BETHESDA – Mike Williams recalls having only one, black, male teacher during his K-12 education in Montgomery County.
“I felt a bit isolated. That’s coming from me, and I was fairly popular. I was an athlete,” said Williams, 43, now a social studies teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
He is among the 3.7 percent of black, male teachers in Maryland Public Schools teaching a student body that is nearly 18 percent black and male.
The state continues to recruit a teaching corps to try to accurately reflect its student population because experts say it’s good for students to be taught by a diverse faculty. Maryland has managed to boost Asian and Hispanic representation in its teaching corps over the past decade, but still has seen a fall in the representation of black teachers.
“There’s been a conscious effort. We want our teaching population to reflect our student population. Now that’s a very lofty goal,” said Jeff Martinez, director of staffing at Montgomery County Public Schools.
The percentage of black teachers in Maryland Public Schools has dropped more than 4.5 points to 16.57 percent over the past decade, while the percentage of Asian and Hispanic teachers has grown relatively sharply along with their respective student populations, according to a Capital News Service analysis.
The percentage of Asian students has grown 1.1 percentage points, from 4.85 percent in 2003. The percentage of Hispanic students has grown even more sharply — more than doubling from 6.39 percent in 2003 to 12.86 percent for the current school year. (The Maryland State Department of Education added Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and two or more races as self-reporting categories in 2010, which may contribute to a small degree of variation.)
Diversity in the teaching corps is critical in many ways, education experts say.
“When we look at this particular issue, not only in the state of Maryland but across the country, one of the things we have to understand is that the picture for students of who is in front of the classroom sends a very important message about what they can be when they grow up,” said Chance Lewis, professor of urban education at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who has authored several books on diversity in education.
That message is one that Williams said he received growing up and stayed with him until he got to college.
“It was going to Howard University and seeing others like me…other black males, despite what you saw in the media, despite all the negative images, I saw how brilliant and sharp black men were,” Williams said.
Those examples of outstanding black men at Howard University instilled extra motivation in him to achieve.
The diversity of teachers, or lack thereof, sends a strong message to students as it did to Williams.
“When you look at African-American teachers, African-American students along with students from other racial groups see low or no representation and so the perceived ability for African-American students to become a teacher doesn’t become real,” Lewis said.
That’s why Williams originally wanted to work for Prince George’s County Schools when he entered teaching in 2002. Black students are 66.1 percent of the population in Prince George’s County Schools, and Williams saw this as an opportunity to serve as a positive role model for them.
He ended up landing a job with Montgomery County Schools but quickly came to realize that it’s not only important for black students to see teachers that look like him.
“It’s just as important for white, Asian and Latino students to see me as an African-American, male teacher,” Williams said. “Diversity across the board is essential because what we’re trying to do is dispel myths that help us to equalize and treat people as people first, as opposed to stereotypes.”
Montgomery County is one of the more diverse districts in the state, with more than 25 percent of its students identifying as Hispanic and nearly 15 percent identifying as Asian.
Its teaching corps has grown from 3.4 and 3.6 percent Asian and Hispanic teachers, respectively, to 5.3 percent of each in the past decade, mirroring the same upward trend as the state. The Asian student population has stayed relatively steady over the past decade but the percentage of Hispanic students has grown almost 8 percentage points, up to 26.6 percent since 2003.
“We’ve gone from a suburban sort of school district to a very dramatic urban school district…part of what we want kids to do is see they have opportunities and that those opportunities are represented in front of them with the people that are teaching them,” Martinez said.
The percentage of Asian teachers statewide has more than doubled to 3.29 percent through an addition of more than 1,150 teachers in the last decade. The percentage of Hispanic teachers statewide has also grown nearly a point, up to 2.24 percent, an addition of nearly 550 teachers.
Montgomery County Schools have made considerable efforts in attracting diverse candidates in recent years, Martinez said.
The district has stepped up recruiting efforts at Maryland’s many historically black colleges and universities and offers career paths for support staff who want to transition into teaching. Many support roles are filled by minorities, which helps explain the upward trend, Martinez said.
“We’ve been diversifying pretty consistently. It’s not where we want it to be yet, but we’re always making an effort,” he said.
There are still challenges when it comes to minority growth, educators and districts say.
Prince George’s County Schools have seen growth in the percentage of both Asian and Hispanic teachers since 2003, but school officials say they have to balance that with maintaining the highest number of black teachers in the state.
“We’re trying to keep our pace with African Americans and we have to work at it. We target all diversity,” said Robert Gaskin, director of human resource operations.
Gaskin said compensation is a key challenge in remaining competitive as a district, when districts across the region are often vying for diverse candidates from the same pool.
“African Americans and Latinos are gaining greater access to undergraduate education and a lot of them are tasked with the decision of ‘Do I get a teaching job that has low pay and prestige or this other job with a higher pay?’” Williams said. “There are quality candidates out there who are choosing not to be teachers and that’s across the board.”
Lewis said he believes the problem extends beyond just the lack of appeal for the profession, and points to inadequate recruiting efforts at the college and professional level.
“Recruitment in education is very minimal when you think about other fields. Other fields, when they see candidates they want, they go after them and do what they’ve got to do to get them,” Lewis said. “One thing I propose is that colleges that train teachers should use the same sort of athletic model they use when they are recruiting African-American students for sports.”
Thurman Bridges, associate professor of teacher education at Morgan State University, an HBCU, thinks community engagement and culturally responsive teaching are the way to beat racial hurdles.
Universities and districts need to target their efforts at finding these candidates, from recruiting at fraternities, communities and even at high schools.
Diversifying classrooms won’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean students of all races can’t connect with their teachers, Bridges said. 76.4 percent of Maryland public school teachers are white, but 58.2 percent of students are not.
“The need for a more diverse teaching population lies in the need for teachers to understand the lives and experiences of students they teach, in deep and meaningful ways…it transcends race, class and gender. But from my perspective, all teachers need to engage in this to help our students.”
Keeping this in mind, Martinez stresses that the search isn’t solely for diverse candidates.
“We’re hiring for excellence and equity. We’re looking for outstanding candidates,” Martinez said, “but we’re also looking for minority candidates in that group. We want the best of the best across the board.”