ATLANTA—On Monday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan renewed his call for more black men to pick up the chalk and teach.
Joined by filmmaker Spike Lee, Duncan issued the invitation during a town hall meeting and panel discussion hosted by Morehouse College and moderated by MSNBC contributor Jeff Johnson. The event was part of the Department of Education’s TEACH campaign, designed to raise awareness of the teaching profession and get a new generation of teachers to join the ones who are already making a difference in the classroom.
One Morehouse student spoke about the importance of African American students seeing caring, responsible and honest black men in positions of authority, because it helps them to recognize what is possible. The student argued that right now not enough of these positive images are visible to today’s youth.
During the town hall, Duncan stressed that the need for black male teachers is the greatest in elementary and middle schools. Panelists echoed this sentiment, many recalling that they did not encounter a black male teacher until late in high school or college.
An overarching theme of the town hall was the importance of education as a civil right. Georgia Congressman John Lewis remarked on the apt timing of the town hall, taking place on the cusp of Black History Month. He recalled that for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others at the center of America’s struggle for civil rights, education was paramount. He also recounted the many ways in which Dr. King served as a teacher for those around him.
Morehouse student Anthony Gayles affirmed the importance of education in the struggle for civil rights, saying, “Education is the greatest equalizer…if we are successful in extending quality education to every citizen, there will be no more excuses. No one will be able to say that I didn’t get a chance.”
Gayles and Morehouse student Carlton Collins started the Morehouse Education Association, an organization on campus dedicated to steering new graduates into careers in education.
On a personal note, this was my first visit to Morehouse College—the only all-male historically black college in the country—and I cannot overstate how impressed I was with the students there. Sitting on the campus that produced Dr. King, I couldn’t help but look at this group of smartly dressed, articulate black men and think, “Look how far we have come.” Still, faced with the startling fact that black males represent 6 percent of the U.S. population yet 35 percent of the prison population and less than 2 percent of teachers, I can’t help but think, “How far we have to go.”
If the young men who attended Monday’s town hall are any indication, all of America has reason to be hopeful.
Jemal Graham is a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches math in Brooklyn, N.Y. View video of Jemal speaking about the importance of teaching.
View video of Secretary Duncan’s speech at historically black Xavier University, where he launched the TEACH campaign.
Read Arne Duncan’s “Call to Service” lecture at Harvard University.