Feb 29, 2024 - Podcasts

Sharif El-Mekki: Building the Black teacher pipeline

New laws in at least 14 states are forcing teachers to rethink how they teach history when it comes to race in particular. For the last day of this Black History Month, one education leader on why having more Black teachers, and leaning into Black teaching traditions, can help all students get a better handle on American history.

  • Plus, Axios Miami's Sommer Brugal on the education view from Florida, more than a year and a half since Florida's "Stop WOKE Act" went into effect.

Guests: Sharif El-Mekki, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and a former school principal; Sommer Brugal, Axios Miami reporter.

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, and Jay Cowit. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura and Jay Cowit. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.

NIALA BOODHOO: New laws in at least 14 states have teachers rethinking how they teach history.

SOMMER BRUGAL: How do we discuss certain historical events without bringing up discussions of race and racism and the potential uncomfortable feelings that students could get as a result?

NIALA: For the last day of this Black History Month, we talk to one education leader who says having more Black teachers – will help all children get a better handle on history.

SHARIF EL-MEKKI: Teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement. I'm Niala Boodhoo – and from Axios, this is 1 big thing.


NIALA: It's been more than a year and a half since Florida's so-called "Stop WOKE Act" went into effect.

SOMMER: The Stop Woke Act, limits discussions around race and racism in public schools, universities, and workplace trainings, and really sort of targets the idea that conversations about race and racism shouldn't be discussed because it could make students feel uncomfortable or guilty.

NIALA: Axios Miami's Sommer Brugal [[broo-GAL]] has spent years covering education in Florida. She reported earlier this month that lawmakers in some 30 states have proposed new restrictions during the past year on what schools can teach about America's racial history. But she says Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis remains one of the most aggressive in its limits.

SOMMER: You know, we have also have in the last year we've seen updated African American history standards. The new standards, which the Board of Education adopted last year, includes teachings and ideas that slaves benefited from their enslavement. Many teachers and leaders from groups like the NAACP criticized heavily the new standards, saying that they omit or rewrote key facts about the black experience in this country, but at the same time we had state leaders like Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, who's really defended them. And I think it's worth noting that, you know, the courts in Florida have stopped the Stop Woke Act from being enforced in higher institutions. When it comes to the state standards, it applies for students grades K through 12.

NIALA: Sommer tells me that in the months since, Florida teachers have been confused about what's allowed.

SOMMER: So a lot of these laws will have it written in them, these discussions are allowed as long as it's age appropriate. But there's really not a definitive definition or example of what is or isn't age appropriate. You know, a lot of teachers have said, or would argue that history is uncomfortable at times. I spoke to one teacher, for example, who brought up the question about the 13th amendment. How does one discuss the end of slavery? And then not acknowledge or answer questions about the atrocities of it.

NIALA: Part of the answer? How these laws look in practice…depends on the teacher.

SOMMER: Some teachers and typically teachers who have been in their profession been in their field for many years tend to be pushing forward with these discussions. They have been defiant to say, I am going to have these discussions. These are historical events. They need to be discussed.

SHARIF: We have to be very understanding that this history, Black history is part of American history. Indigenous history, is part of American history.

NIALA: Sharif El-Mekki is the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and a former school principal in West Philadelphia.

SHARIF: And that there are multiple facets of, of the story of America and how people were treated, who was centered and who was excluded. And for us, that's one of the best ways to teach critical thinking is to show multiple perspectives.

And Sharif says training more Black teachers in particular – and leaning into Black teaching traditions – can make students stronger. I asked him to explain how.


NIALA: Hi, Sharif. Welcome to One Big Thing.

SHARIF: Thank you. Great to be here.

NIALA: So Sharif, you talk a lot about incorporating a black teaching tradition into schools. What does that look like?

SHARIF: A small example is that in so many schools, children are really told to be quiet, to wait for the command and demand. Where in black traditions, there's a call and response that students would be engaged and involved in the lesson. Rhymes, chants. An example of when I was very young, four years old, and I would go to Dr. Suzette Hakeem's porch, and was a cousin of ours, to learn how to read. And our alphabet, how she taught, and what I've been calling this freedom school's alphabet, was not your traditional A, B, C, D, it was phonetically based.

