What’s the future of teacher diversity in NC? Colleges of education may hold the answer

January 25, 2019
Dawn Hicks Tafari, an assistant professor of education at Winston-Salem State University, teaches a course called "Advancing the Academic Success of Black Males" on Oct. 30, 2018.

Muhammed Clemons wanted to be a high school history teacher. That was the plan, anyway, until he walked into his aunt’s elementary school classroom and saw the way her students looked at him.

“I’d heard before, ‘Oh, yeah, we need black male teachers in the elementary schools.’ … And I’m just like, ‘Ah, OK, it can’t be that bad,’” said Clemons, a 21-year-old senior at Winston-Salem State University. “But I actually went into the elementary school and the way they interacted with me, it’s just like they were seeing a unicorn.”

Then a freshman education major at Winston-Salem State, Clemons decided to switch his focus from high school history to elementary education. Young students needed to see more black men in the classroom, he decided. He wished he had seen more in school growing up. Maybe it would have saved him from some hurtful experiences that haunt him to this day.

Clemons is a rarity in the college world. Of the more than 6,600 undergraduate students who enrolled in North Carolina’s colleges of education in 2016-17, only 126 of them were black men – 2 percent. The numbers were even worse for Hispanic men. Only 26, or 0.4 percent, were enrolled during that same time, according to data submitted by the colleges of education.

In North Carolina, nearly 50 colleges – both public and private – offer teacher preparation programs. They serve as the major supplier of teachers for this state. Their undergraduate programs range in size from just a few students to more than 1,000, but no matter the size, many of the colleges share something in common – they enroll mostly white, mostly female students.

Ten of the colleges enrolled more than 90 percent white students in their undergraduate education programs during the 2016-17 year, according to data analyzed by WRAL News. In a state where students of color, especially black and Hispanic boys, may seldom or never have a teacher who looks like them during their school years, a mostly white college pipeline has contributed to the ongoing diversity gap.

College education leaders say the lack of diversity among their students is “very troubling” and acknowledge they need to work harder to encourage minority students, and particularly men of color, to enter education careers. But colleges aren’t alone in their struggle.

North Carolina’s long-running Teaching Fellows program, a state-funded program that recruited more than 10,000 students to study teaching by providing college tuition help, failed to reach its own goals of bringing in more men and students of color during its nearly 25-year history. The state’s new version of the Teaching Fellows program, which lawmakers relaunched last year without any apparent gender or race goals, still comprises mostly white, mostly female students.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: In this two-part series, WRAL News investigates teacher recruitment and diversity in North Carolina’s public schools and colleges of education. In part one, we analyzed the current state of teacher diversity in North Carolina’s 115 public school systems. Today, in part two, we investigate diversity and recruitment at North Carolina’s colleges of education and the NC Teaching Fellows program. WRAL education reporter Kelly Hinchcliffe received a grant to work on this series. She was selected as a national Education Writers Association reporting fellow last summer.

If North Carolina wants to recruit more teachers of color, it’s going to need a better marketing strategy, says Beth Day-Hairston, chair of the education department at Winston-Salem State University. She suggests an “all-out media effort to show the positive sides of being a classroom teacher,” including sharing data and studies about why teacher diversity is important, providing more financial support for men to become educators, and recruiting students in high schools and even earlier to study teaching.

“Society has done a pretty good job convincing people not to go into teacher education, and now we have to fix that mindset,” Day-Hairston said. “If this is something that we value, then we’re going to have to provide resources for students, for male students, to come to school.”

Other North Carolina college leaders agree and say the state should launch a massive marketing campaign to encourage more students of color, and more students in general, to study teaching.

WRAL News emailed leaders of North Carolina’s 46 colleges of education and asked what they are doing to recruit students of color, what hurdles they face and how the state can help them improve diversity in the teaching profession. Several themes emerged in their responses. Besides better marketing of the teaching profession, college leaders said higher pay for teachers and more scholarships and financial support for students of color would help.

