The lifelong impact of a Black educator

When I was in the fourth grade, I had my first Black male teacher, and his name was Mr. Mebane. Fourth grade also happened to be the year I first made the honor roll – and that wasn’t a coincidence.

When you’re a young Black student, meeting a Black male educator allows you to literally see success personified. It changes your outlook on what’s possible. You see someone who looks like you making a difference, and you can aspire to make a difference, too. Mr. Mebane inspired me, connected with me and invested in me. He also helped set my trajectory: I went on to become an educator myself, and now I’m an elementary school principal.

It’s well documented that having Black educators benefits all students – not just Black students. But as a Black male in education, especially at the elementary school level, I sometimes look around and feel a bit like an island. That’s why part of my purpose is to not only lift up my students, but to lift up Black educators and cultivate Black leaders as well. I believe all of us school leaders have a role to play in rebuilding the Black educator pipeline. This feels like a key piece of my calling, and below are a few ways I try to answer this call.

4 ways school leaders can rebuild the Black educator pipeline:

1. Connect Black educators with a strong community: Throughout my 17-year career in education, I’ve sometimes felt like I was the only one grappling with particular struggles. Doubt crept in; I thought I must not have the ability to succeed in this field after all. The antidote to that kind of doubt is building community with other Black educators.

I’m a founding member of the Black Male Leadership Initiative in our city, with a mission to equip and empower Black male educators to elevate their knowledge and skill base across all diverse levels of school and district leadership. There are about 10 of us in the group, and we’ve met regularly over the past five years. These connections have made it easier for me to navigate challenges along my career path, and this community is part of what has kept me thriving in education.

All leaders can help connect Black educators with community, by seeking out local groups like mine, or by directing educators toward phenomenal, empowering organizations like the Center for Black Educator Development, which focuses on the recruitment and retention of Black educators.

2. Connect Black educators with mentorship: The power of investing in young Black educators can’t be overstated. The Black Male Leadership Initiative I co-founded works directly with our school district’s leadership development staff. They send us specific names of Black males interested in mentorship, and we reach out. We invite them to our meetings and social gatherings, we build relationships and we offer coaching, sharing the leadership competencies and leadership strategies that work for us. Over time, we’ve seen the cycle continue as these educators become principals and mentors themselves.

3. Build robust community partnerships: Community connection is an avenue of support for both student success and educator recruitment. Our school partners with organizations including the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association, the Boys and Girls Club, the public library – the list goes on. Our library showcases student artwork, so our students bring their families into the library to check out books and see high expectations for their success reflected back by their community. As leaders, we have to be visible in the community – talking with folks and showing up where families spend time. That investment makes your school magnetic. You never know where a future teacher candidate might encounter you.

4. Make your students feel seen and known: My own story is an example of how the pipeline for Black school leaders begins with our students. I want to inspire our students to achieve greatness. I want them to know that no one else can dictate what greatness looks like for them. 

My leadership involves daily morning meetings with individual students and their families, in which we make plans to support students’ success – and commit to celebrating those successes when we see them. When we connect with students’ families and affirm all facets of our students’ identities, we make school a joyful place. We show students: You belong here. And some of them might go on to become teachers one day.

Let’s commit to paying it forward:

Not long ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to sit down to dinner with Mr. Mebane. It was awesome. I never thought that I would find this guy again, let alone rebuild our relationship, which continues to this day. Over that first dinner, I expressed the deep impact he’d had on my life. His response was this: “Pay it forward, pay it forward, pay it forward. Do what I did for you with others.”

I remember the feeling of first making the honor roll. The power of that achievement has stayed with me all my life. I know I can have that same impact on my elementary school students – and some of them might even follow my footsteps into education, like I followed Mr. Mebane’s.

I feel like we’re all here on Earth to lift up other people. We all have gifts to share. Those of us who have made it into school leadership have something to offer. And none of us would be where we are if people hadn’t helped us along the way. For our students and for other educators, we can be those helpers, lighting the path, paying it forward.