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Back to Episode # 22

Intro  00:00
Life After Now.

 

Liz Bolsoni  00:08
Hello, and welcome to the Life After Now podcast. I'm your host Liz Bolsoni I'm a communication studies major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education and think about what it means for your life. After now, you'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have firsthand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. So today, I'll be talking with Markus Flynn. He is the executive director of Black Men Teach. Markus is here to talk about the importance of community involvement and representation for young students as they consider their post secondary education options. Marcus, thank you so much for joining me today.

 

Markus Flynn  00:50
Thank you for having me.

 

Liz Bolsoni  00:53
Before we jump in, I want to ask you a quick icebreaker and get to know you a little bit more. So if you could give any advice or words of affirmation to your high school self, what would you say?

 

Markus Flynn  01:05
Yeah, that's a great question. So I think it's just trust the process, right? Like life isn't linear. And honestly, I think life is a lot more interesting when it's not. But I think when you're in that process, things get a little bit convoluted. And it's, it's like, it can be uncomfortable. But as long as you know, at the end of the day, where you want to go and just keep working towards that. Things will work its way out.

 

Liz Bolsoni  01:28
I want to introduce your organizational a bit more to our audience. Can you tell us about the work you do at Black Men Teach?

 

Markus Flynn  01:35
Yeah, so Black Men Teach, what we're trying to do is build this robust pipeline that supports the recruitment, development, and retention of Black male teachers in elementary school specifically. So we work at the high school level, college level and career level. At the high school level, we do a lot of work to help men understand what it means to be a teacher. And it feels a little counterintuitive, because they're the ones who have access to teachers at that time. But for Black men in particular, there's like a lot of specific barriers that keep them from, 1, just even aspiring to be a teacher, but 2 there's a few things that keep them from really just considering it as a viable profession. So we do some work to kind of like unlearn some things around the teaching profession. And then really get them understand the why behind and the impact that can be had.

 

Liz Bolsoni  02:31
Can you talk a little bit about your experiences as a student, and you know, what figures did you see, or what educators did you have growing up, and how did that impact your education?

 

Markus Flynn  02:42
You know, I know some people, the more people that -- while I'm in education, I talk to people say they never had a teacher who inspired them, and I can't necessarily say that. I think I had people who I felt really cared for me, I think helped me build an affinity towards education. And now as a teacher, that's actually the number one thing I really focus on. Because I think it's good to have good test scores, it's good to have all of these other things. But what really transcends time, is, like, do you feel like school is for you? Do you have an affinity for school? Do you have like an affinity towards this process of learning. And I think that is what allow you to catch up if you're behind, and it'll help you succeed and thrive moving forward. So a lot of the way I teach is around this idea of, how do we build people's intrinsic motivation, which is a very challenging thing. There's a whole field on like behavioral psychology that revolves around things like this. But for me, the most basic way to do it is to get people to enjoy it. Right? I heard the phrase "edutainment" before. And that's something I say fully in this, how do we make every single day enjoyable in a classroom and hope kids learn some stuff along the way. But when I think back to my experience, I had teachers like that. I don't remember having any, like terrible teachers, and probably just because they're not memorable. I remember the people who were good at inspiring me. I remember my Black teachers. And I mean, that's basically it. I feel like most of it is just like, most people were just so-so and I just don't have a strong recollection of it. When I got to college, I don't think there were very -- I had one professor in undergrad who became like a mentor for me. And a relationship that I still am contact with today. We talk semi frequently. And then when I was in graduate school, I had a major professor, so someone who I worked with pretty intimately. And then we also have a pretty good relationship and are still in contact to this day.

 

Liz Bolsoni  04:33
So going back to the "edutainment," education-entertainment, I assume those are two important things for you as a teacher, if you could share a little bit about your teaching experience and why it drives your passion for Black Men Teach.

