This story is part of the "Men in America" series on All Things Considered.
Fewer than 2 percent of the nation's elementary school teachers are black men. A program at Clemson University in South Carolina is looking to change that.
This summer, at least twice a week, a group of young men — usually in flip-flops, T-shirts and cargo pants — will meet in a tiny apartment on the Clemson campus. They're part of Call Me Mister, a program to train and support black men who want to become teachers. The goal is not just to diversify the nation's teacher corps but to provide role models for troubled black boys.
Like 21-year-old Marshall Wingate, many of the teacher trainees share the background and experiences of some of their students.
"I actually can relate to a lot of kids because my father has been locked up. I remember seeing him beat my mom, and I've seen a lot I shouldn't have seen," he says. "I grew up too fast, as they say."
Call Me Mister includes a network of two-year and four-year partner colleges. Participation gives these men student loan forgiveness, job placement, the support of a cohort, and help learning classroom management and instructional techniques. Most of all, it prepares them to be mentors.
"I am the embodiment of hope," says Michael Barron, a 29-year-old teacher and graduate of the program who grew up poor, the child of drug addicts.
That embodiment extends to personal appearance. Gesturing to his shirt and tie, he says, "Unless they're going to two different places — one would be court, the other would be church — that's typically the only time you see in my community a guy wearing a shirt and tie."
Call Me Mister has trained and placed 152 male, African-American teachers in eight states. The program has 150 more in the pipeline.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel and now it's time to talk about men and what it means to be a man in America today.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Levelheaded but then you also have to have a strong foot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: You're driven to be great, you're driven to be a leader but if you fail at those things then you fail to be a man.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: That's your job, to be able to take care of yourself and also take care of the people around you.
SIEGEL: We're looking at men's experiences this summer. How their roles have shifted at home, at work, in society at large.
BLOCK: And today we'll continue talking about boys, specifically black boys. The numbers are grim - two thirds live in poverty, often with a single parent. Studies show that most will struggle academically early on and barely half will graduate from high school.
SIEGEL: Well one small program at Clemson University in South Carolina has been working quietly to reverse that trend. By doing the one thing that experts say is crucial to the success of black boys, recruiting young black men and training them to become role models and teachers. From the NPR ED team, Claudio Sanchez has the story.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: This summer at least twice a week, a group of young black men usually in flip-flops, T-shirts and cargo pants will meet in a tiny apartment on the Clemson campus.
MICHAEL BARRON: All right cool, I want to get started.
SANCHEZ: They're all student teachers and though schools out for the summer, they're learning crucial lesson here, in preparation for the fall. They belong to Call Me Mister, a teacher training program with a missionary zeal.
BARRON: So I want to start with is, I want you to just write what you expect to gain out of this kind of mentorship.
SANCHEZ: These men are intent on changing the lives of black boys who are struggling with school and with life. Like Marshall Wingate once did.
MARSHALL WINGATE: I actually could relate to a lot of kids because my father has been locked up. I remember seeing him beat my mom, I seen a lot that I shouldn't have seen and I actually kind of grew up too fast as they say.
SANCHEZ: Wingate, now 21, has been student teaching for a year sharing his story with boys he says desperately want someone to care about their struggles.
WINGATE: That's just my main goal. I really love kids at the end of the day, I love kids, it just brings me joy.
SANCHEZ: Not everyone in the room though, came to the program with the same background or motivation to teach.
WINGATE: To be honest I wasn't completely confident that this was something I wanted to do.
SANCHEZ: Deon Holder's parents wanted him to be a doctor.
DEON HOLDER: I was privileged to come from a household where my mother and father happily married for 20 years, my brothers and sisters are from the same father. So in terms of speaking to the struggles that some of my peers and even some of the children have to experience is difficult for me but I felt that this was the next step for me in my life.
SANCHEZ: But what about all those studies and statistics that say black boys are trouble, black boys will fight you, black boys will disrupt your classroom because they're angry, because their poor, because their families are in crisis? Siran Few, who’s training to teach kindergarten and first grade, stops me. Listen, he says...
SIRAN FEW: To me that's just statistics and to me statistics are absolutely wrong. There's nothing wrong with black boys - at all. There's nothing wrong.
SANCHEZ: Off to the side of Michael Barron, the only one wearing dress slacks and button shirt, nods in agreement. He's the veteran teacher in the room running the meeting. The 29-year-old is a graduate of the Call Me Mister program. He was 19 when he joined and for the past 10 years he's taught fourth and fifth grade.
BARRON: See, I am the embodiment of hope or I have to prepare myself to be the embodiment of hope. And at the end of the day my job is to make sure I love on the kids that I serve and to make sure I love those teachers that I work hard with. So I become Hope and those other folks around me become hope as well.
SANCHEZ: It's not just about wearing your heart on your sleeve. Barron says Call Me Mister immerses the men in proven instructional practices. How to run a classroom, keep kids on task and deal with students who can frustrate even the most seasoned teachers. And yet says Barron it's often the small things that kids respond to when he steps into a classroom, like his shirt and tie, something that he says his students seldom see men wear in their neighborhoods.
BARRON: Unless they're going to two different places, one would be court and the other would be church. That's typically the only time you see in my community a guy wearing a shirt and tie.
SANCHEZ: Like most of his students Barron grew up poor. Both his parents were drug addicts.
BARRON: We had a terrible relationship because I blamed them for everything.
SANCHEZ: Barron says Call Me Mister taught him how to let go of his anger. By emphasizing two words, love and respect, for his profession, his students and their parents. After 10 years of teaching in South Carolina Barron is starting a new job, just across the border in Georgia. His new boss is Doctor Ricardo Quinn.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I’m going to fifth grade now.
RICARDO QUINN: Whose class were you in last year? You don’t know her name yet?
STUDENT: Ms. Single.
QUINN: Miss Singles your teacher.
SANCHEZ: Today Principal Quinn welcomes kids and parents to a summer school orientation at his school, Chesney elementary. Quinn, whose black, had heard a lot of good things about the young teachers coming out of the Call Me Mister program. So he was excited about hiring Michael Barron. But until now Quinn had not heard about Barron anguished childhood.
QUINN: Oh, my goodness, this really just sheds light into the teacher, that he is and the teacher that he can become, particularly knowing that 86 percent of our kids are on free and reduced lunch and perhaps come from disadvantage. He's guaranteed to see a little Michael Barron inside his classroom.
SANCHEZ: Just imagine says Quinn, the influential he'll have on that little boy and others like him who've been waiting for that one teacher who'll see their true potential and help them flourish.
QUINN: When they see the As, the Bs or even the Cs on their report cards. That further increases their self-confidence and I believe they feel as though they can do it.
SANCHEZ: Still this is not about quick fixes. In too many schools in this country, black children, boys in particular, are not expected to achieve.
WINSTON HOLTON: We did not arrive at this woeful state overnight.
SANCHEZ: Winston Holton is field coordinator for the Call Me Mister program.
HOLTON: We are in this for the long haul. You know, we are producing lifelong educators, committed to revitalizing their communities, their schools and their homes. And so, no this is not just about education, this is so much bigger. It's so much bigger.
SANCHEZ: Less than 2 percent of the nation's elementary school teachers are black men. This fall Call Me Mister will have placed 154 of them in classrooms in eight states. With a another 150 in the pipeline. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.