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Call Me Mister: South Carolina Program Trains Black Men to Become Schoolteachers and Role Models

Now seven years old, the Call Me Mister program has placed 20 Black male teachers in South Carolina schools. So how are they doing?

About six years ago, Mark Joseph found something he had been seeking for some time: a sense of purpose. A native of Greenville, S.C., Joseph had been a standout football and basketball player in high school, but he lasted just one semester at the University of South Carolina. Realizing that he just wasn’t ready to buckle down, he says he drifted.

But Joseph, 31, says he finally found his calling when his church asked him to help with an after-school program.

“I was there one minute, and I realized I connected with the kids, and they took to me,” he says. “I seemed to be encouraging to them. I was making a difference.”

That experience was the impetus that led Joseph to Call Me Mister, a seven-year-old program designed to train Black men to become schoolteachers and role models. Joseph is now in his second year at Westcliffe Elementary School in Greenville, where he teaches fifth-graders. The school’s principal, Carolyn Morgan, says Joseph is “a charismatic leader” in his classroom and around the school.

Call Me Mister focuses primarily on the lower grades. The name is borrowed from a line in the 1967 Sidney Poitier movie, “In the Heat of the Night.” In the film, Poitier, playing Black Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, is confronted by a Southern sheriff played by Rod Steiger. When Steiger’s character asks what the Philadelphia police called Tibbs, he responds with the now-classic line. The line later became the title of the 1970 sequel, “They Call Me Mister Tibbs.”

It is that sense of pride and dignity that is a cornerstone of the Mister program, which aims to spark an interest in learning, achievement and career aspirations in young men.

The program is the brainchild of Dr. Tom Parker, an education management professor at Clemson University, where the program is headquartered. Parker, who is White, made the argument 10 years ago that more Black male teachers were needed.

“Dr. Parker believed that the greatest impact could be made by recruiting, training and finding ways to retain Black male teachers for elementary school children,” says Roy Jones, the program’s director. Jones, who previously was dean of education at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., is a teacher-training specialist.

But the program’s goal of training enough Black men to make a significant dent in the teaching ranks is formidable. While Blacks make up approximately 30 percent of South Carolina’s population, Black men currently account for less than 1 percent of all the state’s teachers. According to Jones, there are fewer than 200 Black men out of 200,000 teachers in the state, and those 200 are spread among more than 600 schools. Nationwide, the percentage of Black male teachers is 2.4 percent, according to the National Education Association.

“I would not be surprised if 500 South Carolina schools have no Black teachers at all,” Jones says.

While the mission of the Mister program is to improve achievement among Black students by tapping the leadership ability of Black male teachers, South Carolina law mandates that the program be open to all races.

Call Me Mister now has 20 teachers on the job, and about 150 more in the pipeline. Although program participants receive approximately $7,000 toward their tuition costs, Jones and others say much more could be done if more funding were available.

For $1 million a year, Jones says the program could train and maintain 200 future teachers.

The current program operates on about $750,000 a year, mostly in state funds. And although some of the aid has expired, the Mister program has found financial support from the federal government and from such organizations as BMW, DuPont, Michelin and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Though headquartered at Clemson, Call Me Mister is actually a collaborative, multi-institution effort. Among the participating schools are historically Black Benedict College, Claflin, Morris College and South Carolina State University. Students are typically recruited from their own campuses and receive their classroom training locally. But the imprint of the Mister program consists of meetings, seminars and other activities at Clemson, including a summer program there.

Making An Impact
The 20 Mister graduates appear to be making an impact, and not just on their students. Principals at their schools almost universally praise them for their leadership, classroom decorum and the responsiveness of their students.
And many of the Misters are bringing fresh approaches into the classroom with them. Zebulun Dinkins, for instance, is using hip-hop as a teaching tool at Welcome Elementary School in Greenville.

A social studies specialist and a college musician, Dinkins’ work has been recorded on DVD and was featured on a national network news broadcast earlier this year. His students use hip-hop to learn about American history, the history of South Carolina and basic elements in the curriculum.

“I find that it is an excellent way to communicate,” says the 25-year-old, “because it is a part of their own style.”

Corey Terry, 32, holds a master’s degree in education and teaches at Tanglewood Middle School, also in Greenville. He says he often has to serve as a father figure for the boys and girls in his class, many of whom are caught between school and the streets.

“I’m afraid I am often the only male authority figure some of them ever encounter,” Terry says. “At the same time, I find that kids feel very free to tell me frankly what is on their minds, and so I am as busy counseling as I am teaching. I find you have to reach a child before you can teach that child.”

According to Dinkins and Terry, one of the great strengths of the Mister program is the collaboration among its participants. They communicate almost daily, usually by text messages or e-mails.

“It is a way for us to cope, share information and at the same time be encouraging to one another,” Terry says.

David Wise, the principal of Welcome Elementary, where Dinkins works, says Dinkins’ contribution can’t be overstated.

“He and others in the Mister program are much-needed role models, and they are a great influence in the classroom and in the school,” he says. Morgan, the principal at Westcliffe Elementary agrees, saying the Misters identify with students because they can “take them beyond the economic circumstances of the neighborhood, and create new visions of success.”

Like most of the schools where the Misters work, Westcliffe is located in a low-income community and is moderately integrated. According to Morgan, the school is about 44 percent White, 25 percent Black and 27 percent Hispanic.

The impact of the Misters is most evident in the classroom. Recently, Joseph was trying to teach his dozen students about the value of honesty. The class analyzed a story about a child who, although trusted by his parents, had gotten into trouble with alcohol and was struggling to decide whether to tell them about the incident.

About half of the children said he should keep the secret to avoid giving his parents the wrong impression about him. Eventually, however,
Joseph convinced the class that honesty was the better approach.
After years of trying to find his passion, Joseph refers to himself as “a walk-on teacher.” He says that once he learned about the Mister program, he dropped everything and enrolled at Claflin.

The teacher training, he says, was a challenge.

That academic rigor is deliberate, says Jones. About 20 percent of the would-be Misters drop out, most often because they cannot pass the PRAXIS tests. All teachers must complete the series of standardized tests before they can progress to higher levels of training. But Jones says there could be many reasons why a student drops out of the program, and that their leaving doesn’t necessarily mean they drop out of school completely.

“Clearing the academic hurdles adds to the sense of group accomplishment,” Jones says, adding that the experience creates a deeper sense of fraternity among the participants.

While it is still too early to say definitively whether Call Me Mister is having a significant effect on overall achievement based on standardized examinations, principals like Wise and Morgan say they are convinced that the atmosphere created by the Misters will inevitably improve academic performance over time.

The strong support the program has received has led other states to consider creating similar programs of their own.

The Pennsylvania Legislature recently contacted Jones to get more information, he says.

When it comes to improving teaching in tough communities, Jones says there are several angles to consider. The program must not only find Black men willing to undertake the challenge, it must also prepare them adequately and provide enough support to keep them up to the task.

“We believe teaching our kids is the most meritorious service available,” Jones says. “We teach that, and we turn peer pressure inward among our young men, to keep the faith, make a difference, and succeed.”

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