Inaugural Louisiana Call Me Mister conference raises awareness, impact of initiative

MiSTERS at Grambling State University’s Call Me MiSTER conference pose together for a group shot. (Photo by Carlton Hamlin/University Communications)

Grambling State University joined educators and young black men majoring in education from GSU and colleges across the country to attend the Louisiana “Call Me MiSTER” conference last week heading into the holiday weekend. 

And the results had the impact of a spectacular Fourth of July fireworks show. 

The Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role models) program was founded originally at Clemson University in 2000. The program strives to increase the pool of available teachers from a more diverse background, particularly among the lowest-performing elementary schools. 

Because less than 2% of the teachers in the U.S. are African American males, Grambling State’s Black Male Teacher Initiative joined with Clemson’s program to help develop and recruit more Black men into the teaching profession. 

Student participants are largely selected from under-served, socio-economically disadvantaged, and educationally at-risk communities. Call Me MiSTER serves students at 19 participating colleges within South Carolina as well as eight national partner institutions, including Grambling State. 

The conference included nine seminars dealing with the importance of the Call Me MiSTER program and what it brings to young students in need as well as the students majoring in education. 

Dr. Walter Lee, Assistant Professor of Middle/Secondary Education and Campus Coordinator of the Call Me MiSTER Program at the University of South Carolina Upstate conducted the first seminar talking about the history of the program. 

And he said part of that history is learning to adapt to the challenges — and many distractions — young students can face in today’s world, sometimes making it harder for a teacher to reach them. 

“There is a benefit to distraction,” Lee said. “Distraction is not, however, the stopping point. It is a checkpoint to test your commitment to the cause. Distraction is the indicator that it’s time to activate determination. What I’m saying is that in the midst of determination, distractions are ever there — they go hand-in-hand. No matter what, find a way.” 

Dr. James Gray, superintendent of Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish school system, explained the purpose behind and importance of the Call Me MiSTER program. 

“When you have a sense of purpose, not only can you make yourself better, you can make everybody around you better,” Gray said. “What we’re trying to accomplish in today’s society in the midst of social media and how our values have shifted, is harder because kids get distracted way too easily.” 

“Why does that matter? When Black students have at least one Black teacher by third grade they’re more likely to go to college. With two Black teachers, they’re 32% more likely to go to college. I was like (GSU President Rick Gallot). I went to an all-Black High School and an All-Black University. It was a huge transition when I went to work on my master’s at a white institution and my doctoral at a white institution. But because of my upbringing I was comfortable and confident I could do anything. Because I had that peace, once I got out of high school it put me in the position to have that intestinal fortitude to say ‘I am capable.’ ”  

Gray also talked about what he called the three big rocks — the guiding principles of how we build our schools and how our instructional cycles should look. 

“One is to have a strong curriculum,” Gray said. “Two is to conduct ongoing job-related professional development through leadership teams and cluster meetings with all of our teachers. We do that every week — collaborate and figure out what we need to do to help our kids as a whole. And the third is to provide actual, timely feedback. The reason ‘timely’ and ‘actual’ are part of it is because you have to do things to help teachers that are not meeting expectations just like you have to do with students who are not being successful on a regular basis.”    

Mark Joseph, the Call Me MiSTER program director at Clemson University, talked about the “Intangibles of a MiSTER” during his seminar. 

“A title is worthy only if one’s character and integrity dictate its use,” Joseph said. “That’s what the (Call Me MiSTER) mission statement says — it’s only important if our character and integrity dictate its use. In Call Me MiSTER, when we talk about developing educators, we’re talking about developing true servant leaders — young men that have the heart, the desire, and the willingness to serve.” 

“I’m not talking about being served, I’m talking about serving,” Joseph continued. “What can I do to make your experience better? What can I do toward spirit and respect? I’m here to uplift you. I’m in a position — I’ve been called — to elevate your experience. That’s what servant leaders are all about.” 

In closing his seminar, Joseph talked about the four Vs of being a MiSTER, relating that they stood for value, vision, voice, and victory. 

“See who you are. See what you possess. See your greatness,” Joseph said about a MiSTER’s vision. “Understand your value. You are not here by accident or by chance. You were brought here by divine purpose. Understand your value because as educators, when we begin to see our value, it is time for us to interact with our young people so we can help them see and understand their value.” 

“That’s the beauty about all of this. It’s not all about us, it’s not one-sided. We do what we do to create something better and meaningful for someone else.”