As the national celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week has just reminded us, we must take time to continually acknowledge the many contributions from teachers to invest in our children, from cradle to career, to shape our country’s future as a global leader in education. Throughout the week, stakeholders, communities and schools found unique and meaningful ways to celebrate our nation’s top educators.
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) hosted a series of events, including a Google Hangout entitled, “Celebrating African American Teachers in the Classroom,” at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The panel, moderated by NBC anchor Tamron Hall, was comprised of African American educators from across the country and senior officials from the U.S. Department of Education. I had the pleasure of participating in this robust conversation, on topics ranging from quality early childhood education to effective partnerships with families, college readiness and the use of technology to support African American educational excellence.
This panel was notable not just for its use of social media to bring together a panel of passionate, well-informed education advocates, but because the entire panel of speakers was African American males, including two educators; Jemal Graham (7th-grade math—Eagle Academy for Young Men in Queens), and Wesley Baker (middle-school social studies—KIPP Truth Academy in Dallas), TX; two Department of Education officials including myself and Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, and Dr. Ivory A. Toldson, Howard University, Department of Education.
Given that African American males only make up 2% of the teacher workforce, the participation of the two young male teachers spoke volumes—both about the importance of cultivating and supporting a workforce reflective of the students attending our nation’s public schools, about the work required to ensure we achieve that goal. The Administration will continue to partner with community leaders to improve teacher preparation programs and training a new generation of minority students, especially African American males, to teach in our nation’s public schools.
Dr. Toldson’s research counters a persistent myth about African American males, by showing that there are more than 600,000 more black men in college than in jail, and his work to strengthen the pipeline of minority male educators provided a framework for the panel to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities facing African American educators.
As teachers, Graham and Baker shared the creative ways they incorporate technology into their lessons and communication with parents and families.
Jim Shelton recognized that to be most effective, education funding must be targeted to programs and solutions that will serve the greatest number of students.
I stressed the importance of ensuring African American children have access to high quality early learning programs like those included in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request—including high-quality home visiting, child care, Early Head Start, Head Start and public preschool programs and services, for a total investment of over $90 billion over ten years.
While the panel could have continued for hours, what resonated the most was the fact that as a community, we must make a concerted effort to support our teachers and leaders, to volunteer, engage, contribute to efforts to ensure all of our children and youth have the skills and opportunities needed to succeed in the 21st century global workforce and build a stronger economy for American families.
Each of us must contribute if we are to meet President Obama’s ambitious goal of America again having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Community groups and faith-based organizations have a pivotal role, stakeholders need to have proactive conversations at home and at school, and resources need to be shared and allocated widely to have the greatest impact, especially for those most in need of support. Only by working together can we eradicate the opportunity gap that persists for too many of our children, so that all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy.
Great teachers make great classrooms. So don’t wait until next year’s Teachers Appreciation Week to thank a teacher—thank a teacher right now. Our future is in not just in their hands but in all of ours: what will you do?
David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans