Liberating Structures: Why Black Male Educators Leave the Field (part 1)

“It is strange, then, that the friends of truth and the promoters of freedom have not risen up against the present propaganda in the schools and crushed it.”

- Carter G. Woodson

Being a Black Male Educator has become the real life version of being the Dothraki Warriors charging into battle against the White Walkers with our swords lit for liberation, only to watch them slowly dim and eventually fade out into the good night, with no mythical savior in sight.

One question I’m always asking myself and my teachers (aka my students) is, what is the “why” or your intention for what it is you’re doing? As an educator I am always examining my motivations, intentions and “why,” from school-planning to lesson-planning to even what we’re serving for lunch. Yet in the darkest and the toughest moments, the why I’ve always felt myself asking is, “Why do I choose to stay?”

Why do I choose to keep doing this work? 

Two times in my 15 years as an educator has that question shifted my career and my life. The first time led me on a journey to seek knowledge of self to find my personal “why.” The second, a journey which I’m currently on, led to an unapologetic sharpening of my professional “why.”

Both times took me out of my comfort zone and and led me onto a different path along this journey. I’m fortunate. I believe education, young people and learning constitute my purpose. I will always try to be connected to it in one shape or form.

One of my first students/mentors, Craig, years ago wanted to get his masters and, like many of my students, asked about the career path of becoming an educator. And I did everything in my power to dissuade him from going into education, even as the guy who often feels lonely in it.

Why? Because my instinct to protect trumped my instinct to promote our profession. Because I wanted to protect him from the heartbreak of knowing sometimes your best won’t be enough — that kids who look just like him will be criminalized, sexualized and underserved before they even hit puberty and that the heroes that he had as educators, including me, aren’t the perfect archetypes we place outside our classroom doors.

I’ll never forget, though, his sentiment back to me. “I’ve looked up to you, and you love this, and so I want to love this.”

That conversation shifted my entire focus on what my presence meant beyond just being a Black male in the classroom or the school house. That incongruence forced me to think deeply and more critically about my role as an educator. As always, Craig, my former student, has been one of my greatest teachers.

Seeing a National Teacher of the Year finalist like Nate Bowling walk away recently forced us to consider deeply what it means for his school and a system. Some say the system is broken, some say it is doing exactly what it is design to do. What we can agree upon is that it has never adequately served black and brown children — and what’s rarely mentioned is that it has never served black and brown educators adequately either.

“There's a point far out there, when the structures fail you. When the rules aren't weapons anymore, they're shackles, letting the bad guy get ahead... Maybe one day, you may face such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did! To plunge their hands into the filth, so that you can keep yours clean!”

-Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), The Dark Knight Rises 2012

Black Male Educators make up 2 percent of the teaching population in the United States. That stat really stuck out to me when I realized that as a Black male educator I hadn’t (until recently) really explored recruiting other black male educators. I was just happy if I saw another one or if one was interested in hearing about my students.

Those of us that have found our way into that 2 percent often don’t finish our careers in the classroom or even in the field. Why? 

We leave because:

  1. We’re often times the lonely only (this can be as certificated or just the only Black male in general)

  2. Our experience, expertise or knowledge is misunderstood as some mythical black magic with no regard for the work that relationships and culture cultivation take.

  3. We often face the same microaggressions from our co-workers or superiors that our students face.

  4. We are frequently given defacto security/dean of student/behavior support roles (even if that’s not our position).

  5. We are oftentimes pressed hard against the career glass ceiling. (Your students in place X need you but you’d also like to not become Super Security/Assistant Principal or become even lonelier in a systems-level role, as only 3% of all principals are black)

  6. We watch as both the helpless victim and silent perpetuator of a system that we simultaneously watch destroy younger versions of ourselves. Daily.

This not a comprehensive experience nor is it an exhaustive list, yet it’s based in very real experiences that may shape a large portion of that 2 percent. If by 2024 the population of our country will have our students being 49 percent white and 51 percent black and brown, we’ve got to find a solution fast to recruit, retain and retrain talented educators of color.

Amazing programs such as the Fellowship of Black Male Educators out of Philadelphia, Profound Gentlemen in the South and Southeastern portion of the country, and Kingmakers of Oakland are all doing their parts. And there’s so much more to be done.

The structures and systems are shackles. We have to remind ourselves that we the people are the system. Our participation keeps the gears turning.

It’s time we break the shackles! We know some of the problem. Next we can begin to explore some of the opportunities and the hope within. Until then, keep those fires lit!



The Peoples Champion: Ryland Brown

The term People’s Champion (shout out Muhammad Ali and Dwayne Johnson)  resonates with me when it comes to extra-ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

As a feature every blog, I want to focus on one of those people to shine a light on the brilliance and the work that sometimes doesn’t get proper notice.

If you follow sports, especially basketball, the term “glue guy” is one you’ve heard used to describe a player who is that “x factor” or that indescribable property that is un-mistakingly vital to the success of the team.

Tim Duncan, even though a superstar, was dubbed as an Elite Glue Guy. Players now like Draymond Green or Andre Igudola, you know they do a lot and you know they do it well.

Ryland Brown is the glue guy in the academic community, whether that’s having taught an entire generation of students that it’s cool to be a mathematician and critical thinker as a Black male Math Instructor at Denny Middle School (now as a STEM instructor at Odea High School). Yet concurrently as a glue guy in his community, being the consistent brain trust behind numerous State Championship Basketball Teams as an assistant coach, supporting local developmental youth track teams or being on the board for local drill teams, Ryland doesn’t crave or need the fanfare. He is just the glue that quietly holds so many different functions together.

As a father, husband (his brilliant wife Sade is a rockstar teacher at THE Rainier Beach High School who does awesome weekly HBCU swag Fridays!) and as a friend he is also one of the most consistent, authentic and loyal people you could ask for. He may be part of the 2 percent of Black male educators, but he’s in the top 1 percent of all human beings. Ryland Brown is a super glue guy, a true local hero and a champion of the people