“North Carolina is at a crossroads that will affect the future of our state for several future generations,” Kim Winter, dean of Western Carolina’s College of Education, wrote. “If we continue to fail to design, fund, and intentionally implement positive and diverse changes, we will move toward more inequities, retention issues (and) fail to grow and sustain our population of teachers.”

Western Carolina University, which has historically been a predominantly white institution, is working to bring more students of color into its teaching programs. They have partnerships with several minority schools and have tried to bring in more Cherokee students in particular. But there are obstacles.

“I believe the diversity of our community at large and demographics of the region pose the greatest challenge for recruitment of students of color into the field of teaching,” Winter said.

Western Carolina University enrolled more than 90 percent white students in its undergraduate education program in 2016-17. The university’s staff is only moderately diverse and the school has struggled with issues of prejudice, racial disparity and a lack of regional diversity, according to Winter, but they are taking “serious steps” to address those problems and make sure all students feel welcome on campus.

“Bottom line – this is a topic for which we have great passion,” Winter said.

Winston-Salem State University, a historically black college, is working to produce more minority teachers as well, and to help them better serve students of color. The university launched a class called “Advancing the Academic Success of Black Males,” a popular teacher preparation course that fills quickly each time it’s offered. That representation matters, the school’s education chair says, because teachers are role models to their students.

“They watch the way you talk. They watch the way you walk, the way you act, the way you interact,” Day-Hairston said. “You may not go into this profession thinking you’re a role model, but no matter where you are, people are looking at you when you’re in education.”

Winston-Salem State education major Muhammed Clemons wants to be a role model to his future students, especially those who struggle in school like he did. As a student, he didn’t have any black male teachers to look up to, he says.

In school, Clemons was known as the “problem child” and struggled with the way teachers handled his disobedience. He remembers a time in eighth grade, when he was acting out, his white male teacher pounced with words that still sting to this day.

“Basically, he said, ‘If you don’t stop doing that everyone’s going to hate you more than they already do,’” Clemons said. “I was like, ‘Wow, he just said that to me.’ .... You don’t really say stuff like that to anybody, but much less to an eighth grader. So, you know, I kept that in my mind.”

Telling the story now, as a 21-year-old senior education major, the hurt is still visible. Clemons closes his eyes as he recalls his teacher’s words.

“I feel like my approach to those types of children can be better than some, some of the ways that the teachers approached me when I was in school,” he said.

Researchers who have analyzed the effects teacher race can have on students say having a teacher of color can help minority students perform better in reading and math, score higher on standardized tests and be more likely to attend college. Known as the “role-model effect,” researchers say students of color benefit both academically and emotionally from seeing a teacher who looks like them. However, “little is known about the long-run, sustained impacts of student-teacher demographic matches,” according to the researchers.

In Clemons’ case, although he didn’t have any black male teachers growing up, he does have fond memories of his first male teacher, Mr. Willard in the third grade.

“I remember him specifically. He knew how to deal with me,” Clemons said, adding that the two are now friends on Facebook.

Clemons wants to have a similar influence on his future students. While he has contemplated being a principal someday, it’s not his goal.

“My dream job specifically is an elementary teacher. That’s my dream job,” he said.

North Carolina college of education leaders say they are hoping to recruit more students like Clemons. But finding people of color, especially men, with a passion for teaching will require more creative recruiting efforts.

Patricia Harris noticed the teacher diversity gap not long after she started working at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education in May 2017. As the new recruitment director, she wanted to see what kinds of students the school had been enrolling. After looking at five years’ of the school’s data and overall demographic data of teachers nationwide, she knew what she needed to do.

“(I) just saw that there is a need for more teachers of color,” she said. “I feel like my role is definitely needed.”

This past November, Harris brought 10 minority students to UNC-Chapel Hill for two days for a new diversity recruitment effort she created called “EduConnections.” Nine students from historically black colleges and one high school student took part in the program and got to meet with UNC’s education faculty and students, visit classes and meet with representatives from Profound Gentlemen, a Charlotte-based organization that supports male educators of color.

