As educators, we have an obligation to give our students every opportunity to succeed. Parents rely on us to ensure their children are armed with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive, once they leave our classrooms. Over my more than 15 years in education, I have learned that to fulfill this responsibility, schools must give children the opportunity to learn from men of color. The profound impact Black male educators can have on the trajectory of a child’s life cannot be overstated and it’s time that we acknowledge it.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, less than two percent of our nation’s teachers are Black males. At a time when non-White students outnumber White students in U.S. public schools, the need for a diverse teaching force has never been greater. At Eagle Academy Public Charter School, diversity is something we not only celebrate, but aggressively pursue. We constantly look for ways to expose our students to different experiences, perspectives and methods for coping with challenges. And this starts with diverse educators.
It should come as no surprise that men and women bring different perspectives to the classroom, and the same is true for individuals of varying backgrounds and ethnicities. It is crucial that schools cultivate a diverse and stable environment to facilitate this development, especially in early education, where children develop the foundation for the rest of their lives. I have seen firsthand that when children learn and grow in a diverse community, they begin to challenge stereotypes that have, for far too long, prevented children from reaching their full potential.
Today, early childhood education is still widely viewed as a woman’s profession. With men representing only 2.5 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers and 21.5 percent of elementary and middle school teachers, the chances of having a male educator (let alone a Black male educator) before reaching high school are slim.
The environment children are exposed to in their first years of education has a profound impact on how they view the world. Therefore, there should be a sense of urgency among early educators to combat stereotypes. When children see a diverse teaching staff working together in the same profession, they not only learn the importance of equality, but are also encouraged to ignore gender and racial stereotypes associated with certain careers. As a Black man working in early education, I have seen how these societal constructs negatively affect children and I have dedicated my life to breaking them down.
Role models play a critical role in a child’s development. Young boys who come from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have a strong father figure at home, and often come to school hoping to fill that void. As a leader of a 98 percent African American student body, I feel it is important for students to find someone they can see themselves in, look up to, and aspire to be.
Boys who grow up with only female teachers and role models don’t have this opportunity. Children tend to mimic influential individuals in their lives. They benefit from strong, Black male teachers who lead by example. This is something I learned from a student while working in Washington, D.C.
He was a young boy whose behavioral issues were hindering his ability to learn. Without a father figure in his life, his mother was struggling to get through to him. Upon sitting down with the boy in hopes of identifying the root of these problems, I was surprised to find he had just one request: to spend time together. After our first outing to the movies, his attitude and schoolwork improved dramatically. I didn’t have to employ any complicated learning tactic or psychological theory to help this child—I just had to be there and listen. Over the remainder of the year, I watched him grow into a successful and happy student. That experience left me determined to be someone my students can always rely on and look up to inside and outside of the classroom.
As we look to the future of early childhood education, I urge parents, teachers, lawmakers and communities to invest in ways to bring diversity to the classroom. I also challenge my fellow Black men who are passionate about education to buck the norm, ignore the stigma, and put the children first.
As a Black male principal, I feel it is my duty to spread this message and be a catalyst for change in order to create a more diversified environment for our children to learn in. I have found there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a student succeed against all odds, due to the lessons you have taught them. I encourage more Black men to join me in this journey.
Royston Maxwell Lyttle is the principal for grades 1-3 of the Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. He strongly believes that all students should be provided a high-quality education and that all students can reach their full academic potential regardless of their social or economic background. Learn more about Eagle Academy Public Charter School at https://www.eagleacademypcs.org/.