UIC Call Me MISTER program to bring diversity to classrooms
June 7, 2019

Photos by Jenny Fontaine University of Illinois at Chicago
Butler College Prep students who will enter UIC’s Call Me MISTER program with Butler Principal F. Christopher Goins (left), Noble Network CEO Constance Jones (right), and UIC Education Dean Alfred Tatum (center).

By Madeline Makoul

In an effort to increase teacher diversity in elementary schools, a program at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education, Call Me MISTER, encourages African American and Latino men to become educators. The program envisions creating the next generation of exceptional male teachers to serve as role models in their communities.

Call Me MISTER is a national program begun at Clemson University and has expanded to multiple campuses, including UIC. Dean Alfred Tatum from UIC’s College of Education kicked off the program in fall 2018 with a cohort of seven men, with a cohort of ten for fall 2019. The word “MISTER” in Call Me MISTER stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models.

“All of the MISTERs are being prepared to become elementary school teachers,” Tatum said. “That’s where we have the near absence of men. We are trying to let these young men know that elementary school teaching is men’s work too. It’s a wonderful profession where they can have impact.”

To recruit men for the program, Tatum has traveled to high schools across the state, forming relationships with principals and community leaders to find young men who would make exceptional teachers. The program provides full tuition support as well as housing vouchers to ensure participants succeed in school without the burden of financial constraints, Tatum explained.

With African American and Latino men constituting fewer than 2% of Illinois teachers, Tatum noted many of the men his team recruits have not considered becoming teachers, due in part to a lack of representation in schools.

“What was interesting is that all of the MISTERS we have recruited, all with the exception of one, didn’t have an elementary school teacher who looked like them,” Tatum said. “When they began to conceptualize what that really meant, they realized that’s a profound absence. But several of the men who we recruited had an exceptional high school teacher who happened to be an African American or Latino male, and now they want to have that same impact on the next generation as the teachers who made it very difficult to fail and pushed them to exceed in very different ways.”

The Call Me MISTER experience

The Call Me MISTER program does not just provide tuition support but creates a community as well.

Reon Gillespie, a UIC sophomore, joined the Call Me MISTER program after his former principal, F. Christopher Goins at Butler College Prep, told him about the opportunity. Gillespie said Goins had seen his leadership skills during his advisory program in high school and believed in him early on. Although Gillespie previously enrolled in UIC’s business school, he went back to his high school for a seminar Tatum gave to a group of men and decided to change careers.

With full tuition support and a group of advisors guiding the MISTERs, Gillespie now is part of a community of young men, all looking to have a powerful impact on their communities.

“I never imagined myself being in this position coming from the South Side of Chicago,” Gillespie said. “A lot of times people don’t really care or make sure that you’re doing well. They like to see you do good in that moment, but they don’t check up on you. This program really allows me to be who I can be for four years and then beyond. It just proves that you have to work hard. We have to have a certain GPA, certain volunteer hours, but at the end of the day you have to do what you can to help the people around you, and that means a lot.”

Beyond full tuition support, the MISTERs meet weekly with advisors to discuss issues beyond the classroom and receive additional leadership experiences, Tatum said. Also, participants live in similar housing so they can interact outside the classroom and take similar classes. All are encouraged to achieve a 4.0 GPA as they go through the program, Tatum explained.

“When you get into the program, it’s a family,” Gillespie said. “You’re going to be in a cohort of all males who you know. You have your academic advisors emailing all the time saying ‘this is what you need to do,’ ‘are you okay,’ ‘do you need help.’ And you have Dean Tatum. It really is a family, and I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on that while trying to make a change.”

Importance of shared identities

Changing the education system does not stop with the Call Me MISTER program. 

Pathways2Teaching is another, independent program that recruits teachers of color, with a program for high school juniors and seniors to help them explore a teaching career while educating them on related issues. Margarita Bianco, founder and executive director of Pathways2Teaching, explained that, in her research, she has found young men of color look up to their teachers, and a male teacher can become a father figure for many students, making his presence in the classroom crucial. 

This diversity does not benefit only young male students of color but helps every student in the classroom because it “disrupts” the negative stereotypes white students may have, Bianco said. According to Bianco, changing the system by increasing representation of men of color in teaching is a growing focus with a big impact.

“These programs motivate students of color to come back to their communities as teachers to disrupt some of the inequities they experienced in schools and in their communities,” Bianco said. “I’m trying to create this new group of teachers who are disruptors and want to come back and teach in their schools and be the teachers that agitate and make the system change.”

Gillespie, who did not have that representation in elementary school, now aspires to fill that void in his own community. Gillespie said men need to take on this role in their communities, emphasizing that their role as male teachers of color helps create healthy, positive relationships, serving as “heroes” in the classroom.

“On the South Side, there’s a lot of stuff that happens with violence or mental illness, but having that strong male teacher in the classroom who knows what you’re talking about and that can explain something or hear and listen to you, or just talk to you about anything because he has seen it and gone through it—I think that’s very important,” Gillespie said.

This experience becomes particularly important for elementary students. Tatum said he has found that young boys get cues about what it means to move toward “manhood” or adulthood, and if they only receive cues from women at home or at school, there’s a void. Male teachers, particularly those of color, set an example for all the students they teach. As Tatum explained, “I can be what I can see,” meaning these teachers serve not only as role models but reveal to students that men can choose teaching as a career path, too.

As he focuses on improving classrooms across the state and country, Tatum said he plans to grow the Call Me MISTER program at UIC “exponentially,” helping propel these men to excellence and back to their communities to make an impact on the next generation of students.

“We cannot continue to describe the underperformance of our boys in reading, math, and science without involving men who could go back and make a profound difference and impact,” Tatum said. “Too many of our young boys are trying to figure out what that next step is, and we have too many surrendering their life chances before they get to know their life choices. We have too many young boys who find themselves being locked out of society early on. We have to do something to interrupt that, and that’s the message we continue to provide. Our MISTERs have to accept that as their charge, otherwise we have young boys and girls in society trying to navigate it without those giving them a pathway forward.”

To learn more about the Call Me MISTER program at UIC, visit https://education.uic.edu/call-me-MISTER/. Tatum said that to make a donation, log on to https://education.uic.edu/call-me-mister/giving-opportunities/. For more on Pathways2Teaching, visit http://www.pathways2teaching.com.