OP-ED: From Delinquent to Distinguished: I Want to Help My Students Like a Teacher Helped Me

Cartoon school interior and open door in classroom, African American male teacher and different school children teenagers standing in the hallway

When I was a child, I had an adventurous streak that helped me find trouble often. I remember running off campus during recess in 2nd grade and vandalizing some decorative fixtures around houses near my school. 

That was the first time I faced the police. 

I remember not being able to read in the 3rd grade. By 5th grade, I was taking excursions too far from home to explore hip hop culture in the form of graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and rapping.

Then in the 6th grade I met Mr. Robert Drake, my first Black male teacher. He made me feel smart. I can pinpoint the exact moment when that feeling was undeniable. Mr. Drake was talking about a medical operation where an organ was removed. I responded by asking what happened to the area where the organ once was. I recall him saying that was a good question and he did not know. He said it with a smile and a face filled with pride. It made me feel like I belonged. 

Mr. Drake also allowed my friends and me to sing, rap, breakdance and draw graffiti after motivating us to read, count and learn our content. He truly valued who I was. I was able to bring my whole self to school and share my whole self with the class.

Influencer and tastemaker Fonzworth Bently said, “if you want kids to learn something, make it cool.” And that’s what happened after I met Mr. Drake, I started thinking that “education is cool.” From that point on, I took school seriously. I became an honor student, graduated from high school with distinction and graduated Magna Cum Laude from college. Then I took my teaching degree directly to the classroom.

As an educator, I now know how Mr. Drake must’ve felt when I asked my question. I had a student named Jay. He came to me with an idea for a poem he was writing. I felt great joy in watching him think and I appreciated his display of intelligence. I know the feeling was mutual because Jay adopted me into his life. 

Writing sessions became moments for life lessons. He started calling me Daddy Mc. He recognized that I would not let him stop at simply having potential, and he allowed me to encourage him to do his work, graduate from high school and go to college. Jay told me how much my presence and instruction mattered. He said that it didn’t just save his life, but it saved someone else’s life from him. I can relate to him because I could have been a statistic if Mr. Drake had not supported me.

There are great lessons to be gleaned from my experience. Districts and schools should focus on building relationships with Black educators. Studies have shown that Black teachers provide an extra benefit to all students no matter the race or background. Our profession needs more teachers of color, and especially Black male educators, who can inspire students in the same way Mr. Drake inspired me, and we must do everything we can to recruit and retain these educators in the profession.

One way to get young professionals interested in teaching is to establish opportunities for them to develop relationships with Black classroom practitioners like me who can be a resource to them. The simple act of talking to another educator can be eye opening. When Blacks who are interested in teaching talk to Blacks who are already teaching, the conversation has multiple layers of insight, resources and experiences that are unique.

Districts and schools also need to build strong pipelines with Black institutions. Historically Black Colleges and Universities, one of which I attended, are known for producing the most successful Black college graduates. These schools would be a great place to develop a pipeline of educators that links these institutions’ education departments with school districts within their state. This effort should be intentional, measurable and be put in policy.

Finally, a great way to recruit and retain Black male educators is to create initiatives that affirm them, target them for leadership roles and recognize those who have been qualified. In its recent report, To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures, Teach Plus addresses what affirming school conditions look like and what schools and districts can do to create those conditions for Black teachers. For Black male educators, such initiatives and leadership roles create reasons to come to the profession and incentives to stay.

I inform new students every year that I answer to Mr. McAdoo or Mr. Mc. I welcome them into the “Mcademy” where I aim to “Mctivate” them. It’s not only safe, but also an open space where they can bring their whole selves. It is a place inspired by Mr. Robert Drake. 

Seeing a Black male educator is powerful for a Black male child. I know because it was powerful for me. One of the best answers for teacher recruitment and retention is a student’s memory of a great teacher. I hope to continue to build lasting memories that show my students that teaching is a worthy and powerful career option.

Leron McAdoo
Leron McAdoo

Leron McAdoo teaches Art 1, Drawing 1, Graphics, and Art Design at Central High in Little Rock. He is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellow.