Jamaal Grant was studying biology at Colby College in Maine when a friend asked if he'd be interested in teaching after graduation.
Grant had planned to go to graduate school and build a career in science, but in need of a job, decided to teach science at a charter school in Boston.
Within two years of teaching, he realized he had met his calling. His students, most of them Black and some lacking a father figure at home, were routinely coming to him for advice on family challenges, career and life choices, and even sports talk. They confided in him.
"I felt like I was needed in that space," says Grant, now an 8th-grade science teacher in Boston Public Schools. "I was in there and I was like 'these kids need me.' I felt that every day was worthwhile."
Data shows that Black male teachers like Grant are underrepresented in schools across the country.
Just 1.3% of public school teachers were Black men in the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Teacher and Principal Survey. That school year, White women made up 61% of public school teachers. Black children, meanwhile, accounted for 15% of public school students in the fall of 2020.
A new national study published in the peer-reviewed journal Early Education and Development found that children taught by teachers of the same race develop better learning and problem-solving skills by the time they turn seven years old. The impact was felt most in Black and Latino children, the study found.
Black male teachers are role models to young Black students, advocates say.
And a role model is what Johnathan Hines is to his pre-K students at Barack Obama Elementary Magnet School of Technology in Atlanta.
Hines, who previously played professional basketball overseas, has taught pre-K for nine years. He said that many of his students who go on to middle and high school often come back to tell him what a difference he has made in their lives.
For some, he's been a father figure. Hines says that one of his former students even recalls that he once helped them when they lost their first tooth.
"I want to show other males that it's possible and that you are needed in this space," Hines says. "I see every day the impact that I'm making ... just by being there and being present."
Some Black male teachers say their presence in the classroom helps overcome stereotypes children -- Black or White -- may have of Black men. Some studies have found that Black male teachers are viewed as disciplinarians and are often the ones called on to punish students.
Grant says it is vital for schools to have a diverse array of Black men teaching, including those who are boisterous, reserved, heterosexual and gay.
"Blackness is not a monolith," Grant said. "It's important to have a variety of people in front of kids just because it expands their view. A lot of times in inner cities, it's easy for their world to become small."
The challenges to recruitment
Some non-profit groups say that the biggest challenges to recruiting more Black men to teach are low pay, racial bias in school systems and retention.
Robert Hendricks III, founder of the He Is Me Institute -- a Boston-based group that recruits and trains Black men to become teachers -- says that in many cases, school systems have not been welcoming to Black men as students or teachers. Research shows that Black and brown students face harsher discipline than their White classmates. For example, one study has found that Black children are referred to law enforcement and arrested at higher rates than White children for school-related incidents.
Hendricks says that some Black male teachers face these same racial biases, including higher scrutiny from non-Black school officials and the criminalization of their actions.
"The way that teachers and school leaders respond to Black boys is not very different from the way they respond to Black male teachers," Hendricks says. "The misunderstanding, the misrepresentation, the inability to communicate, all of that is really similar."
Hendricks says he believes more Black men would pursue teaching if school environments were more equitable and provided the support Black men need to succeed as students and professionals. The pay is also a concern for some, he says. The average salary for a public school teacher nationally is about $65,000.
"We are telling men unfairly that they are supposed to be the breadwinner," Hendricks says. "But then a profession like teaching doesn't give them the opportunity to financially provide for their families."
Sharif El-Mekki, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Black Educator Development, says in order to create a pipeline of Black male teachers, recruitment and clinical experience must start at an earlier age.
El-Mekki's organization provides year-round mentorship, professional development, and teaching experience for Black high school and college students interested in teaching careers.
He also says many Black male students are not being encouraged by their school leaders to pursue teaching. So when education groups try to recruit them after college, many aren't interested in the field.
"Black boys ... they often receive messages that you don't belong, you're a criminal you're unintelligent, you're a problem here," El-Mekki says. "They are actually being devalued in the education system, so how would they imagine being teachers?"
For those Black men who do become teachers, El-Mekki says he wants to see schools doing more to retain them.
Consider, "how are you supporting them and how would they say they are being supported?" El-Mekki says. "Create retention plans that are informed by Black men and we are much more likely to be successful in recruiting more Black men to the profession."