“We also invited students from community colleges, tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions as well,” Harris said. “We want to keep it small and intimate so students can have that one-on-one attention.”

In her year and a half on the job, Harris has visited historically black colleges to recruit students for UNC’s master’s-level education program. She has reached out to local churches to find people of color who want to be teachers. She has produced radio ads, which she writes and voices herself, and spoken on panels about diversity. She has also participated in The National Name Exchange, a group of 55 universities that collect and exchange names of talented minority students each year to increase the enrollment of underrepresented students in graduate schools.

“I create an overall recruitment plan and most of it is tailored towards recruiting a diverse population of students,” Harris said. “Because of the changing demographics of the nation itself, we want to have a workforce that kind of reflects that.”

A product of a historically black college herself, Harris wanted to show students of color that UNC-Chapel Hill is an approachable, welcoming school.

“I serve as like a resource, a place of solace for those (students),” Harris said, “and being able to educate them and offer a level of understanding that some of my colleagues may not be able to offer.”

Her work is gaining recognition. A national council that reviews teacher preparation programs noted UNC-Chapel Hill’s efforts to build a more diverse student body. And UNC School of Education Dean Fouad Abd-El-Khalick has been pleased with Harris’ efforts, calling “EduConnections” a “very promising” diversity event for the school that will be expanded in the future.

“Our school is committed to attracting and educating educational professionals from minority and underrepresented populations,” Abd-El-Khalick said in a statement. “The underrepresentation of minority educators in our institutions of public education is very troubling and continues to be rather large. Concerted and wide-ranging efforts to address this gap are much needed, and EduConnections is one of these efforts.”

UNC-Chapel Hill has seen declines in its school of education enrollment over the years, as have other colleges across the state. Part of the reason for UNC’s drop, though, was its recent decision to end its undergraduate teacher program and shift to a master’s-level program, which can be completed in 15 months. Diana Lys, UNC-Chapel Hill’s assistant dean of educator preparation and accreditation, told WRAL News last year that the university made the change after noticing more students with undergraduate degrees in various fields were expressing a passion to teach.

“It kind of gives us the opportunity to try some new, different things at a time when we really need to not be repeating the same old, same old in teacher preparation,” Lys said. “The pathways to becoming a teacher in North Carolina are changing. They’re not your undergraduate who comes to you out of high school with a desire to become a teacher.”

UNC’s recruitment director remains focused on her goal of finding new ways to bring in more students of color. She says UNC-Chapel Hill and other colleges of education need to work harder to encourage minority students, and particularly men of color, to consider becoming teachers.

“Because of the changing demographics of the nation itself, we want to have a workforce that kind of reflects that,” Harris said.

But even if North Carolina colleges do produce more male and minority teachers of color, that doesn’t mean they’ll choose to teach locally. Some students say it depends on what schools and states are recruiting them the most. Take Devin Rankin, for example. These days, the 21-year-old Winston-Salem State University senior says he feels like a highly sought-after athlete. School systems in Georgia, Virginia and Connecticut have all expressed interest in him for teaching positions once he graduates.

“It feels amazing and it tells me that I picked the right profession, honestly,” said Rankin, an elementary education major from Charlotte.

One state that hasn’t tried to recruit him, he says, is North Carolina.

“It’s kind of weird,” Rankin said. Other states say, “‘Come on, this is where you can stay. This is how much we will pay you. When can you start?’ And then North Carolina’s just kind of like, ‘Apply.’”

He would like to teach in North Carolina, especially in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where he attended school and has dreamed of being a principal someday. But, for now, he is focusing on states that have shown more interest in him.

“It’s actually kind of annoying, like to be completely honest, because of course I want to service and help the area that I’m a part of,” Rankin said. But “North Carolina was kind of just like, ‘Yeah, in March we’ll start looking at (applicants).’ But in March, I plan to have my decision already. So it’s just like, eh.”