And it was Abba, Kada, Effa, Gha, Hai, Ijeka, Lama, Napa, Kwa, Rasata, Ava, Wa, Za, Ya, Za. And with that, we would also have culturally affirming books that we were being read to, right? When I think about, the young student who was in Jersey, and she said, you know what - she's a sixth grade student - and she decided to start organizing a book drive and she said, because I was tired of reading about white boys and their dogs. This is a young black girl who said that she never saw herself reflected.

She didn't see things from her community reflected and even the books that were being read, let alone the contributions of Black people. The way that Dr. Carter G. Woodson would often talk about, yes, he started Black History Month, but he was also a teacher and a principal and later a teacher and principal developer, curriculum writer, where he would say, including Black contributions to society, civilization in this country, a part of the learning process.

NIALA: Sharif I want to throw out some numbers here… The most recent data I saw is that about 80 percent of U.S. public teachers are white, about 9 percent are Hispanic, and 7 percent are Black non Hispanic. Around 2 percent are Asian. And here's something that caught my eye: in schools where the majority of students are white, more than 90% of teachers were also white. BUT. In schools with a majority of Black students? Around a third of teachers were also Black.

Given that: do we have any data that shows the impact of having a Black teacher, especially on Black students?

SHARIF: Oh, we absolutely do. There's research that shows that. A black child with a single black teacher can be up to 39 percent less likely to drop out of school and up to 29 percent more likely to enroll in college. And that's that long-term, longitudinal study that's been done over hundreds of thousands of students, multiple states.

We've also known for a very long time, short term, Black child with a Black teacher is less likely to be suspended, expelled, or even referred for discipline, have better attendance, have better grades, have better test scores, better communication between home and school, more likely to see a truthful and honest, depiction of Black contributions to society and civilization. Much more likely to have a positive racial identity development.

NIALA: We mentioned Florida just a few minutes ago. How are you thinking about what's happening in states with changed rules around teaching history and race?

SHARIF: We have students here in Philadelphia who are writing love letters to Black teachers, to teachers in general in, in Florida, and saying, we support you. We see this.

One, they're being aware, and they want to organize around, uh, these issues. We also believe in the out-of-school time. As we're advocating for changes in policy. And so what are educators doing outside of school time? What are families and communities doing outside of school time? We've learned about this in the past. So while Florida is kind of leading the headlines now, we know that this is not a new issue to erase Black history, within our schools and communities. But we can learn from what people did in the past.

You know, we know that community members, educators, they had teach-ins, they did other things outside of school time, it was a collective effort to make sure that we were continuing to teach. At the same time, we should be organizing to make sure that we are pushing back and resisting these, these efforts to erase history, to teach a false narrative about Black history.

NIALA: And what effect do you think this has on non-Black students, on the entire American student population?

SHARIF: When you look at the research, you know, non Black families and parents want accurate history being taught. There's a small, vocal minority who's asking for erasure of the contributions of, Black and brown communities.

You know, there's a small, vocal minority that wants ruby bridges. Erased out of the curriculum. That was Dr. Martin Luther King's letter from a Birmingham jail. Erased out of the curriculum. That was Jackie Robinson taught, but not taught from the perspective of how he encountered his entry and integration into baseball.

And so, the impact that this has on children, non Black children, is they're also being taught in a way that's very flat, that's myopic, that's false. They're taught history that's false and noninclusive. They, if we're not careful, this can also plant the seeds for them for white supremacy.

And we're seeing that from white students who are demanding like, no, I want to know more about accurate history. I want to learn more. But we also know that it could, you know, undermine their efforts to understand and be able to work with a diverse population, not only in their places that they live and work, but also just in, in life in general.

Part, a big part of, teaching and learning is developing critical thinkers. And in order to do that, you need the full story.

NIALA: In a moment, growing the base of Black teachers in America. This is one big thing from Axios.