 

Markus Flynn  04:47
Yeah, teaching is dope. And I feel like a lot of people don't understand that, just because when they look back at their experience, not a lot of teachers probably enjoyed themselves. Like when I came into the profession I saw like people really quickly put up this front. They like, put up this barrier between themselves and their students. And I'm like, why? [You should] spell all this out with these people, let them know who you are, let them know that you have so much a personal life, be yourself. I'm very much so a person, if I'm gonna do anything, and spend a substantial amount of time doing it, why not have fun along the way. And that was a disposition I took for teaching, like, I really want my kids to want to learn. It's a lot easier to want to do something if you enjoy it. And I teach science. So I felt like it gave me a little bit of access to make things more enjoyable, because you had an opportunity to do things with your hands to explore. But also with just being myself. I teach at a school that's, I think, 99% students of color about 90% Black. And that was another point of access for me. My kids are fifth and sixth grade. So like, they're in this, in this, this age range where they're really attuned to pop culture. And I happen to be as well. And so that just opens up all these doors for references and things that can be brought into the classroom from, from outside, that just helped make it a better experience. And I think it's, I think it's important, it's vital. And so, teaching and how that relates my passion with Black Men Teach, you know, I gotta chance being in the classroom to see the impact that Black teachers have, particularly on Black students. You get to see students who are considered behaviorally challenged and disengaged, become some of your most active participants, because you have a different type of access, you have a different type of understanding. I mean, that's the story I could really, like, especially hit on a lot, but there's significant benefit. There's a different type of relationship. There's a lot of benefits to be had when you have Black teachers in class with in particular Black students. And I got a chance to see that, and that's part of the reason I want to do the work with Black Men Teach.

 

Liz Bolsoni  06:54
Yeah, and after you shared some of the impacts, or I guess the negative outcomes of lack of Black teachers, especially for Black students, you know, why do you think that there is a lack of Black male teachers, and what changes need to be made decidedly or environmentally in order to create spaces where we're Black students have representation in Black educators?

 

Markus Flynn  07:22
So I think the first thing is obvious, it's just representation. You look at the data on teachers, on teacher demographics in the state of Minnesota, it's about 62,000 teachers. 1.4% identify as Black, [that is] about 875. They don't stratify by race and gender. But if you say that -- so across the state 25% of teachers are male, 75 are women. You take that same proportion, apply that to Black teachers, out of 875, a quarter of that is about 220 teachers. So you got 220 Black male teachers across the state of Minnesota. Right? That's less than half of one percent. So it's not that common that you go see somebody looking, who looks like you doing this, right? It's actually quite the opposite. When you think about who the archetypical teacher is, it's a middle aged white woman. Who's on the opposite end of that identity spectrum. It's a young Black boy. So you go through 12 years, 13 years of schooling. You never see anyone who looks like you doing it. You never see someone who acts like you doing this. And honestly, you get -- we look at it from the other end, too, of school can be like, school can be a place of induced trauma, particularly for Black boys. Look at the state level data, again, Black students in Minnesota represent, I think about 10% of the student population, but about 42% of all discipline incidents. Black students are eight times more likely be suspended or expelled. Black students are three times more likely to be labeled as EBD [emotionally and behaviorally disturbed] in the state of Minnesota. Right? So like the highest rate in the nation. And so when you have all of those factors, coupled with the lack of representation, why would you want to come back to this place? Right? It's a place that has induced trauma in you. And I think if you talk to most Black males, they can tell you about some incident they've had and they've experienced, and there's something they've encountered in school where they were overly punished. Right? And then they get a lot of them, especially in the state of Minnesota, will tell you they never saw anyone like them do with this. So it makes a lot of sense, there's not Black men teaching. So men have this societal expectation placed on them at a young age to be a provider. Right? And I say that in quotes, which roughly equates to you have to make a lot of money, right? Like there's some value in money for men. At a young age, you also internalize the fact that teaching is not a lucrative career. I got fifth grade students who are telling me right now, "Mr. Flynn, you broke, cause you a teacher." So if they're already internalizing those two things, right, and it's somewhat of a myth, the amount of money can make an education I think will surprise people, if they truly knew. Like, go ahead and just Google "superintendent salary." Even principals, I went to high school where my principal was making almost $200,000, a year. Right? But people will never guess that. And so the financial component of it, with the lack of representation, with the induced trauma, it's hard to make an argument that you need to come back and spend 40 hours a week plus in this place.

 

Liz Bolsoni  10:40
And you had mentioned that middle aged white women are, you know, the epitome of a teacher. And that is the case, but they're not the epitome of the Black experience. And so they're not going to be able to, you know, teach social justice or teach the Black experience the way that your students are. And that's a lot of what you're doing, if I'm putting it in the right words.

