When Teach For America first came to Charlotte, I recall the organizers saying their goal was for alumni to stay engaged in public education long after their two-year teaching stints end.
Now that the national teacher recruitment program has been in town for more than a decade, I’m starting to see how that plays out, with TFA alums popping up as local school board candidates, charter school operators and even North Carolina’s new superintendent.
Add to that list Jason Terrell and Mario Jovan Shaw, co-founders of a Charlotte-based nonprofit group that seeks to improve the future of young black men by supporting African-American male teachers. Shaw, 27, and Terrell, 26, were recently recognized in Forbes’ “30 Under 30” feature on social entrepreneurs.
The co-founders of Profound Gentlemen met at a TFA training program in Tulsa, Okla., as they were preparing to teach in Charlotte.
Shaw grew up in Cleveland wanting to teach, but he didn’t like his college education classes and switched to communications at University of Cincinnati, where he was president of the Black Student Union. Terrell, who grew up in Atlanta, majored in political science at Furman University and thought he’d go to law school. Both signed on with TFA, which recruits teachers from nontraditional paths to work in hard-to-staff schools across the country.
They were roommates in the summer crash course to prepare them for teaching students of poverty. They stayed in touch after they came to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Shaw was assigned to Ranson Middle School and Terrell to Martin Middle School.
They worked with the African-American adolescent boys who too often end up in what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline, with higher suspension rates and lower academic success than most other demographic groups. Realizing how few professional black men those students saw, they recognized the importance of teachers who could model a different path.
In 2014, on the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation ruling, Shaw wrote a piece for the Observer describing the need for more black male teachers.
“As a teacher, I’m responsible for ensuring that my kids thrive academically. But as an African-American male teacher – one of just a few at my school – my responsibilities don’t end here,” he wrote. “Many of my students have never had a teacher who looks like them standing at the blackboard. Depending on their family situations, some have literally no black male role models in their lives.
“In this reality, the choices I make carry incredible weight – from the way I dress to how I handle an argument,” Shaw continued. “The pressure can feel overwhelming at times. But I’m proud to have it on my shoulders.”
He started hearing from others who agreed. Out of that came Profound Gentlemen, a program to provide support for teachers and mentors for “Young Gents.” Terrell and Shaw talk about replacing “school-to-prison” with a cradle-to-career pipeline.
In 2015 they got an Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellowship that let them turn their vision into a reality.
Some of the challenges that push black men out of teaching are common to all teachers, such as living on low pay and feeling overwhelmed as new teachers. Profound Gentlemen pays experienced teachers to serve as “impact leaders,” in charge of helping cohorts of about two dozen men network and learn together. Participants tell the group about the kind of support and training they need, and they can get participation rewards such as school supplies and trips to conferences.
Some challenges are unique to black men, such as isolation in a mostly white and female profession and the tendency to be stereotyped as the go-to guy for discipline.
“That definitely was my experience,” said Terrell. He didn’t mind stepping in to talk to struggling boys, he said, but he felt like that focus sometimes obscured his academic skill.
Profound Gentlemen currently has 125 men participating and 10 impact leaders working with them. They’re working in six cities: Charlotte, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis and Washington, D.C.
The Forbes recognition brought the group new attention, and the founding duo now have the enviable challenge of figuring out how fast the program can grow.
At a time when police violence against black men is in the news and racial tensions run high, Shaw says it’s more important than ever for men like him to show the next generation a path toward success.
“It gives them hope,” he said. “But it’s hard. It really is.”