Coming from a family of educators – including his mother, grandfather and aunt – teaching has been a natural career path for Rankin. Elementary school is where he wants to be, preferably in third through fifth grades. Kids at that age are like sponges and beginning to discover who they are, he says. Those are also the beginning of the all-important testing years, when kids can learn to fall in love with school or hate it, he says.

The rarity of being a black male teaching in an elementary school is not lost on Rankin. He didn’t have his first black male teacher until 11th grade calculus.

“Having a black male teacher, I not only got content knowledge but I got life lessons as well,” Rankin said. “He had a different level of expectations for me. It was a little bit higher and I knew that and he made it well aware. So I always met his expectations and then tried to surpass them if I could … It was always interesting to me how he could push me a little bit further than other people could.”

If North Carolina wants more black male teachers in its classrooms, Rankin says, school systems need to do a better job of recruiting them. But more importantly, he says, the state needs to decide if it even wants more black men in classrooms.

“Being needed and being wanted are two different things,” Rankin said. “So, yes, of course they need male teachers, but does everybody necessarily want male teachers? … The state could wrestle with that question: Do we want black male teachers?”

Colleges of education aren’t the only ones struggling to enroll more diverse students. Even North Carolina’s former Teaching Fellows Program, which was created to attract more students to the teaching profession, failed to reach its goals of bringing in more students of color.

Created in 1986, Teaching Fellows recruited top students to enter the teaching profession by providing them with college tuition help and leadership training in exchange for a promise to teach in North Carolina for at least four years. Lawmakers dismantled the program as part of budget cuts enacted during the recession, and the final participants graduated from college in 2015.

To many, the program was a success and a national model of how state funds could be used to recruit more teachers. It lasted nearly 25 years, was on 17 college campuses across the state and enrolled more than 10,600 students who wanted to be teachers, helping to boost the state’s teacher pipeline.

But one area it didn’t fare as well was diversity. The program had a goal of selecting at least 20 percent minorities and at least 30 percent men. In the end, the program failed to deliver. Overall, they had 17 percent minorities and 24 percent males.

“We fell short,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which ran the old Teaching Fellows Program. “That’s one of the areas that didn’t work.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying, Poston said.

“This is something that I’ve kind of gone back and analyzed,” he said. “We would offer 30 to 40 percent of the scholarships to students of color.”

But not all accepted the offer. Some students opted for scholarships at universities that didn’t require any specific service to the state, Poston said.

“It is a vexing problem that still faces education today. I mean, here we are are, our public school students are less than 50 percent white, yet our teaching workforce is 80 percent white and 80 percent female, roughly the same numbers we had 30 years ago,” he said.

The new Teaching Fellows program, which launched last year, is focused on recruiting students who want to teach special education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), but does not have any apparent gender or diversity goals for the students who are selected. The new program has also not partnered with any Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as it did in the past. Only one HBCU applied for the new program, North Carolina A&T State University. It was not selected.

The new program has continued to select mostly white, mostly female students. Of the 74 students selected for the new program, 83 percent are white. Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who helped champion the return of the new program, said he did not know about its lack of diversity.

“I would not have known that. I’m disappointed in that,” Horn said. “Why is that so?”

The N.C. Teaching Fellows Commission, which has 14 members, selects the applicants. WRAL News made numerous requests to interview the head of the new Teaching Fellows Program, but was never granted an interview. The Teaching Fellows annual report released earlier this month does mention diversity, but there are no specific goals.

“While increasing gender and racial diversity remains a challenge for educator preparation programs around the nation, the membership of the Teaching Fellows Commission has identified this as a key priority as the program moves forward,” according to the report.

Poston, who heads the Public School Forum of NC, said his group is glad to see the Teaching Fellows program back up and running, especially with a focus on much-needed STEM and special education teachers. But there is room for improvement, he says.