 

Markus Flynn  11:02
Yeah. When I have conversations with my high school men, it's -- basically we're walking around the same concept you are talking about now. It's just like, how would education be different if you walked up and down the hallway, and all the teachers you saw looked like you? And you're right, like, it would be a significant difference just because of that experience. Like there's no, there's space and education for well intentioned, white teachers, right? Of course, that will never be replaced. But there's also a very, like, well defined space and a need for teachers who really understand the lived experience of these students, and can relate, and they're from the community. They have, like they live in the community, they have similar set of experiences. So there's this condition called EBD, it's emotionally [and] behaviorally disturbed. And a lot of times the process for being diagnosed with EBD is a recommendation by the teacher. Now that recommendation is largely subjective, saying that this student doesn't regulate their behavior in an appropriate way. Now, if I'm looking at a student, I hear students story, I hear students speak, I see them act, and [when] one of my coworkers do it, we have completely different assessments of it, they're not seeing it. In person, I mean, I've had conversations with other teachers about students, and they'll say this student is this. And in my mind, I'm like, that student's the furthest thing from that. And part of it is just because like, I understand students a little bit differently, because we have a lot, like, a lot of similarities in our backgrounds. And those similarities give me the additional context necessary for me to really assess their behavior, their actions, whatever they're doing. And so there's a lot of space for that. And I think even -- so like we can't change the complexion of the, or the makeup of teacher, the teacher workforce overnight. So I think one of the things in the intermediate we could do is make sure that teachers spend time in the community that they're in. And so when I was, when I was a grade team lead, one of the things I had instituted at my school was and grade team lead just means like the teacher who's the leader of that grade team. So I was in fifth grade, I was the teacher leader of that grade. And one of the things I instituted was a like, a mandated outside hour requirement. And outside hours, my lifetime you spent going until your students games, their practices, their recitals, the rehearsals. Putting yourself in a situation where you're in this student's presence, but you are not in a leadership role. Right? So an opportunity to learn about who they are, learn their community, their traditions, their background, and then really also support them outside of school to show like, relationships are integral to what we do. And I think that's a way for teachers who don't understand that to start stepping into that, that link.

 

Liz Bolsoni  13:55
So given an extraordinary year in 2020, your students went through distance learning, global pandemic, and especially in the state such immediate instances of police violence, police killing, you know, what have you noticed about how the community has either supported or impacted your students?

 

Markus Flynn  14:15
So I can't say at my school, specifically. I can say I've seen the community really rally behind schools to support, like, when Daunte Wright was murdered. There were a lot of like drives to donate materials to these specific schools. My school is in Columbia Heights, it didn't have that same type of reach and it wasn't there, particularly, but I've seen in places over the summer, I've seen drives pop up and everything and made sure that the community is really supporting families and they go to schools to do it. I think when we talk about the impact that this is all had on my students, I mean, my kids are 10 or 11 years old. So they're old enough where they understand, I don't think they have quite all of the context, but they're curious. So that means in the classroom, it's provided a lot of, like, required space for us to have conversations and dialogue to really help them understand and walk through and under -- like and really get a grasp of what's going on with some of the societal contexts.

 

Liz Bolsoni  15:21
Yeah, this is exactly the situation where Black men teachers are very vital, because those, those conversations, and those spaces are not the same when students feel like they don't really have a space to, to be curious or to wonder, you know.

 

Markus Flynn  15:38
Yeah, and I, in my classroom, we had space, like, again, I teach science. But we had a space dedicated every week to talk about race identity, the entire year. So this created ample room. And I think for a lot of teachers who did not have that, especially once we didn't fit naturally with the curriculum, and forced them to be flexible enough where they had to figure out a way to have these conversations, because it's imperative. You can't -- like education doesn't exist in isolation of what's going on in society. And so they have to take time to do that. Thinking that something might go over your kid's head is not an excuse to not have that conversation.

 

Liz Bolsoni  16:19
And when you say like, it might not fit into curriculum, you know, I would say -- or that that's a misconception of people. I would say that even in my college biology classes, we've talked about mortality rates in pregnant Black women, and that is a discussion we've had around race and biology, or biological race theory and breaking that down. And so what is your response to, I guess the misconception that there isn't a space for social justice conversations in a math classroom, a science classroom, or you know, any classroom?

