Black man, the retired principal of an exemplary, high-achieving elementary school in the district.

The Education Commission of the States, a state-level policy consulting group based in Denver, says studies show that teachers of color in the classroom reduce chronic absenteeism, and their expectations for high performance for students of color result in, among other benefits, improved outcomes in test scores in reading and math. 

Black Americans can raise up and overcome obstacles, such as college costs, to become certified teachers. Grow Your Own is a tax-supported program that can help deliver more Black teachers. For further information, go to michiganteacher.org, and for those non-school employees, go to Talenttogether.org.

(Dedria Humphries Barker is the author of “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.” Her monthly column appears on the last Wednesday.)


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