You’re probably familiar with stories about celebrities surprising groups of giddy school children and causing pandemonium.
This story is ever so slightly different.
On Monday morning, about a dozen teachers gathered inside a common room at Mary McLeod Bethune School in North Philadelphia for a professional development session. At least that’s what they thought they were doing.
Then, Philadelphia 76ers star Tobias Harris ducked through the door. No one jumped up and down, but there was hearty applause, broad smiles, and lots of pictures.
Harris wanted to meet with the men because they were men — Black men, to be precise.
In Pennsylvania, just one percent of educators identify as Black men. But Bethune has become a beacon for male teachers of color. Black and brown men make up 43 percent of the school’s teaching force.
“Just like kids may look up to an athlete as a role model, I look up to you guys as teachers, as educators, as people of influence,” Harris said, before gifting the men $100 to spend on school supplies and inviting them to hang with him for a “fellas night” at a future Sixers game.
An oft-cited study from Johns Hopkins University suggests that Black students who had at least one Black teacher by the time they reached third grade were significantly more likely to attend college. Pennsylvania’s teaching force is getting whiter, however, and there’s been a sharp drop in the number of Black college students earning teaching degrees.
In Philadelphia, Black teachers made up more than a third of the teaching force as recently as 2000. Now, they represent less than a quarter of city educators.
Harris recently gifted $300,000 to a new nonprofit called The Center for Black Educator Development, which hopes to replenish the pipeline of Black educators. Harris’ appearance Monday morning was in support of those efforts.
“I just wanted to be here to let them know that they are appreciated,” said Harris.
Second-year teacher Shakoor Henderson, 26, got into teaching after his mom pointed out that he’d had just one Black male teacher over his academic career, including college. Henderson grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but spent summers in North Philadelphia, where his parents were raised.
His background overlaps with a lot of the students in his seventh-grade math class. He feels that gives him an edge in the classroom.
“I know the ins and outs. I know how things work. I know how they think,” Henderson said. “So we relate a little bit more.”
Henderson wanted to be a math teacher because he feels a lot of Black boys don’t see themselves as “math people.” For that reason, his lessons integrate the kind of cultural touchstones his students find familiar.
That includes math problems about basketball, which Henderson coaches when he’s not teaching.
“I’m a die-hard Sixers fan — like die-hard,” Henderson said.
When Harris told the Bethune teachers that they were the elite of the elite in their profession, Henderson admits it was a pretty thrilling moment — even if he didn’t jump and scream.
And the idea of attending a Sixers game at Harris’ invitation?
“I’m, like, really excited about it,” he said.