 

Markus Flynn  16:59
I appreciate that example, and I think that's one of those necessary examples where you're conscious, you have to take advantage of those. But sometimes it really just doesn't fit, like I'm teaching about Earth's orbit.

 

Liz Bolsoni  17:13
Yeah.

 

Markus Flynn  17:16
You know, we're talking about the phases of the moon. And I don't see right now, at least, maybe I'm just close -- I don't see any way I can bring it in. What I do, because I don't want to depend on like, "Oh, we're talking about this, so let me carve out space to talk about mortality rates, how disproportionate they are," I just carve out space. I say, every Wednesday at the beginning of class, we're gonna talk, and I'm gonna decide leading up that week what we're gonna talk about, what video am I going to show. And for me, that gives me far more space. I don't have to make sure that it's science related. We talked about literally, like, back in May, because there were so many historic events, we took time to talk about the Tulsa Race Wars and Black Wall Street. What does that mean? We talked about George Floyd and his legacy, and the anniversary of his murder, right? We talked about Mansa Musa, and the Mali Empire in like 1420. There's no way that's gonna be relevant in science, but it's a good conversation to have. You know, I think people like Madame CJ Walker naturally can come up in something when we're talking about science, especially like the basics of chemistry. But if I want to talk about Du Bois, it might be a little bit more challenging to do that. But I still want to have space to do that with my kids, because I think it's important. There's just like certain things I want my kids to know. Like, there's so many Black students who don't know what HBCU [Historical Black College and Universities] is until they go to college. Anyone who was in my fifth grade and sixth grade class can tell you what HBCU is, right? And I just want my kids to know stuff like that. And when I taught in person for the full year, it gave me access to do so much more. I got into teaching because I believe that mentorship and youth development are most important things that can come in school. The test scores, the ABC 123 piece that's important. But the way I think about it, again, is simple. You can ask anybody, any age, who went to school, was privileged enough to go to school, who their favorite teacher is and they'll probably tell you somebody. And if you ask them why, it's not gonna be like Mr. Smith taught me the Pathagorean Theorum. It's always going to come back to like, how they made you feel, how they inspired you, how they did this. And if that's the thing that transcends time, that's what I'm gonna focus on. Maybe it's selfish, but I'm trying to be memorable and impactful. And so those are the things that really transcend time. That's what I'm going to focus on. It's obviously, like innately important if you still remember it 60 years later.

 

Liz Bolsoni  19:51
You know, and I bet we have some listeners who do not necessarily see people like them, or see people who look like them in their classroom and in their own schools. And if you have any, anything to say, or any, you know, reflections to students who don't have that representation, but continue to be at school, could you, could you share that?

 

Markus Flynn  20:14
Yeah. So there's a few ways to think of it. I think one can be, think about what you want to do professionally. When I was, honestly, I didn't think about being a teacher until I was about 23. And so anytime, if I had that conversation before then I would have thought you were crazy. But I think the reason I started to make this shift was, I understood what I wanted to do. I understood the type of, that type of impact I wanted to have. And if you like, and you have a passion for like mentorship, youth development, community development, community involvement, you like working, like, as a practitioner, like really with people and spend time with them, and you're really big and have a gift for building relationships, teaching and make sense as a career. Like the ability to develop a lesson that's nuanced, and engaging and exciting, and all that and blah, blah, blah, I think that that can be learned. But those inherent skills, or those interests and desires you have, if you have that, I think you'd be a phenomenal teacher. Especially if you didn't have anybody who looked like you before, because you understand the importance of that representation.

 

Liz Bolsoni  21:21
Yeah, thank you for those good parting words. And that kind of wraps up our conversation for today. I really appreciate your time and sharing a little bit about what you do with Black Men Teach and also appreciate your, what you do as a teacher and supporting students like me. So thank you, you know, endlessly and I'm excited for, for everything that's gonna come out of this pandemic and out of the past year for you and your students. So thanks for joining us.

 

Markus Flynn  21:55
Thank you all for having me. I appreciate it.

 

Liz Bolsoni  21:57
I also want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you for spending some time with us today. This podcast was brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. I encourage you to dig into the resources mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes on our website at lifeafternowpodcast.mn.gov. Make sure to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time, everyone I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future.

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