Growing up in Broward County, Triston Williams had his heart set on a sports-based future.
He played football at Miramar High, and considered himself an athlete. If he couldn’t keep playing, he said, he’d look to a career tied to the field.
“I’m sure everybody was surprised when I said I was going to be a teacher,” said Williams, a freshman at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. “As we grow, mindsets change.”
This month, Williams became one of the first three students to enter USF’s Call Me MISTER program, a joint effort with the Pinellas County school district to bring more male teachers of color into local K-12 classrooms. The “MISTER” stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models.
Shauné Ferguson, the school district’s liaison to the program, said its benefits are clear.
“A student of color with just one Black teacher … is 50 percent more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college,” said Ferguson, a human resources recruiter who’s also president-elect of the Pinellas Alliance of Black School Educators.
The teachers are less prone to overdiscipline the students, she added, and more apt to recommend the students for advanced course work. Plus, they serve as a role model.
“We should be more intentional about making sure students feel welcome and included in the classroom,” Ferguson said.
Williams saw that need to guide children to a better future as key to his decision. He said his Uncle Dwayne showed him the difference a positive role model can make on a child’s life.
“Sometimes he would take me to an extremely impoverished area. He would have me giving out food to the people,” Williams recalled, noting he didn’t grow up in the best part of town himself. “One person was so grateful and so happy, he sat there for the rest of the day and helped us. … It was amazing to see you can really change people’s lives.”
As a teacher, he said, he would have the chance to make that positive impact on many young people. He wants to teach science to sixth and seventh graders.
“There’s a need, a lack not only of teachers but of Black male teachers, and there’s strong diversity in the students,” Williams said. “There’s a need to even that up.”
Ferguson detailed the numbers. In Pinellas County schools, she said, enrollment breaks down at about 50 percent white, 18 percent Black, 17 percent Hispanic and 15 percent others. The teaching staff, by comparison, is about 84 percent white, 9 percent Black and 7 percent others, she said.
Black males make up 2 percent of the faculty.
“It’s really part of our strategic plan to make our teacher population mirror our student population,” she said. “That’s where Call Me MISTER came in.”
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The program, developed at Clemson University two decades ago, seeks to provide a broader talent pool of educators to work in the lowest-performing schools. Participants generally come from underserved and disadvantaged communities.
USF St. Petersburg and Pinellas County schools joined forces in January to bring the program to Tampa Bay.
Their first group of students are not all local, but Ferguson said the goal is to develop a pipeline of home-grown talent to graduate from Pinellas high schools, attend USF and return to teach in Pinellas. The program offers significant financial assistance to make it attainable.
“Once they graduate, we are guaranteeing they are going to have a job,” Ferguson said. “They will teach in one of our high-needs schools. Those are the schools where we need that strong male presence.”
They can provide “more understanding in that classroom that ‘I have been where you are, I understand you, I see you,’ ” she added.
Michael Wright, another freshman in the program, saw this as a real motivator.
“I actually had no Black teachers throughout my entire K-12 career,” said Wright, who grew up in Maryland. “That was kind of strange. The school system I was a part of has a pretty diverse student body.”
He said he didn’t really focus on it at the time. But looking back, Wright recognized that had he and his classmates seen a person of color leading their schooling, it could have solidified their interest and desire to progress.
Whether teaching or any other profession, “if you see it, you kind of know it can happen,” said Wright, who plans to teach in an elementary school.
The third student in the program so far is Juan Dacosta, who, according to USF, has a master’s degree in business administration and is pursuing a master’s in education.
Both Wright and Williams said they’re already benefiting from the program. They looked forward to visiting some Pinellas schools to get hands-on experience on the way to becoming a teacher.
“I fell in love with the idea of making a positive impact,” Williams said. “As a teacher, I would have the ability to do so, to change their lives for the better.”
The Call Me MISTER program expects to add at least five more students in fall 2022. It also might expand over time into other area counties.
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