Part 2 of 2: In New Orleans, a reluctant teacher finds his voice and, possibly, his purpose
Two years ago, Nathaniel Albert walked into a first-grade classroom at Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in New Orleans and quietly made connections with children. Soon, he became an indispensable part of their school day.
“When he wasn’t there, the students would ask, ‘Where were you?’” said teacher Kierston James, 40, who oversaw Albert, a fellow with the Brothers Empowered to Teach (BE2T) Initiative. The program recruits' college-age people of color, particularly African American men, and pays them stipends to work in schools in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
At Wilson, like many of New Orleans public schools, most of the students are black — and it was Albert’s personal mission to reach each of them. “Even with the ones that were shy, Nathaniel would always push up his chair: ‘What you reading? What can you tell me about it?’ And on the playground, he’d go play with them,” James said.
Though Wilson has maybe a dozen African American male teachers on its K-8 staff, only one of them teaches within Wilson’s primary school, in the second grade. “It’s a rarity to see male teachers in the classroom at all on this floor,” James said.
Wilson’s principal, Lee Green, 55, sees an urgency in getting more young men like Albert into teaching. “I need more African American males at the lower level, influencing our youngest scholars. I need more African American males in teaching, period,” said Green, who is African American.
With his fellowship, Albert wanted to test the waters, to see if he should become a schoolteacher, even though he’d struggled throughout his school career with a profound speech impediment. The deciding factor was pragmatic: He really needed a paid job that fit his school schedule.
BE2T exists to meet these two needs. Schools in New Orleans are desperately seeking a more stable teaching force that better reflects the race and background of students here, 84 percent of whom are African American. The program is also intended to improve supports for the black college students it recruits. Fellows receive monthly stipends that start at $450 and rise each year, up to $700, in an attempt to combat steep post-secondary dropout rates — 33 percent of black college students drop out after one year of college, often because of financial shortfalls.
“We’re not trying to force anyone into teaching,” said Kristyna Jones, who co-founded BE2T in 2014. “Our way of convincing our fellows is with experience. We get you talking about your educational experience, get you working with children.”
Nationally, there are a growing number of efforts, like these, to create more pathways to the classroom for black teachers. Overall, black teachers are only about 7 percent of the nation’s public-school teaching force, while the U.S. student population is about 14 percent black. Black men make up less than 2 percent of teachers. In New Orleans, the under-representation of black teachers is particularly acute. After Hurricane Katrina, 4,300 public-school teachers were fired, ushering in state-led reforms that eventually transferred all public schools to charter operators. The vast majority of the fired teachers were black and seasoned, with an average of 15 years of experience.
900 teachers, nearly one-third of the city’s teaching force, leave New Orleans and its schools for jobs elsewhere each year.
The proportion of black teachers now stands at 49 percent, far below pre-Katrina levels. Teacher tenure also dropped drastically, with the proportion of teachers with 20-plus years of experience dropping by 20 percent, while turnover increased: Each year, about 900 individuals, nearly one-third of the city’s teaching force, leave New Orleans and its schools for jobs elsewhere.
This year, with overall state test results for Orleans charters declining or stagnating for the fourth consecutive year, Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis said the district needed to work harder to stem its high levels of teacher attrition.
Parents and advocates have also called for more teachers who can relate culturally to black New Orleans children and make connections with the communities they serve. They’re backed by research showing that teachers of color who instruct students of the same race are more likely to set high expectations, discipline appropriately, and identify students for gifted programs. Black students who have a black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate high school and go to college.
In response to the concerns and the research, several new fellowship programs have sprung up to strengthen the teacher pipeline in New Orleans. In 2017, a group of four educational nonprofits partnered with two local universities, Xavier and Loyola, to land a $13 million federal grant that will produce 900 “highly effective, culturally competent teachers from diverse backgrounds” by the year 2020, according to one of the partners, New Schools for New Orleans.
