Inside and outside the classroom, Rafael Robinson, a teacher at Douglas L. Jamerson, Jr. Elementary in Pinellas County, sought to promote a more diverse and inclusive education field for men of color across his community.
Robinson felt that same lack of representation firsthand when he was mistaken for a janitor or coach by parents of students in multiple instances.
“When you walk into a room, and there’s 700 people in there, and there’s not one other person that looks like you … you kind of feel like you’re the odd man, you don’t fit in,” Robinson said. “You go into this classroom and [ask], ‘Do I fit in?’ ‘Are they going to include me in the group?’ ‘Do they respect me?’ You get all of those emotions.”
After hearing about Call Me MISTER, a program focused on providing students of color with tuition assistance, academic support systems and assistance with job placement upon graduation, Robinson said he hopes it will incentivize more young men in the St. Petersburg community to join the education profession and find a sense of belonging — one he wished he had when first joined the profession.
The program, which stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models, will prepare male undergraduate and graduate students from diverse backgrounds at USF St. Pete’s College of Education to become elementary or middle school teachers in urban schools across Pinellas County.
Since the program was announced Jan. 7, several students have expressed their desire to participate, according to the director Brenda Walker, interim associate dean and professor in the College of Education at the St. Pete campus. She said the college started recruiting students when they announced the program with a multifaceted outreach approach, and five students are planned to officially start the program in the fall.
“We have a partnership with Pinellas County Schools, so they are assisting with recruitment to the program,” said Walker.
“We have Students Support Services on the St. Petersburg campus, and those individuals are assisting with recruitment. Even faculty in the College of Education … are assisting with outreach to people that they think would be good candidates or good applicants for Call Me MISTER.”
To apply for entry into the program this fall, all students regardless of class standing are required to be enrolled at USF. Applicants will need to show how passionate they are about becoming educators and their commitment to promote change within their local community during the interview process.
The program is free of charge and lasts for the entirety of each student’s college career.
The program originally started at Clemson University in 2001 and has spread to 27 colleges and universities across the country. Once admitted, participants will attend monthly seminars at the St. Pete campus about professional development focused on community engagement, personal growth and teaching efficiency, among others. They will also be required to attend seminars at Clemson during at least two summers.
Project coordinator Sandra Vernon-Jackson said the program is unique because students who graduate from it will have a guaranteed job in any Title I school across Pinellas County. If the program turns out to be successful, USF will expand Call me MISTER to the Tampa and Sarasota-Manatee campuses.
“When you graduate, upon successful completion of the program, you will be guaranteed a job,” said Vernon-Jackson. “When you’re finished with your degree in teaching from us, if you’re not in the program, we can’t guarantee you a job. You have to go out there and find your job in the different school systems, you send your resume … but for these misters, the uniqueness of this program is that they will have access to a job right after completion of the program.”
Some of the benefits participants will receive, besides having a guaranteed job, include scholarships for tuition and other academic expenses like the cost of textbooks. Vernon-Jackson’s aim is to fully cover these costs or help the students get other scholarships that will cover their tuition, however, it will depend on how much funding the program receives.
Vernon-Jackson said she has been in contact with a Florida law firm and other community partners interested in contributing funds to the program.
Students will also be mentored by upper-level students who have advanced in their careers, as well as by faculty members from USF and universities across the country. The goal is to have mentors guide and show participants resources to receive enough academic, financial and social support to succeed.
Having mentors has been very important for Vernon-Jackson’s career in education. She started working as a meteorologist and transitioned to education where she said she found a community of people who support each other and made her more passionate about her profession. She hopes that through the program students will also find that support.
“I am allowed to step on the shoulder of someone that elevates me. I allow others to also step on my shoulder so I can elevate them,” she said. “And so when you’re finished, you have this pyramid of people that has supported individuals throughout the years that enable them to become effective, successful, engaged and passionate educators and that’s what we’re hoping to get for each of those candidates.”
Through Call Me MISTER, graduates are expected to become leaders in the community and impact children at local schools by setting an example of how studying can help them be successful in a career. Robinson said having teachers from diverse backgrounds is important so many kids can create a connection with their educators and feel like they are being represented, according to Robinson.
“If you don’t have a connection to something then you don’t really feel like you belong,” Robinson said. “If the stories that you’re reading, articles that you’re reading and the books that you’re reading don’t take diversity seriously, then we’re doing such a disservice to our kids, and they just don’t feel represented. They don’t feel proud, and don’t feel like they are a part of something when they don’t have anybody around them that looks like them, or walks and talks like them.”
Robinson believes many Black male students don’t pursue a career in education because it is hard to provide for a family with a teacher’s salary, but he hopes that Call Me MISTER drives more students to do so. He said he wished he would have had the chance to participate in the program when he was in college.
“Just being able to take that financial burden off of the young males and being able to provide mentorship and being able to help them make the connection with where they want to be helps them, because if you can identify where they want to be early on, then the transition from college into the classroom will be seamless,” Robinson said.