Growing up in South Carolina, Daniel Spencer faced many challenges like other young males of color. But with assistance from an innovative program at Clemson University, he has overcome many of those initial barriers and has become a mentor for others in the community.Clemson University’s Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) is an innovative and effective leadership development program for African American males to prepare and place them as teachers and role models in elementary schools.
The program, which started at Clemson University in 2000 and expanded to Jackson State University (JSU) in 2012, has received national recognition for addressing contemporary social challenges by increasing the quality of education in low-performing elementary schools, investing in male college students who desire to teach young children and help them reach their goals. Call Me MISTER is the only program of its kind of the Deep South.
Spencer faced bumpy roads and uncertain times, but Call Me MISTER changed the direction of his life. Spencer is now a third-year teacher at Blue Ridge Elementary School in Seneca, S.C., and is focused on changing life outcomes for the next generation of youth.
“He is one of our strongest peer leaders,” said Roy Jones, director of Call Me MISTER. “He has tremendous heart and grit.”
Spencer is teaching second grade at Blue Ridge Elementary School, and while his school is considered underperforming, Spencer’s class is out-performing state standards, according to Jones.
The lack of African American male teachers is an issue – both in Mississippi and nationwide. Less than 2 percent of public school teachers in the United States are African American men. And less than 5 percent of Mississippi’s public elementary school teachers are African American men. Through the program, JSU is addressing Mississippi’s most pressing educational concerns, including large achievement gaps and a 54 percent dropout rate.
The MISTER program was expanded to JSU in 2012 with a five-student cohort. An additional five MISTERs were added in 2013; a total of 20 MISTERs will be trained at JSU by 2017.
“We are meeting a very real need,” said Jones. “Our growth is due to our success in galvanizing support in both the private and public sectors.”
Devonte Stewart always wanted to become a teacher, but the high price of college was a huge obstacle to reach his goal.
“I knew from the time that I stepped foot in my high school’s doors that I wanted to teach. There was something inside of me that said to teach the next generation,” said Stewart. “I’m following that small voice by majoring in elementary education.”
Stewart was on track to attend another university, before he saw the bill for his first semester, so he had to alter his plans. He believed all hope was lost, until he was contacted by JSU about the Call Me MISTER program. He was accepted into the program and is now on his way to fulfilling his dream.
The JSU Call Me MISTER program provides financial and academic support, program mentors, summer leadership institutes and professional development opportunities designed specifically for the MISTERs. In return, the MISTERs are involved in community service and service learning projects, offer peer support, recruit other males to major in elementary education at JSU and commit to teaching one year in an elementary school in the state for each year that they received a scholarship.
JSU sophomore Edward Williams said he grew up dreaming of becoming a teacher and having a positive influence on children who need it most. His first year as a MISTER has been profoundly changed by working with elementary school children during his teaching internship. He faced new challenges and his personal limits were pushed by his instructors, the students and their parents.
“I now realize the impact an authentic teacher makes on the world is first found within one’s self,” Williams said. “My students made me a better instructor and person.”
Since its inception, the program has graduated 150 MISTERs who have been fully certified and secured teaching positions. To date, all program graduates remain teachers, and some have even moved up to principal or program director positions. All MISTERs have met or exceeded their commitment to give back to their public schools and communities. In addition, there are currently 164 MISTERs enrolled at 17 colleges and universities.
Williams has often turned to his MISTER brotherhood for help and support. He has witnessed a complete turnaround with his students, both with their academics and character. They now love learning, he says.
“As a college sophomore, I have already gained a tremendous amount of teaching experience,” Williams said. “I am more confident. I am a young man of distinction.”