Eight organizations across the country have been awarded a grant to help address the well-being of teachers. One of the lucky winners is Kansas City-based Brothers Liberating Our Communities, otherwise called BLOC.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, awarded the grants as part of Teacher Appreciation Week.

Photo courtesy of Brothers Liberating Our Communities

The grant comes at a time when Missouri’s teachers are one of the lowest paid in the nation. They have dealt with an unprecedented workload brought on by the pandemic. And don’t forget the political attacks they have been the targets of. These challenges have led some teachers to take their apples and go home.

BLOC creates spaces to help teachers deal with stress and burnout – while also working to increase the number of black men in the classroom.

Missouri’s teaching workforce is made up of about 70,000 preK-12 educators. The population is overwhelmingly women and overwhelming white.

The grant will support a range of professional learning, mentoring, and wellness practices designed to foster connection and community for teachers, supporting teacher retention and strengthening the ability of teachers to support students’ academic achievement and well-being.

Cornell Ellis, founder and executive director of BLOC, says the grant means the world to him and his organization.

“It means everything to my students. It means everything to their families, because we’re literally creating opportunities,” said Ellis. “We’re able to act as kind of these third-party buffers for black male educators that are looking to stay in education but need something else, but need to advocate for themselves, but need a little bit more development, but need just a shoulder to lean on.”

Ellis says BLOC is a pipeline to talk about real problems and create real solutions. The organization has three main pillars of retaining and sustaining black men in education: connect, develop, and engage.

After a few years of behind-the-scenes work, BLOC officially launched in 2020. To receive this sizeable grant so early on in its launch is worth noting.

Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, Vice President of Research to Practice, with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, says BLOC is the first Missouri organization that she knows of to receive a grant from her organization.

She says CZI values innovation and leadership.

“We are investing in Cornell for both of those reasons, she said. “We looked at organizations that were focused on these types of strategies that we know work, building intentional communities for educators to connect, thinking about how we leverage opportunities for mentoring, and helping teachers of color to feel connected in this profession and connected to each other. In addition, those opportunities for effective professional development. And so, BLOC met those requirements and we are thrilled to invest in an early organization that we know is doing what needs to be done for male teachers of color in this country.”

She says equipping teachers to take a whole child approach to education is key because she says learning and well-being are inextricably linked.

“When children feel safe, seen and connected, we know that sets them up for success and learning. That applies to teachers as well,” said Stafford-Brizard. “Teachers need to feel the same. And given this is the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month and last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, we know how important it is to highlight this work. We know that this is particularly important for teachers of color. You know, teachers of color are important and impactful for every single child in this country. The research is clear, the data is clear, and they have an outsized impact on students of color, yet only 2% of our teachers are black men. And so that’s why it’s so critical that we invest in organizations like BLOC. And we can address incredibly high rates of teacher stress and teacher burnout through models like BLOC where we’re focusing on intentional spaces, to connect teachers to powerful fellowships, and mentoring opportunities and high quality professional development that increase the retention of these phenomenal educators.”

Ellis says he hopes part of the grant will help to get more black male substitute teachers into the classroom as well.

“I envision our fellowship program to be a pipeline, directly injecting black males that we see all around the school buildings. If you walk inside of a school building today, you see a black male at the security desk. You see a black male coach in sports,” he said. “You see black male counselors. You see black males walk in the hallways as mentors, but you don’t see black men teaching math. You don’t see black men teaching AP English, right? And so yes, when we think about substitute teachers, those that aren’t fully certified, or those that don’t have the pedigrees that are necessary in a lot of public districts. BLOC has those connections and has those resources, so we are able to get them into the classroom full time, if that’s what they want.”

The other organizations receiving a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative grant this year are in Michigan, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

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