Black male teachers on rise

Thomas Savage, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Rollings School of the Arts, discusses the Gullah culture with students.

Christina Elmore

Young black males have a better chance of being taught by someone who looks like them now that the first two graduates of the College of Charleston's Call Me MISTER program are teaching in area schools.

And more are in training.

Call Me MISTER is increasing the number of black male teachers in South Carolina by providing a support system for black men pursuing degrees in education, program leaders say.

Participants also are offered a financial package that includes loan forgiveness in proportion to the years spent in the program and given back to schools.

The mission of the Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Initiative is "to increase the pool of available teachers from a broader more diverse background," the program website says.

Jimmy Freeman, one of the program's graduates, is a fourth-grade English and language arts teacher at Sedgefield Intermediate School in Goose Creek.

Freeman said he didn't have a black male teacher until he got to college, but he hopes to inspire children as much as he was inspired by a female educator growing up.

"I had an older female African-American teacher, Mrs. Dawson. She pushed us. It was the fact that she wouldn't let me slide through. She was not going to just give me a grade in her class. I had to earn it. I didn't understand it at the time, but looking back I really admire that," he said.

Freeman said that in school there was a tendency for teachers to just write up black males when they misbehaved. But Dawson took a more caring approach when dealing with her students.

"She was patient, especially with the black males in my class. She had her own special way of dealing with us. So the passion that I have for my students, I believe that I got that from her," Freeman said.

Thomas Savage graduated from Call Me MISTER with Freeman and teaches eighth-grade social studies at Rollings Middle School of the Arts in Summerville. He credits the program with giving him the confidence to pursue a career in what he's passionate about.

"I knew I wanted to teach, but sometimes I tried to get out of it. I was affected by what other people thought about it. It mostly came down to the whole money thing, but I never found anything else that interested me as much as teaching did, so I stayed with it," Savage said.

While the financial package that comes with staying in the program was a bonus, Savage said it was not the reason he chose to be part of it.

"On the surface, it looks really good that there is this monetary incentive, but at the same time, having more African-American males in the classroom really struck me. Having a positive male influence leaves a lasting impact," he said.

Spreading a legacy

Call Me MISTER was developed at Clemson University and, according to its website, has since spread to five states and 13 universities in S.C., reaching the College of Charleston in 2007.

Twenty black male students are involved in the C of C program. The branch's director is Floyd Breeland, a retired school administrator and state representative.

He said he first heard of Call Me MISTER when the program was presented to the Black Caucus in 2000.

"I remember I was very impressed with the idea because I voted for it. I'm a victim of not having young male teachers. The only male I knew in school when I came up was the principal," Breeland said.

Though Breeland didn't have a teacher who looked like him growing up, he said he recognizes the benefits that today's young people could gain if black men had a larger presence in South Carolina schools.

"Male teachers can serve as role models, as someone who encourages young people, male and females, too, in a positive direction. Encourage them to become leaders, and encourage them to encourage other young people to better their lives in certain ways as well," Breeland said.

"This is important because if you don't have a father figure in the home, a male elementary teacher could help bridge that gap," Breeland said.

One of Call Me MISTER's members, Jared Gambrell, said he also never had a black-male teacher in school.

Gambrell said he hopes the program can decrease the number of young black males who can say that. "It's really hard to even put into words what this program really means. It's just a great opportunity. It's a privilege more so than anything else to be an African-American male educator when there are so few of them," Gambrell said.

As a 30-year-old junior at the College of Charleston, Gambrell said he has worked in a number of jobs, but he plans to make a career out of teaching.

"My mother was a teacher for Charleston County for over 25 years. She always pushed me into education, but it was something that I shied away from for a long time. After I worked at a treatment facility for juveniles, I realized how rewarding it (teaching) could be. It's the ability to give back," he said.

"It's about communicating with the black male youth. ... I believe the only thing I would want to say to each and every one of them is to do your best. Don't allow things to get in the way of taking care of school. School is important. No matter what your situation is, it will pass if you're willing to work."

What students think

Madelyne Paulk, a 13-year-old student in Savage's class, said that in her experience male teachers can be stricter than their female counterparts.

Madelyne's classmate, Mitchell Cook, 14, nodded in agreement. "Yeah, they can be stricter, but that helps me focus," Mitchell said.

Devon Smith, 13, agreed with his classmates, but said he enjoyed Savage's class because it gives him a chance to laugh.

"Sometimes male teachers have more of a sense of humor. It's just social studies, but that helps me enjoy it more," Devon said.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908.