Clemson’s Call Me MISTER program, now in its 17th year, has received accolades from a broad spectrum of national media like USA Today, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlanta Journal, ABC World News, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Associated Press, as well as high-profile celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey.
Clemson created the program to address a shortage of African American males teaching in elementary schools across a state where blacks account for roughly one-third of the population, according to Dr. Roy Jones, the program’s executive director.
The acronym stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models. The program’s mission is to increase the pool of available teachers from a broader more diverse background particularly among the lowest performing elementary schools.
When it began, African American males accounted for just 200 of the 20,000 elementary school teachers in South Carolina, or less than one percent, according to Jones. The program has already met its goal of doubling that number. But that’s just the beginning.
The program has expanded to 22 partner institutions of higher education across South Carolina to create a pipeline of African American male teachers, and it has extended to licensed institutions in nine other states; soon to be 10, Jones said.
All 203 of the Call Me MISTER graduates have found jobs immediately upon graduation, and each one of them is still in the field of education. While some have gone on to serve as school administrators, assistant principals and principals, 95 percent are still teaching in classrooms, according to Jones.
But until you’ve heard from some of those 203 who have gone through the program, you can’t begin to appreciate the impact Call Me MISTER has had on their lives and on the lives of the children they reach.
At the Clemson University Men of Color National Summit, Jones gave the closing keynote address of the event’s first day and took the opportunity to introduce five of those graduates – four from the original class and one, Michael Miller Jr., who graduated last year and is a sixth-grade math teacher at Wren Middle in Powdersville.
“We believe that words have power,” said Hayward Jean, principal of Mellichamp Elementary in Orangeburg where he wrote a class theme song the kids sing each day.
Jean, a graduate of Claflin University in Orangeburg with a masters in education from Cambridge College, described getting a telephone call in June 2016 from his father, who he hadn’t heard from in 20 years.
He said his dad spent the conversation telling him all of the things that he was not. Jean said that it occurred to him that he had gotten a call 16 years earlier in the summer of 2000 from Jones. “My dad, who was not in my life, called me 16 years later to tell me who I was not, but this gentlemen here who also operates as a father figure called 16 years earlier to tell me what I could be.”
“I grew up below the poverty line. Call Me MISTER called me out of poverty,” said Jean. “That call tought me I can be in poverty but not of poverty.”
Damon Qualls graduated from Benedict College and received his masters in education from Southern Wesleyan. He is now one of five African American principals in Greenville County schools after having recently served as assistant principal at Berea Middle. Qualls served 11 years as a teacher at Alexander Elementary in Room 204 and described how he turned to the crowd-funding site, donorschoose.org, to seek grants to pay for things that his students were not afforded, such as new outfits and shoes for the first day of school. Over the years he was there, Qualls received $64,000 for his class and a total of $200,000 for the school.
His dress for success program resulted in a grant to purchase Ralph Lauren blazers for every male in third, fourth and fifth grade. As a result, the school saw test scores go up, he said. Comedian Stephen Colbert flew Qualls to New York for the DonorsChoose National Partnership Summit, and Colbert ended up personally funding all of the $800,000 in grants sought by South Carolina public school teachers.
“We not only serve as role models for African Americans or Hispanic students, we serve as role models for our white students, as well,” he said. “They need to recognize that African American men can be more than just an entertainer. We can be more than an athlete. We can be educator heroes.”
Nicholas Gillcrese, an assistant principal at Oak Pointe Elementary in Lexington/Richland 5 school district, described how he beat the odds coming from a single-parent home to become a first-generation college graduate. Gillcrese graduated from Benedict College.
He described his initiatives for reversing low expectations for kids who have the odds stacked against him, which involves writing down your goals and your plans, setting expectations and making them visible.
“Don’t let others define who you are,” he said, describing how he asks his students to repeat, “I am somebody who will be somebody regardless of what you think of me.”
Mark Joseph, a graduate of Claflin with a masters in education from Clemson, served as a principal before becoming assistant professor and program coordinator for the Call Me MISTER program.
As a student at Wade Hampton High, Joseph said he saw no purpose to attend class and was only there because he wanted to play basketball.
He described several incidents of sleepwalking as a child. While he could hear his mother call to him, he said he was not able to grasp what she was asking him to do as he opened the door of the house and stepped outside.
“We talk about purpose,” Joseph said. “We were brought to this earth for a purpose, for a reason greater than ourselves. But the challenge is we have to wake up.”
Similarly, Joseph said he may have been physically attending school, but he saw that merely as an obligation not an opportunity. “Because I was asleep, I couldn’t see the opportunity right there before me,” he said.
“Wake up the purpose of your life. Wake up to the knowledge and understanding that God brought you to this earth for a purpose,” he said. “We’ve got to wake up to the talents and gifts that we possess.
“I teach. I’m an educator. That’s my superpower and I love it,” he said. “But I also need you to understand and ask yourself, what is your superpower?”
Miller, the sixth-grade teacher at Wren Middle, is in his first year of teaching. He spoke of planting seeds of dignity and respect, and cultivating them while they remain invisible underground until they bloom. Miller said that growing up he realized that before making changes outside himself, he needed to start making changes within. He said he needed to pay attention to his environment, and that meant cutting off some. “If I’m the smartest person in the group, then it’s time to change groups,” he said.
He said he gives his students space and opportunity to grow and evolve, to make mistakes and learn from them. “Success is not a destination, it’s a journey,” he said.
"Are we individually and collectively worthy of our children?" Johns asked. "Will we do what's required of us?"
"Despite all the progress we've made in this country – and we've made a lot of progress – there's still a lot of work to be done," Quiñones said, describing how time and time again he has been judged by the color of his skin and the accent of his voice.
"You are the main actor in your featured film. You are the author to your autobiography," Howard tells youth. "Don't let someone make you play a supporting cast role."