MINNEAPOLIS -- All throughout high school, Kaiyre Lewis enjoyed working with kids. He babysat, he coached youth teams, worked at camps. It came natural to him, especially as a big brother.

But when Lewis started college last year, he picked a major in political science.

“I barely knew what poli sci was,” said Lewis, 19, a sophomore at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “And then I got a job at a daycare, and I had always in the back of my mind thought, ‘Maybe teaching, maybe teaching.’”

But as a Black man and the first in his family to go to college, Lewis said he faced pressure to go to school for something more lucrative.

“And on top of that, I only see white women,” he said. “I never looked at my teachers and thought, ‘That's gonna be me one day.’”

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Black teachers make up just 1.4% of Minnesota’s teaching population, according to the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board and Wilder Research 2019 Biennial Report. The statistic remains so low, and even lower for Black male teachers, at a time when the number of students of color continues to grow in the state.

The Twin Cities nonprofit Black Men Teach is hoping to change that by convincing high school and college students like Lewis that they belong in front of the classroom. The group started in 2018 but has recently been expanding and ramping up its fundraising and recruitment efforts to get more Black men to teach.

The organization hopes Black educators will connect with students early, in elementary school, and increase the number of Black male teachers in eight partner schools over the next six years.

Work to do

Despite research that shows the importance of a diverse teaching pool, Minnesota’s teaching staff is still made up of mostly white women, said Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed‏, superintendent of the Hopkins Public Schools and the board chair of Black Men Teach.

“We have a lot of work to do to increase teachers of color for our students,” she said. “But because there are a lot of hands in that pot, really there has been no proven strategy for how to do that well. In Black Men Teach, our aim is to focus on a very narrow demographic.”

Currently 34% of K-12 students across the state are students of color, while just 4% of licensed teachers identify as nonwhite.

Studies show that Black students are more likely to go to graduate and go to college if they’ve had interactions with teachers of the same race.

“Within my first week of teaching, I had a student tell me that I was their favorite teacher just because I look like them,” said Markus Flynn, who will soon start as executive director of Black Men Teach. “For me, when I’m in front of my students, it is an opportunity to affirm their identity, to let them know that who you are is valuable.”

The 26-year-old has been teaching fifth through seventh grade science at Prodeo Academy, a charter school in Columbia Heights, Minn. His path to education wasn’t traditional. He went to school for health sciences and got his masters in physical activity epidemiology. He was interested in studying health inequities in the African American community.

But he said after some reflection in graduate school, he realized education was where he can make a difference.

“As a Black male teacher, I am able to relate to my students well,” Flynn said. “I know them, I know their language, I know what they mean, I know what their body language is saying.”

Black Men Teach has an ambitious goal of increasing the number of Black male teachers in their partner schools in Hopkins, Minneapolis, Anoka-Hennepin and St. Paul to 20% over the next six years.

In Thetis White’s fifth grade Google classroom, sleepy students sign on to their daily morning meeting, some switching the cameras on and off, while others ask questions about upcoming assignments.

White is a no-nonsense teacher who constantly reminds his students to turn in their work and turn it in on time.

“Do not take advantage of the fact that you are at home,” he said one recent morning. “Assignments do not complete themselves.”

Among his favorite sayings in the classroom? “You better have my money at the end of the day,” he says with a laugh. He explains: “You better have your work done by 4 o'clock when I update your grade book, or we're going to have a problem tomorrow morning.”

But he’s also one to tell his students that he loves them every day.

White connected with Black Men Teach before becoming a teacher at Monroe Elementary in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Now that he’s been in that role for about a year and a half, he’s seeing positive changes in students as well as potential in other Black teaching assistants who make a difference in the classroom but don’t have the authority of a licensed teacher.

More than half of White’s class this year is made up of students of color. That pairing between Black students and a Black teacher is not common in Minnesota’s classroom. White emphasizes that he sets higher expectations of all of his students, including the ones that maybe have not been challenged in the past by white teachers.

“When you’re a Black kid and you’re being told that you can’t do something over and over by somebody that doesn’t look like you, that can be a problem,” he said.

For Lewis, the Augsburg University sophomore, the opportunity to launch his teaching career is still a few years away. Through Black Men Teach, he’s been meeting with Black male teachers and is looking forward to interning inside the classroom after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

That sense of brotherhood has already given him the nudge he needed to follow his calling: Earlier this year, Lewis officially changed his major from political science to elementary education.