Q&A with Black Men Teach Executive Director Markus Flynn

AdoptAClassroom.org recently funded teachers in the Twin Cities through our partnership with Black Men Teach

To reach our goal of advancing equity in education, it’s essential for AdoptAClassroom.org to support Black students and teachers. Our Racial Equity in Schools Fund helps teachers craft a culturally responsive environment and close the gaps in racial experiences of education. By supporting teachers with Black Men Teach, we’re lessening the burden on them to pay for supplies out of pocket and helping them inspire and educate their students. 

Black Men Teach helps Black male educators get into the teaching profession and stay there by offering mentoring and financial support. Melissa Hruza, VP of Marketing and Development, sat down with Markus Flynn, former teacher and Executive Director of Black Men Teach, to talk about the important work that they do. 

Melissa Hruza/AdoptAClassroom.org: Can you share a little bit about the history of Black Men Teach? What is the organization? 

Markus Flynn: Our mission is to recruit prepared placement team Black male teachers in elementary school classrooms. We’ve been around since 2018 and we really started because our board identified a need. Where we’re located, in the Twin Cities, there’s close to 60,000 teachers and less than 900 Black teachers. Black men are less than a half percent of the teaching workforce. At the elementary school level, we’re talking about less than 50 teachers across the state. At the same time, Black students and Latinx students in Minnesota had the lowest respective graduation rates in the country

The need is tremendous, but the data is very powerful when it talks about the benefit that Black teachers bring. There’s a study that says, Black students, kindergarten through third grade with one Black teacher are 13% more likely to enroll in college. If you have a second Black teacher in that same time span that number goes from 13% all the way up to 32%. 

The short-term benefits are no less powerful. Black students are more likely to have higher attendance when they have a Black teacher, less likely to be suspended or expelled, and more likely to be enrolled in a talented and gifted program. There’s even data that talks about performance on standardized tests. When students are matched with a teacher of the same race, you see improvement on standardized test scores. 

AAC: What do you hope to do for teachers? What is it that you do to support teachers so they want to keep teaching?

MF: Black Men Teach does a lot for teachers. Within our organization, we hold this core belief that of all of the quality of life indicators, education is the one that has the most residual benefit. And if you look at a person’s education experience, it’s our belief that the most important people in that experience are teachers. If you want to have stronger outcomes for our community, not just in education, the best thing you can do is invest in educators who are going to make sure that those children have positive outcomes. 

When we think about the men within our organization, the first thing to do is think about the barriers for Black men that’s preventing them from coming in the classroom or preventing them from staying in a classroom. The lack of financial support is a big one. The national starting salary for teachers is about $44,000. White teachers graduate college and have roughly $25,000 in debt while Black college graduates have about an additional $25,000 in debt on top of what other education graduates have. And so when a white student is graduating, going into teaching, they’re looking at about a 60% debt to income ratio. Compared to that $44,000 salary and a Black teacher starts looking at about 120% debt to income ratio. 

At Black Men Teach, we provide student loan debt relief or retention bonuses for all of our men to think about because we can’t sit down at the negotiating table, and negotiate a salary package for all teachers. But we can think about the things that impact your money, like limiting some of the debt that you have or providing you with a retention stipend, things that make the financial situation look a little bit different as you climb up the ranks. We’re also piloting a new partnership with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. We’re helping men purchase homes with down payment assistance. Through that program, our men will qualify for $30,000 after being a teacher with us for a few years in our partner schools. 

We often think about the health and wellness of our teachers. We don’t want to support teachers for the sake of just putting Black men in the classroom. We want to make sure that the men who were put in the classroom in a position to be successful really thrive. A lot of times teachers are so benevolent, they’ll sacrifice themselves for the cause of their students. We try to counter that by offering therapy to support all of the men in our program. 

AAC: Do you have a sense of what the primary reasons are for why Black men are leaving teaching?

MF: Part of it is financial. So there’s a study about the weekly wage penalty for teachers and comparably educated professionals. In 1996, for men specifically it was around 15%. In 2022, it is closer to like 35%. I can see a lot of Black men leaving because there are other opportunities, especially in today’s climate. Every industry is looking to have a diversified workforce. There’s this attractiveness in this pool of other professions. You might not have to work quite as much or as hard to get paid a little bit more. You’re doing incredible, powerful work as a teacher, but then it’s not recognized. Then there’s an additional emotional tax. Many times Black men come to the profession because of the way that they were treated as Black boys. So you’re being reintroduced to some of the trauma that you experienced. So you have just this additional tax and burden that you carry, but no additional compensation. It makes sense that people will leave the profession under those circumstances.

AAC: Why is it so important for Black students to see broad representation in their teachers, you know, in a significant way? 

MF: I had a student when I came in my first year of teaching. Sometimes before the incoming class comes in, teachers talk and you review data. I remember hearing and seeing data that pointed at this one particular student being a problem child. So it’s my first year and she’s in my homeroom. And it didn’t take long for me to see why the data looked the way it looked.

My very first week of teaching, this same student came to me and said, “Mr. Flynn, you’re my favorite teacher.” I asked her why. And she said, “Because you look like me.” She was 11 years old, clearly articulating how representation is important to her. 

At the end of that school year I had an instructional coach who came to visit me. My instructional coach wasn’t privy to this conversation or privy to the data. One of my coach’s reflections was that this student was my most engaged participant in class. Over the course of the year, I didn’t notice how she really became a different student. What my coach said was true. She was a strong student. She was not problematic in my class.

I began this school year watching my colleagues. When it came to this student in particular, they tried to rule with an iron fist. As a first year teacher, at first I followed along. Then I stopped and thought to myself, “How would you treat a Black girl in your family?” I started being intentional while making space for her. Every time we talked, every time something happened, I pulled her aside and said, “I promise you, I’ll give you some time to speak. Let me say what I have to say first and then I’ll turn it to you.” And we would do that. 

What I learned in that experience was that a lot of her responses were due to the fact that she never had a chance to express herself. I would give her an outlet and make sure she knew that going in. Of course, it makes the conversation much longer. But it’s also an explicit expression that her humanity is important. And that’s all she wanted.

AAC: One of the things that we do at AdoptAClassroom.org is give teachers autonomy over how they spend their classroom funds. Why is it important for teachers to be able to buy the things they want, instead of having someone come in and tell them what to buy?

MF: Teachers know their students, they know their needs, their desires, their interests. We need to listen to the people who have that much proximity. They know what will be an effective way to leverage the funds. At the elementary level, teachers spend so much time with those kids more than any adult in their life. Who else will be better to trust with funding for students than the people who spend the most time with them? A lot of times when we support our teachers, we’re not asking questions like, “Where can I find a research study that will validate what you’re saying?” I already know you’re conducting research studies every single day, you’re getting qualitative evidence, finding out every single day who these kids are and what their motivation points are. 

AAC: What does this support mean to teachers? 

MF:  When the community stands up, and demonstrates their willingness to support your classroom, it’s one of the most affirming things that you can experience. It’s a huge thank you to what you do and a recognition of the value of it. It’s a sign that your community wants to make sure that you’re supported to teach in the way that you do.

AAC: What’s something our readers could do to support your mission? And to get more involved with what you’re trying to accomplish?

MF: The easiest way to help is to tell your Black students, especially your Black boys, that they should be teachers. I never heard that in my entire life until I had already become a teacher. If your Black students have Black men who are teaching in your school, introduce them to your students and show them a physical manifestation of what their future could look like. 

To learn more about Black Men Teach or to support their work, visit their website: www.blackmenteach.org.