Call Me Mister – A Better Life

Call Me Mister – South Carolina program aims to boost number of black male teachers at elementary level

Mark Joseph and Barry Tolbert are passionate about becoming elementary school teachers and have learned to ignore the skeptical looks, the discouraging comments about the profession and the fears of low pay. So let’s see what they did about it. They developed Call Me Mister – A Better Life program that’s helping so many.

”Lots of families encourage kids to be doctors and lawyers just to make money,” says Tolbert, 19, of Charleston. ”I think a teacher is the most effective person in America. You don’t hear folks say ‘I look up to my lawyer. My lawyer has done so many things for me.’ But teachers make a difference in lives.”

The young men are in a program developed by Clemson University to address the looming shortage of teachers. This program, though, plans over the next four years to train 240 young black South Carolina men to be elementary school teachers. The program, named ”Call Me MISTER” after the 1970 Sidney Poitier movie They Call Me MISTER Tibbs, offers the participants full college tuition, room and board and small stipends in exchange for teaching for a minimum of four years in South Carolina after graduation.

” Call Me MISTER was developed strictly to address a very specific, highly identified problem in our society and its system of education,” says Tom Parks, program director at Clemson.

Clemson initiated the research that prompted the creation of the program and wrote grants for funding partnerships at three historically black South Carolina colleges — Claflin in Orangeburg, Morris in Sumter and Benedict in Columbia. Each school recruited about 20 young men who entered as freshmen at the launch of the program last August. Tolbert and Joseph just completed the first semester at Claflin.

Statistics portray a rapidly worsening Education estimates 2.2 million teachers will be needed in the next 10 years. On top of that, the Institute for Higher Education Policy says that minorities are harder to recruit not only because of the low salaries and lack of respect and prestige associated with teaching but because of lingering racial discrimination within the profession.

South Carolina’s population is one-third black, but less than 1% of the state’s more than 20,000 elementary-school teachers are black men. Blacks, including 7,330 women and 1,646 men, accounted for 17% of the state’s nearly 53,000 teachers at all levels in the 2014-15 school year, the Clemson study shows.

Parks says that Clemson’s research also found that about 20% of all black male youngsters in the state are held back in the first grade, and the dropout rate for black male students is the highest of any group.

Black youngsters, especially boys, are in desperate need of role models and teachers they can relate to, who can show them that success and a productive life are possible, says Roy Jones, chairman of the Division of Teacher Education at Claflin.

Vincent Ferrandino of the National Association of Elementary School Principals agrees. ”It’s critical that children identify role models early on in their life,” he says. Enrollment of minority students in elementary and secondary schools has increased by 73% over the last 25 years, compared with 19% for white students, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Joseph, 25, of Greenville, initially aspired to play professional basketball, then tried a short stint at the University of South Carolina and a series of odd jobs before he discovered two years ago that he liked working with elementary-age kids. He volunteered in a church after-school program four days a week and says, ”I had a ball.

”I really think the (Mister) program can change the mentality of African-American men,” he says. ”We can be leaders. We can be positive role models. We can be at the top, leading classrooms instead of being in the back. That’s one reason why the program is very important to me.’

Each applicant first must meet the university’s admissions requirements before undergoing an additional level of screening that requires a personal interview, two letters of recommendation and a written essay, ”Why I Want to Teach.” Claflin has 22 in its program.

Once they’re in, the men must maintain a 2.5-grade point average in their regular freshman and sophomore courses. Also, they must pass a standardized test to get into Claflin’s nationally accredited teacher education program. Claflin last April won accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which accredits only schools meeting standards that focus on a candidate’s actual knowledge of subject matter and demonstration of teaching ability. Nationally, there are 517 NCATE-certified programs out of 1,200 colleges and universities that offer teacher training.

Emory McCullough, 20, who qualified for the program after earning his General Educational Development degree, says he worried that the guys would be ”serious all the time.” But he says he quickly discovered the participants were individuals who would ”teach in different ways” and know when to ”let loose.”

Paul Rollerson, 18, of Cross, says his greatest fear is that he may run into schoolchildren full of as much mischief as he was in elementary school. ”I know how I was in seventh and eighth grade,” he says.

The program, says Claflin president Henry Tisdale, ”will recruit some students who probably would not have come into the teacher education program. We are enhancing diversity and expanding the pool.”

The program requires 300 hours of community work, or ”service learning,” from each participant. And they meet weekly for group study or to work out problems. In addition, the program provides teacher mentors — practicing teachers selected to work one-on-one with the young men. They get stipends and six hours of graduate school credit through Clemson.

The program does have critics in a political climate where there is less support for affirmative action.

”We’ve had some pointed inquiries,” acknowledges Parks, ”from both whites and women, with veiled threats about legal suits if their white sons or black daughters weren’t accepted into the program. I have routinely explained our purpose and the hopes we have of making a difference, and a few have been pretty abusive about it. But we’re going forward.”

Ferrandino adds ”anytime we face a shortage question, there have been efforts made to target folks to make up for the shortage areas. So, while I recognize that some might see that as discriminatory, I think that the larger good that it will serve will override any concern I would have around that.”

Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., which started a similar program seven years ago, had to ”modify to admit females into the program because of a possible gender discrimination suit,” says Livingstone spokeswoman Crystal Sadler. The school’s Center for Teaching Excellence Scholarship Program has awarded 61 scholarships: 48 for men and 13 for women. Twenty-six students have graduated.

Nevertheless, expectations here remain high. Claflin’s Jones says the program should produce ”a new breed of teachers. I don’t see them being afraid to get on the floor with the kids or going into a neighborhood. They are versatile, flexible.”

Students who successfully complete Claflin’s nationally accredited program, Jones adds, ”if they have fewer than 10 job offers, it’s only because they didn’t apply to more.”