Last year, Brothers Empowered to Teach received a three-year, $550,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to help scale up its organization’s work, which has grown from seven fellows in 2014 to more than 40 fellows in 2018. (The Kellogg Foundation is among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report.)
Throughout his two-year fellowship, Albert consistently saw himself in his New Orleans students and wondered about his own life’s path. “I was once in their position,” he said. “I was an inner-city kid, growing up in a single-parent household. And my mother did a fantastic job raising us. But sometimes I wonder how it would have been to have had a male role model. Would he have pushed me to be more confident, to speak out more? Would I have turned out better?”
As a child, Nathaniel Albert seemed unlikely to become a teacher. His attitude toward school was unenthusiastic, at best.
That was largely because of his speech impediment. “It was a personal blockade,” he said.
He and his twin brother Nathan saw a speech pathologist who helped them enunciate more clearly. But Albert’s struggles with speech lasted all through high school. “I had it real bad,” he said. “Nathan used to talk for me. I was terrified to speak in front of a room or to read a passage.”
At Benjamin Franklin Elementary and Eleanor McMain Secondary, Nathaniel and Nathan Albert were inseparable. Though they were in school during the early years of the post-Katrina reforms, their Uptown-area schools experienced little of the turnover and tumult that lower-performing schools went through during that time. Both brothers earned good grades, but Albert said he “didn’t really like learning.”
His brother nodded and chimed in, to emphasize the point. “He was not hyped about school,” Nathan Albert said.
At the Southern University at New Orleans, the brothers took the same college courses, socialized with the same friends, made the dean’s list together, and even shared a major: computer science. Though they are known as hard workers, they also laugh easily and are quick with quips in conversation. “We just vibe off each other,” Nathan Albert said. “We have synergy.”
Finally, in college, Albert began to feel comfortable. “One day, I told Nathan, ‘Don’t talk for me tomorrow,’” he said. “That’s when I started speaking out.”
He became a leader in the SUNO chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and heard about Brothers Empowered to Teach from a fraternity brother who had been a teaching fellow in another local program. “I told him that I was looking for a job; I was really open to anything,” said Albert. “He told me that he could see me leading a classroom. At first, I wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t so interested in teaching.”
But he told his twin about the program, and both applied, hoping only for interesting work that paid decently.
In his junior year, Albert joined James’ first-grade classroom, often leading reading groups and working one-on-one with students. At first, he found that students wiggled around and got distracted. Since his own mind wanders easily, he was able to respond intuitively to keep their attention, interjecting pop questions to the students he worked with. “You can’t just read to them,” he said.
James watched closely as Albert coaxed responses from even the quietest children, often through a combination of humor and kindness, she said.
That method felt natural, he said. “Being the one student who didn’t have a voice growing up, I can push students to open up more, to voice their opinions. I think that’s where I find teaching fits me.”
While his twin remained ambivalent about teaching, Albert began to see the job as a calling.
To Albert, the Wilson school, located in the Broadmoor section of town, felt both loving and orderly, a lot like his own elementary school growing up. Wilson’s staff is made up of seasoned African American teachers and its students — like the school district itself — are primarily African American. Green, the principal, took a special interest in placing teaching fellows in the right classroom. “You have to put them on a strong teacher,” said Green, who placed Albert with James, an 18-year teaching veteran. “And you’ve got to make sure that they understand the culture of the school, but at the same time, you’ve got to make them feel needed.”
“Sometimes I wonder how it would have been to have had a male role model. Would he have pushed me to be more confident, to speak out more? Would I have turned out better?”
Through Green, who also grew up with a speech impediment, Albert saw how his struggles as a child gave him strengths as a teacher. Because that’s how Green views his impediment, which he still reminds himself of every single day. “I tell my teachers that you have to understand that a kid can overcome a disability,” he said. “It’s not a stop. It’s not the end-all. Kids can achieve no matter what.”
