For University of St. Thomas elementary education major Brendon Sackey, today's math lesson was proving a unique challenge as a student teacher.
His class of fourth graders at University Avenue Elementary in Blaine were supposed to be focusing on perpendicular and parallel lines. However, these young minds seemed all too aware that in a few short hours they’d be celebrating Valentine’s Day with a variety of snacks and games.
Mrs. Amy Pauleon, Sackey’s mentor and the class’s full-time teacher, says he performed valiantly under the cupid-like pressures of the holiday. But no matter how much knowledge was actually retained, there’s a bigger story at play here. Sackey’s simple presence in this classroom is likely already changing lives.
Sackey, a Black man, is preparing to help fill a critical gap in the Minnesota teaching pool. According to the 2019 Minnesota Teacher Supply and Demand Report, nearly 96% of all public school teachers in the state identify as white. Meanwhile, one in three students in Minnesota public schools are students of color and Indigenous students.
“Growing up, I only had one person of color as a teacher,” Sackey said. “I want to help change that, to be a figure for other students to see people like them.”
That impact can be enormous. Black students who have had at least one Black teacher by third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college – and those who have had two were 32% more likely.
“I’ve seen how that actually helps them,” Sackey said. “It’s something I feel passionate about because I’ve seen how the things I’ve done in the classroom, help kids shine as they grow up.”
Sackey is part of a rare group of K-12 educators. While less than 5% of Minnesota educators are people of color, less than half a percent are Black men.
Originally headed down a much different path, Sackey entered Dougherty Family College with plans to pursue a career in actuarial science. But in his first year at DFC, now-Dean Buffy Smith encouraged Sackey to intern with Black Men Teach Twin Cities, an organization dedicated to the recruitment of Black male elementary teachers.
Through partnerships with school districts and organizations like Black Men Teach, St. Thomas is working to provide prospective teachers of color with the support and experiences they need to find flexible pathways into the classroom. St. Thomas is also committed to removing potential financial barriers through a variety of grants and scholarships for educators of color.
Sackey finished his first-year interning at Black Men Teach and decided to stick around for the rest of his collegiate career. Along the way, Black Men Teach introduced Sackey to a group of fellow Black men who all shared a common goal – they wanted to teach in an elementary school classroom.
“To have a group like that, where I can go and talk to someone and they can relate to me based on skin color as well as being male – it’s really helpful because there’s not a lot of African American teachers out there,” Sackey said.
Over the years, a growing cohort of education majors has met monthly, welcoming men from all over the area, including students at Augsburg, Normandale and St. Thomas. They’ve gone bowling together, snowboarding, and recently took a trip to meet with teachers at the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, allowing these future teachers to bond and learn from experts in their field.
“People need people who understand what they’re going through,” Markus Flynn, executive director of Black Men Teach, said. “You really don’t see Black men in teaching period, but especially at the lower levels. And one of the biggest things we’re seeing out there is this desire to have that fellowship with other men who are in a similar position.”
Even among his peers, Flynn has noticed Sackey's standout skills as an educator, and can't wait to see him grow into that role in his own classroom soon.
“Brendon is a natural leader – he picks things up quickly," Flynn said. "He’s a great coach, and sometimes I don’t think he even realizes when he’s doing it."
At the University of St. Thomas, adding diversity to Minnesota classrooms has been a top priority as the School of Education works to address academic and opportunity gaps. Leaders believe they have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to increase the number of teachers of color.
“We have seen firsthand the difference teachers of color make in the classroom,” Amy Smith said, interim dean of the School of Education. “As more educators like Brendon enter the workforce, we know they make a difference in the lives of students, families and the communities they serve across the state.”
St. Thomas hopes to involve even more students in their partnership with Black Men Teach, and in doing so, support a growing generation of Black male educators.
For Sackey, he’s glad to play his part in helping address a critical need, but, he admits, his career aspirations come from within.
“I know that my being here helps and creates change, but I don’t have an ulterior motive to become a teacher,” Sackey said. “I just really love doing it.”
And he hopes many more Black men will follow in his footsteps.
“Teaching gets overlooked a lot as a major,” Sackey said. “But it’s a very rewarding career to go into. There’s a lot of joy in it.”