Mentoring Matters: Bolstering the Success of Young Black and Latino Males Without Stepping Foot in a Classroom

We need more good black men in public education! Sound familiar? I see and hear this phrase often. Recently, I saw it again in an email sent to recognize and bolster the accomplishments of another black male educator, who after years of dedication and extensive evaluation secured tenure from his school district. It's a truthful refrain, but for some reason, seeing it this time got my "thinking wheels" spinning.

I have heard it numerous times and from various people. We need more black men in education. We need more black and Latino men in the classroom. Speaking from my perspective as a black male who used to teach in Washington, D.C., schools, I scream Yes, we need more black and Latino males teaching! I fervently agree that the need for more black and Latino male educators should be of paramount concern to universities, colleges of education, recruitment agencies and districts. However, I remain unsettled with what I perceive to be the underlying sentiments and assumptions of those who frequently echo this call.

Let us look at the numbers. According to data presented in a 2012 report by Ivory Toldson, Ph.D. and Chance Lewis, Ph.D. called "Challenge the Status Quo: Academic Success among School-age African-American Males," Black and Latino male teachers together make up a little over 3 percent of the grade K-12 teaching force, which is gravely disproportionate to the amount of black and Latino male students (approximately 17 percent) occupying classroom seats.

So given these numbers, yes, we need more black and Latino males in education because there is a stark under-representation given the black and Latino school-age population. However, though of critical importance, finding more black and Latino male teachers will not solve all of the dilemmas faced by young black and Latino males. Thus, I argue that there is a significant flaw in the dialogue centering on the struggles black and Latino male students. Simply, this flaw is based on the assumption that black and Latino male teachers are the only ones who can adequately do the work of solving these boys' school-based problems.

I argue that there is urgency for at least two complementary discourses around black and Latino male professionals in relation to black and Latino school-age males, in particular. First, we need to urge more black and Latino men to study education in four-year colleges of education at the undergraduate and graduate levels and subsequently stick with teaching as a profession. And consequently, more funding, research and incentives need to be implemented to ensure this happens. This point is critical, but it is not what I explore in this piece.

And, second, we also need more Latino and black men outside of the teaching force to take the job of mentoring seriously. In this regard, black and Latino males across all professions need to step in and serve as supplemental educators to elementary, middle, high school and even college-aged young men. Black and Latino men need not be classroom teachers to positively alter the life trajectory of a black or brown boy. They need your help, and here is why.

When we leave the work of cultivating the lives of our young males solely to classroom teachers and other school practitioners, these boys miss out on so much. They miss opportunities to experience the meaningful mentoring and exposure that comes from interactions and experiences with adults succeeding in a more diverse array of fields. And given the current state of the statistical trajectories for many young Latino and black males, it is essential that we realize that the job to mold, cultivate, and stimulate alternate life outcomes for these boys cannot be left solely to the scattering of Black males working with them in schools.

Many times, these boys are pointed to examples of other black and Latino males, maybe from their neighborhood or community, who have made it. They are inundated with stories of athletes like Michael Jordan and Alex Rodriguez and hear the speeches and narratives of activists like Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. And while sometimes the success of others resonates and inspires them to advance toward achievement, many times they do not. Why? Individuals, let alone young males, cannot learn solely from hearing about the successes of others.

Black and Latino boys need to watch, observe and fully engage in the process of how an individual, who might look like him (though I fully acknowledge that mentors of other races can be of significant value), maneuvered through failures, pitfalls and the other realities that come prior to the eventual achievement. They need to be in consistent and direct contact with individuals working to better themselves professionally and personally. They need to learn from others how to handle the frustrations that come with the numerous setbacks that arise from doing new and exciting things, and learn how to turn obstacles into more productive outcomes for themselves. This happens optimally through direct and sustained mentoring.

Black and Latino men, now, please take heed. The job to educate and support the optimal growth of these males cannot solely fall on educators broadly and reside on the shoulders of a few black and Latino male teachers, specifically. If you are a successful black/Latino male, or someone who cares about the fate of young males of color in particular, you have tremendous potential and capacity to mentor.

Thus, I urge you, the reader, to deeply consider where and how mentoring fits into your life. I understand that professionally successful black and Latino men are oftentimes busy; yet, there is still time in your schedule to do this work. The only reason that I have found success both professionally and personally is because mentors have guided me along the way, and many other black and Latino males would assuredly echo this same sentiment.

Young males need help with life experiences that range from homework assistance, to relationship and dating advice, to mini career-related internships. They need game- or concert-watching partners, or even another person to call or text in times of need and in times of joy. And while you need not do all of these things, involving yourself positively in the life of a young person is key. So, yes, we do need more black and Latino males working public education, but the work is too big and too important to rest solely on our teachers. Without stepping foot inside a classroom, black and Latino men can powerfully and positively alter the lives of our future generation.