Research shows that black teachers are more likely to stay at schools that provide the kind of steady leadership and mentoring that Albert had at Wilson, with Green’s deliberate placements and James’ steady mentoring. But in the fellowship’s second year, Albert found himself more at sea.
Brothers Empowered to Teach placed the twins at Bricolage Academy, in the city’s 6th Ward. For the Albert brothers it was as if Bricolage and Wilson existed in different worlds.
Though New Orleans is 60 percent black and 34 percent white, this demographic is not reflected in its public school enrollment: Overall, enrollment at the city’s schools is about 82 percent black and 85 percent economically disadvantaged. At Bricolage, there are more white students than black students, 51 percent to 37 percent, according to 2016-17 demographics. Only 42 percent of its students come from economically disadvantaged households, compared to 94 percent of Wilson students. Like other launches that were part of the city’s post-Katrina school reforms, such as Morris Jeff and Homer Plessy elementary schools, Bricolage is part of a national trend known as “diverse by design.”
Last year, Bricolage school leader Josh Denson, 40, oversaw the school’s relocation into a plum location, a gorgeously remodeled historic building that had once housed John McDonogh High School. By placing the twins at Bricolage, the BE2T program sought to combat historical mismatches, in which teachers of color are often placed at the most challenging, high-poverty schools.
For Albert, shifting to this new school culture was a challenge. At Bricolage, teachers typically pull misbehaving students aside and talk with them, rather than track their behavior on a stoplight chart. There was even a meditation option for off-task students who needed to focus.
Because Wilson had been more regimented, the twins needed to observe and adjust once they started at Bricolage. “I didn’t want to be the guy who enforces rules that are now non-existent,” said Albert, noting another key difference: Students at Wilson walked the hallways in lines, silently, unlike students at Bricolage. “They just walked freely to the next class,” said Albert. “That was a shock to me. I grew up walking in lines and studying in strict classrooms. But I saw that the students at Bricolage were definitely grasping the material they were taught, even though the classrooms didn’t always feel as orderly as they had been at Wilson.”
The twins wished there were a model that combined Wilson’s more structured approach with Bricolage’s innovative new approaches. “I’d like to see a blend,” Albert said.
They also wished there were more teachers like them. Last year, in addition to the two BE2T fellows, Bricolage had just two African American male teachers, compared to a dozen or so at Wilson. In grades K through 4, no black men were in lead teaching roles, though some worked in the primary school as paraprofessionals, said teacher Laureé Akinola-Massaquoi, an African American veteran teacher of nine years, who oversaw Nathan Albert for the year.
Albert saw fairly small numbers of African American male teachers in both schools. He became curious what it would have been like to spend more time in their classrooms. “I caught snippets of their styles, just observing them,” Albert said. “But sometimes I thought that it might have been nice to shadow under an African American man, just to see how it would be.”
Across the city, post-Katrina hiring patterns led to overrepresentation of white teachers, according to a teacher-diversity study published in 2015 by the Albert Shanker Institute. That uptick in the hiring of white teachers was counter to national trends. Yet the Institute’s study concluded that even in places where hiring has improved, it may no longer be the most urgent part of the equation: “Nationally, minority teachers are being hired at a higher proportional rate than other teachers. Rather, the problem lies in attrition: Minority teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate than other teachers,” the study concluded.
“If 85 percent of teachers are white, black and brown educators tend to have a difficult time.”
Basically, job satisfaction matters. And in schools where the staff is overwhelmingly white, black teachers can struggle.
Wilson’s principal, Green, has seen first-hand how school leaders often assume that African American men can serve best as disciplinarians, rather than as experts in academics. “We are often stereotyped as having ‘good classroom management,’” Green said. “So I wanted to make sure that Nathaniel knew that I saw him as an educator first. Because people can leave the profession quick and we can’t afford to have too many African American males leave the profession.”