“I would certainly encourage that the legislature look at having some more diversity goals tied to it as well,” Poston said. “I think it would also be helpful to have the Teaching Fellows program back on historically black college campuses. I mean, the fact that we just created a new program and completely shut out the HBCUs is appalling.”

Horn bristles at that notion.

“I certainly would not share the view that it’s appalling,” Horn said. “That’s a word … I don’t care to use it under pretty much any circumstance. I’ve seen appalling, so that doesn’t apply. Do I think we need to to do some of the things that we used to do? Yes, I do.”

Gov. Roy Cooper says expanding the Teaching Fellows program is one of his top education priorities this year.

“We need to have a significant expansion of the Teaching Fellows Program,” Cooper said last week while meeting with the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee. “It’s one of the best bang for the buck that I can imagine. … We’re getting the very best students who are agreeing to be teachers in our public schools for the next four years for the price of tuition and fees. To me, that is an amazing deal, and we need to expand these Teaching Fellows scholarships.”

The governor said he also wants to encourage more diversity in teaching.

“That means more men and it means more people of color in the profession,” Cooper said. “I strongly believe our state government, our law enforcement, our education system ought to look like the people that it serves and protects ... It is important for us to have a diversity of teachers to reflect the diversity of students we have at our public schools.”

With the new Teaching Fellows now entering its second year, Rep. Horn said he is open to making changes to the program and expanding it to recruit more students. But he is not sure what kind of diversity goals, if any, should be included.

“I’m not qualified to say, ‘Well, out of 75 (students), 25 should be African-American or Hispanic American or Czech American,’” he said. “I want to know from people with experience, with knowledge, with a perspective different than mine. That’s how decisions should be made … Decisions should not be made on some arbitrary number.”

Horn believes incentives and rewards, not quotas, are the way to bring more people of color into the teaching profession. But, he says, he does not support “diversity for diversity’s sake.”

“For me, it’s all about student outcomes. That’s all I care about,” he said. “And I don’t mean to belittle or minimize anything else, but at the end of the day it’s about student outcomes … The emphasis has got to be on high quality, first and foremost. But that doesn’t mean turn a blind eye to to diversity. Not at all.”

The conservative Civitas Institute, based in Raleigh, also says student outcomes are most important and that “calling for more minority teachers does little to address (the) bigger problems.” In a column last April, Civitas’ Director of Policy Bob Luebke wrote that “increasing the diversity of the teaching force may be a popular view, but in my view, it is not enough. If you want to improve minority student achievement, add effective quality teachers in every classroom.”

Luebke suggests incentivizing excellence and rewarding good teachers. Although teachers are mostly white, he wrote, students are still exposed to other school staff members, such as principals and assistant principals, who are sometimes more diverse.

No matter the numbers, Rep. Horn says he understands the importance of a diverse teaching force. As a child, he went to racially diverse schools and remembers his sixth-grade teacher, Russell Smith, a black man who “always dressed very dapper” and had a big impact on him as a child.

“As I reflect now, I see how important it was,” he said.

As he looked back on his own childhood and the teachers who made a difference in his life, Horn said he would like to learn more about teacher diversity and how it affects children in North Carolina.

“I want to have more conversation over this. We tend to run away from those conversations because they are uncomfortable. Everybody’s afraid. They’re afraid they’re gonna say the wrong thing,” he said. “I want to have a real, personal, in-depth conversation on that issue … We owe it to our kids to have that conversation.”


Reporters: Kelly Hinchcliffe and Lena Tillett (additional reporting by WRAL.com intern Yesenia Jones) Data analysis and interactive: Tyler Dukes, Jason Eder and Kelly Hinchcliffe Photographers: Terry Cantrell, Greg Clark, Kelly Hinchcliffe, Alex McClarnon, David McCorkle, Will Sanders and Mark Stebnicki TV editor: Mark Stebnicki TV producer: Jenn Sorber Smith TV graphics: Steve Lloyd Web editing: Deborah Strange Web video producer: Valerie Aguirre Project editor: Dave Hendrickson

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