Nicholas Cobb teaches fourth-grade math in Arcadia, Louisiana. But he didn’t grow up expecting that he’d end up in a classroom. 

It was the influence of an administrator at his high school that set him on the path. Edmond Donald was the dean of discipline while Cobb was at Glen Oaks High School in Baton Rouge in 2014. 

Nicholas Cobb (Courtesy of Nicholas Cobb)

Donald looked out for Cobb, particularly during the rough weeks after Cobb’s parents divorced. Cobb started acting out — and Donald would bring him out of class and take him to his office. But instead of punishing Cobb, Donald would offer support and kindness. Donald made sure Cobb stayed in school and didn’t get suspended. 

“The patience he showed was more than what anybody else had,” Cobb said. “He just saw me and he saw something in me.”

Donald and Cobb talked regularly about college — including sports, Greek life, and traditions like Pretty Wednesday. Each summer, Donald drove Cobb to TRIO programs — federal support aimed at disadvantaged students — where he took ACT prep courses. Eventually, he scored a 27 on the exam, well above Louisiana’s state average. Dozens of colleges admitted him.

Cobb is just one example of the influence Black male teachers can have on Black students. Their presence is decidedly rare: In Louisiana, just 5% of teachers are Black men — something the state’s education commissioner has said is a major concern. The profession is very white nationally, too. And, further complicating matters is a nationwide teacher shortage

Louisiana, for example, had more than 2,500 open teacher spots as of last fall. The state’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) hope to ease that shortage and, in particular, the share of Black men entering the profession. Already, HBCUs educate half of the nation’s Black teachers.

The influence a Black teacher can have on a Black student can’t be overstated. Black students who had at least one Black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate high school and attend college. And, one study from the University of North Carolina School of Education found that when Black male students have a Black teacher in elementary school, high school dropout rates declined by 39%.

Jenna Bernard (Courtesy of Jenna Bernard) 

Jenna Bernard, now a junior at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, thinks often about the enthusiasm of her Black male high-school history teacher, Zealon Solomon.

He made otherwise routine details — like the number of terms a president served, or how they died — seem interesting. His lectures on the World Wars were engaging and, sometimes, fun.  Solomon died in 2021. 

His kindness sticks with Bernard.  He would often counsel students on how to approach the challenges of adulthood. 

“He was very impactful to me and every other Black kid at my school because he was like a father figure to us. He was always so warm, kind, sarcastic, and he made my love for history grow a little bit more,” she said. 

Helping Black students ‘see themselves’

Nicholas Cobb with some of his students at a 4-H event for the Bienville Parish in 2023. (Courtesy of Nicholas Cobb)

There are a range of initiatives underway at Louisiana HBCUs to increase the number of Black male teachers. 

In 2018, the School of Education at Southern University and A&M College received a $1.5 million grant as part of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association’s effort to increase the number of men of color in the teaching profession. 

Currently, the School of Education has 19 male candidates and the ShEEO Project has 10 participants, including newly elected Student Government Association President Brandon Horne. The project begins recruiting as early as 10th grade.

And, Southern University New Orleans runs a college-prep summer program for male high-school students of color. They receive mentorship and ACT prep, and spend a week on campus over the summer. 

SUNO’s Honoré Center for Undergraduate Student Achievement also hosts Manhood Monday, one of many weekly events that allows Honorés 10 male students to network with professionals in their field of interest.

“Black students can see themselves when they have a Black male teacher,” said Morkeith Phillips, director of the center. “I’m a family member. I’m not just someone that just works at the school. It’s different.” 

‘Needed in the classroom’

There are also several initiatives underway, in partnership with Louisiana HBCUs, that aim to increase the number of Black men in teaching.  

One example: Brothers Empowered to Teach is a teacher recruitment, development and placement program based in New Orleans. To date, they have worked with more than 175 students, predominantly at Louisiana HBCUs — including Dillard University and Xavier University in New Orleans. Representatives aim to recruit an additional 60 students in the fall, and they have plans to work in other states as well.

“Black men are needed in the classroom because Black father figures are needed as surrogates,” said Larry Irvin, the CEO and co-founder.

There’s also Call Me MISTER, a national initiative that aims to increase the number of teachers of color in public schools. (MISTER stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role models.)

George Noflin with members of Call Me MISTER Program during Louisiana’s HBCU Day at Capitol on April 18, 2023. (Photo: Brittany Patterson/Open Campus)

Ja’Deric Talbert, a junior studying Elementary Education at Grambling State University, is the president of the university’s Call Me MISTER chapter. He has been interested in teaching since he worked as a reading interventionist at Crawford Elementary School in Arcadia during his senior year of high school. 

“Seeing the impact that was made in their reading scores, and the relationships that were formed and that I still have. That is what drove my attention to education,” he said.

Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., helped Grambling State receive $2 million dollars in federal funding, which bolstered the program, said Director George Noflin. There will be at least 25 students in the program next fall. 

Participants in the program get their tuition and fees covered in full. In exchange, the program requires all participants to teach in the state of Louisiana for as many years as they received the funds. 

Completing the cycle

Call Me MISTER helped Cobb, too. 

In 2017, he enrolled at Mississippi’s Alcorn State University on a basketball scholarship. But he promptly transferred to Louisiana Tech University — a predominantly white institution — after Noflin called him, and told him about the funding available there through Call Me MISTER.

Cobb graduated from Louisiana Tech in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in education. As the only Black man in his 72-person program, Cobb found the peer evaluation process to be particularly frustrating.

“Imagine you teach a lesson to fake students — student teachers — who are white, and the feedback that you get isn’t pertaining to what you taught, it is pertaining to the way you talk,” he said.

The critiques “failed to realize this is the way I connect with African American kids,” he said. 

Not only is Cobb now in the classroom, but he’s also a graduate student at Grambling State University. 

Becoming a teacher was part of the cycle that Donald started for him. For Cobb, Donald was more than a teacher — he was an educator. 

What’s the difference? 

“His definition of being an educator was taking the kid, investing in them and expecting nothing in return so that the only thing you can do to repay him was to be successful.”

This story was co-published with Verite News.

Patterson is an inaugural fellow in the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus. Support the program here.

Brittany is a senior majoring in mass communications at Southern University and A&M College.