Jones, of BE2T, also has seen school-to-school differences in how her fellows are supported. “If 85 percent of teachers are white, black and brown educators tend to have a difficult time,” she said. “What seems to work well is when folks are shown that they’re valuable at the student level and the educator level.”
During the fellowship’s second year, Akinola-Massaquoi printed out pictures of her students with their names before he arrived, so that Nathan Albert could form relationships starting on his first day. They talked, texted, and emailed outside the classroom. “I asked him what he was interested in: Did he like math or science or reading? And what was it that he liked about education? Because if he didn’t feel useful, it would be a bad experience,” she said.
While at Wilson, Albert experienced a similar closeness with his lead teacher, Kierston James. “I gave him certain language drills — sight words, phonics, blending — to work on with the kids,” James said. “He would observe me and I would say, ‘Did you see how I did that?’ and then he’d do it on his own the next day. I’d send him the lesson plan the night before. And if I wasn’t around or I was absent and a sub came in, he kept the flow going.”
In contrast, at Bricolage, Albert drifted, without a set classroom or a teacher who saw him as a protégé.
Denson, the school’s founder, blames himself for that experience. As head of school, he said, he was too far removed from the classroom to supervise each fellow’s experience. After first being assigned to the second grade, Albert was moved to the fifth grade, where he moved between three different classrooms.
His favorite spot was the fifth-grade innovation class taught by Alex Owens, 33, a white, nine-year teaching veteran.
One day last spring, Albert walked into Owens’ lab-style classroom as the students dispersed to the room’s different stations, where they could build machines with Legos, or grab iPads, which they could use to code programs or create rhythms and beats. “Kids in this generation are so creative,” Albert said with a grin, as the students dug into their projects. As he passed, some students said “Hey, Mr. Nate” and high-fived him.
He walked around the room, observing and joking with the students. One student handed him an iPad and headphones and asked him to listen to newly created rhythms. Albert slipped on the headphones, gave a thumbs-up and suggested that the students put in a little more work. “I think you can get much more imaginative,” he said.
Across the room, Owens had pulled himself onto one of the lab’s counters and was sitting cross-legged, giving precise but casual directions to his class. “I feel like I can learn something from him,” Albert said, taking note of how Owen managed his classroom without raising his voice. “He’s able to grab their attention. He makes sure that students are engaged, with no distractions. But he’s more like a supporter than an enforcer.”
Sometimes, Owens pulled Albert aside for a few minutes to suggest questions he could ask the students as they worked on projects. But the two never communicated outside of class and they never really talked about what Albert could or should be doing longer-term, since Albert wasn’t formally placed in Owens’ classroom.
“Nobody said to me, ‘This is your guy, check in with him, make sure he’s doing well,’” said Owens, who sees it as a missed opportunity.
Despite that, Albert saw his experience as positive. “I see Mr. Alex as a role-model teacher,” he said. “If I become a teacher, he’s one of the teachers that I most want to be like.” Albert said that he wasn’t comfortable being “an enforcer,” because he didn’t like being handled that way by anyone else. “So my personal dilemma was trying to find a teacher who could lead a classroom while remaining cool and calm. Mr. Alex fit that picture for me.”
This spring, the Albert twins graduated from SUNO and began job searching. With the help of BE2T’s Jones, Nathaniel Albert has had a few interviews for positions in local charters where he could teach in the classroom while working toward his teaching certification. Recently, as he stood in the checkout line at a grocery store, a little boy ran up to him. Albert recognized him as a former first-grader from Wilson.
“Do you remember me?” the boy asked excitedly, reminiscing about some of the moments the two had spent together, as the child’s mother nodded and smiled. “He had told his mother about me,” said Albert, who felt proud as he walked away with his groceries.
“I don’t know what difference I made with that student. But I could definitely tell I did something,” he said.
Connections like these that did something for Albert. He caught the teaching bug. “You’re actually part of a child’s development,” he said. “It’s powerful.”