H. Rhett James recently traveled to New York, and the week before that, he was here. Currently, he is spending the entire week at his office in Dallas, but on Monday, he will depart for a five-day, six-night trip to tour college campuses in Tennessee. As one of the few full-time teacher recruiters in the country, Mr. James, employed by the Dallas Independent School District, lives a nomadic lifestyle. Similar to a baseball scout searching for the next talented player, such as Darryl Strawberry or Ricky Henderson, he spends 80 percent of his time on the road, seeking out promising educators.
"I suppose in a way I am like a scout," Mr. James remarks. "I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. My goal is to discover, identify, assess, and determine whether that individual would be an asset." Seated at a table in the back of Moore Gym at North Carolina A&T State University, where an annual teachers’ job fair is in progress, Mr. James is engaged in conversation. However, his eyes are constantly scanning the room, searching for promising prospects. While he considers all May graduates, he is particularly interested in talented young black men whom he may be able to persuade to join the Dallas public schools. He leaves his designated table for Dallas and approaches two young men. One of them shows potential, so Mr. James schedules an interview with him at 4:30 after the fair concludes and most recruiters have departed.
"I don’t waste time in recruiting a man, I act promptly because our schools need male role models, especially in elementary schools," Mr. James explains. The competition in Greensboro is fierce. Well-dressed recruiters, predominantly men, fill the gymnasium like car salesmen in a showroom, eagerly awaiting the next potential candidate to walk through the door. "Were you in Durham last week?" a recruiter asks Mr. James. "Yes," he replies. "How did you fare there?" "I identified about four promising candidates," Mr. James responds. "Same here."
Leon Warner, the director of placement at North Carolina A&T, reveals that recruiters from 165 districts are present, all competing for approximately 100 prospective teachers who will graduate in May. Mr. James faces tough competition from the neighboring table, where a delegation of five individuals from Prince George’s County, Maryland, attracts students with giveaways like plastic luggage tags and red tote bags. This suburban Washington district also offers a starting salary of $26,000. In contrast, Mr. James has no enticing freebies to offer and his district, Dallas, begins with a starting salary of $21,846. However, he does possess a unique advantage: the ability to offer a contract on the spot.
After the woman who claimed Dallas is too far from her family moves on, Mr. James is asked why he didn’t push harder to persuade her. He explains that she is majoring in home economics, and Dallas does not require any home economics teachers.
What Dallas, being the eighth-largest school system in the nation, does desperately need are minority teachers. With over 80 percent of its enrollment consisting of minority students, the district was mandated by the court to increase its minority staffing. In response, the school board approved the hiring of two full-time teacher recruiters in December 1989, one focusing on black teachers and the other on Hispanic teachers. "Our board," says Luis Tamez, the district’s minority recruitment director, "recognized the need for hiring and recruiting minority teachers as an ongoing, full-time endeavor." However, he emphasizes that the quality of the individuals is still their primary consideration. This undertaking comes with a hefty price tag. For the current year, the district has allocated $240,000 for travel expenses and an additional $50,000 for advertising. It appears that few districts are willing or able to invest such substantial resources. A study conducted by the RAND Corporation in 1987 found that many school districts continue to rely on the traditional practice of hiring teachers from nearby areas instead of actively seeking out the most qualified candidates.
"I discovered early on that socializing in these towns is not possible," remarks Mr. James. He even refrains from contacting his relatives, including his four adult children, when he visits town because they would keep him up late at night. Being a seasoned traveler before accepting the job in Dallas, he has learned some tricks over the years. "A job like this requires extensive foresight," he explains. "The average person can manage with 10 or 12 shirts. I, on the other hand, need to have two dozen, 36 shirts," as his schedule only allows for infrequent trips to the laundry. On flights with meals, he pre-orders diabetic-friendly options to reduce his intake of fats and sugars, and he tries to monitor his meals on the road to avoid the cholesterol-rich dishes often served at events. As for exercise, he acknowledges that it is limited to taking long walks in airport terminals. In order to always stay organized and know where he is or where he is going, he carries a full semester’s itinerary and a daybook.
"This job is not suitable for someone lacking self-discipline," Mr. James asserts. The job fair he is currently attending is just one of many that will occupy his time during the busiest months of the year, the spring semester. Over the next few months, Mr. James will be immersed in job fairs, hotel interviews, and black expositions. The school district advertises its upcoming visits to the area in local newspapers, requesting prospective teachers to schedule appointments. Mr. James usually conducts the interviews on weekends in a hotel suite. He has 12 interviews scheduled between now and the end of May. In March, he will travel by car along the dusty highways of Louisiana, visiting campuses in various cities. The following month, he will tour campuses in Illinois, riding a bus throughout the state with other members of a consortium. From the end of May until the beginning of July, he spends most of his time in Dallas finalizing contracts. During the summer, he attends conventions, such as those organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, to promote his work. Come September, he hits the road again, visiting campuses, interacting with deans and faculty members, and speaking to students.
The extensive traveling has meant making some personal sacrifices. At one point, he held positions in numerous community organizations, including the NAACP and the Texas Council of Churches, to the extent that "I used to carry five or six attachments in my car at a time," he recalls. However, he has given up most of those commitments. Nevertheless, Mr. James still manages to teach at Austin College during the summer when the recruitment activities slow down. With three master’s degrees and a doctorate under his belt, Mr. James is also in the process of completing a book titled "The Audacity to Survive," which is an intergenerational study of black families. As a former elementary teacher with certifications as a principal and a superintendent, Mr. James has a clear understanding of what he looks for in a teacher beyond their grades and references. "No teacher can truly excel without a deep commitment to the service profession," states Mr. James. At the job fair in North Carolina A&T, he carefully scrutinizes candidates with this calling. He expects to leave the college with only a few prospective candidates, but he takes this situation in stride. "I don’t measure my success based on each trip," he declares. "That approach would lead to inevitable disappointment. I’ve had trips where I’ve recruited 22 candidates and trips where I’ve recruited none. If I evaluated my performance in that manner, I would be counting bodies and dividing by expenses."
However, he will return to Dallas with his prized find, Angeline Nelson Brooks, the current teacher of the year in North Carolina, who will be getting married and relocating to Texas.