Welcome back to One Big Thing from Axios. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Sharif El-Mekki is leading a push to get more Black teachers in American public schools and says it will make outcomes better for all students.

NIALA: So how are you trying to build a pipeline of black teachers now?

SHARIF: We believe that recruiting Black youth to teach can't be disconnected from the racial, social, and economic realities, that Black youth are facing. Meaning, we can't recruit Black youth and say, 'Oh, our doors are open, we want you to be here', without even considering what is the cost of college? What are the supports needed in order to graduate, you know, matriculate and graduate from college?

And so our Black Teacher Pipeline Fellowship, students who participate in our Teacher Academy, or our Freedom Schools program, are eligible to apply for a Black Teacher Pipeline Fellowship that includes up to $20, 000 in college scholarships, as well as up to $20,000 retention stipend once they get to their fifth year of teaching.

But also, what are the experiences that are important while you're in high school to even consider returning to your school or district to lead a classroom of your own? They can't be disconnected from the social, political, and economic realities. If students are hearing about book bans, and districts are trying to recruit them, but at the same time, hey, I want you to erase yourself. I want you to lie about history but also come and teach, we say no.

NIALA: Can you take us a little deeper here? How does this work in your summer school you mentioned, for example?

SHARIF: So our Freedom School Literacy Academy is an intergenerational approach to engage high school and college youth into the wonders and beauty and practices of teaching and teaching well.

And so imagine a high school student, college students who are interested in teaching. They actually practice teaching first, second, and third graders. And they're coached and informed and instructed by us. So they teach in the morning and then after school. They're working with our staff, and this is a paid apprenticeship, because we want them to, um, explore this idea of teaching, and some of them have considered teaching despite the experiences they had as students, because they're saying, like, you know what, I want to consider becoming the teacher that I wish I had and knew I needed.

95 percent of the students who go through our program, these, these apprentices, high school and college apprentices, are more interested in teaching after our program than they were before, because some of them, this is their first opportunity to engage. What does teaching look like when it's done with educational or racial justice mindset?

NIALA: But Sharif, how do you do this in an environment where it's hard to recruit students of any background into the teaching profession?

SHARIF: It's often elevating student voices, inviting them into the, you know, and making sure that they have a seat at the table or, a place at the microphone to amplify what they want. One of our strongest campaign slogans is, we need black teachers. And people can see hashtag we need black teachers everywhere. That was a rallying cry and demand from our high school students. Who said, this is what we feel that we need, and so we've been elevating that. We did a joint report with Teach Plus to interview 100 high school students of color who are interested in teaching, but they also share, here's what would deter us. And some of the things that they talk about is not only their experiences as students, but also how they're witnessing teachers of color being treated. We have young black youth who are saying like, I don't know if I would want to be a colleague of my current teacher. Because of how we're being treated in the classroom.

Because of how, they are talking about history. Our teacher is unaware and that sometimes we have to point out and challenge them on microaggressions that they may, use during, during teaching. And so what we have to do is make sure that we are inviting them into the profession, helping them elevate their voice. And also giving them the clinical practices and the experiences. So how we train, how we develop, how we support both pre service as well as in service is paramount.

And that goes for educators, not just teachers, principals, school board members, instructional coaches, and teachers, etc.

NIALA: So what's the one thing you want our listeners, regardless of their age or race or background, to take away from this conversation?

SHARIF: What our students are saying, that we need more black teachers. And in order to do that, the experience of students in schools has to be different. And the way that recruitment and retention looks has to be different in our schools, in our districts. And that everyone has a role to play in recreating a national Black teacher pipeline that's supported, that's predictable, and that's highly effective.

NIALA: Sharif El-Mekki is the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. Sharif, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate it.

SHARIF: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: And that's it for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing. Thanks to all of those who left us a rating and review wherever you listen and if you haven't we'd really appreciate it if you could, it makes it easier for other people to find our show. And as always, if you want to text me ideas for what we should cover or feedback on what we have covered, you can reach me at 202 918 4893, or you can email podcasts at axios.com.

The 1 big thing team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Jay Cowit. Alex Suigura composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll see you back here next Thursday.

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