Middleton said he also faced stereotypes in the Florida school where he taught second and third graders, including that, as a Black man, he'd be able to handle more challenging students.
"That's a fallacy in itself," he told " Good Morning America." "That just because you're a man or a man of color, that you're not going to have the same problems that another teacher is going to have."
Three decades later, Middleton, who now holds a doctorate in education, says classrooms have evolved but that many Black male teachers are fighting against the same stereotypes and lack of representation.
"One of the obvious things is this assumption that you're living in poverty or on the borderline of poverty, and that's not the case," Middleton continued, adding that these misconceptions are some of the driving factors that have kept Black men from entering the education field in the first place.
A profession that's 'predominantly female and white'
In the United States, Black male teachers made up 1.3% of all teachers in K-12 grades in the 2020-2021 school year, according to data from the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS).
That makes them the second least-represented demographic in teaching, with Asian men representing just 0.5% of all teachers.
"The teacher workforce overall remains predominantly female and white," Dr. Peggy G. Carr, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) commissioner, told ABC News in a statement.
In comparison, white female and male teachers combined made up more than 80% of all educators in the 2020-2021 school year, according to the NTPS.
Black male teachers also tend to be concentrated in areas with a high Black population, according to Carr, and Black students make up about 15% of the public school population, according to NCES data.
"Black students are more likely to be taught by a Black teacher," Carr said, citing data showing that last year, around one-third of Black eighth grade math students were taught by a Black teacher.
In city schools, 41% of Black eighth graders were instructed in mathematics by a Black teacher in 2022, according to Carr. About 6% of all teachers were Black in the 2020-2021 school year, the data showed. Of that total, three-quarters were women and men made up one-quarter, which was roughly the same gender breakdown for all teachers, according to the NTPS.
According to Carr, having more Black teachers is a step in the right direction but will not make drastic changes in education on its own.
"Though some studies using NCES data have shown encouraging outcomes where the race/ethnicity of the teacher matches the student's, it is not a silver bullet," Carr said. "Increasing the diversity of the teacher workforce is an important goal. But closing opportunity and achievement gaps requires a combination of highly qualified teachers in every classroom and in- and out-of-school supports for all students who need them."
Fixing a 'leaky pipeline'
Today, Middleton is the interim director of the Pathways to Teaching at the Charleston County School District, the second-largest school district in South Carolina. One of the initiatives under the Pathways to Teaching umbrella includes the Men of CHS Teach program, which started in January 2022 and seeks to hire more men of color, particularly career changers, as elementary school teachers in the county.
"What we want to do is change that face of what we see as a school teacher and who is considered a school teacher," Middleton said. "There's so much conversation about pipelines, leaky pipelines or the school-to-prison pipeline. And so we've created a completely different pipeline."
Men of CHS Teach specifically recruits career changers, young men who didn't study education or older men who've already had first careers and are looking for a new chapter and want to teach a new generation. Participants are paid a salary in the three-year residency program as they learn how to teach by becoming a second teacher in a Charleston County elementary classroom under the guidance of an existing classroom teacher. The aspiring teachers don't have to pay for the program as long as they to stay and teach in a Charleston County school.
Bill Briggman, chief human resources officer for Charleston Country School District and Middleton's colleague, describes Men of CHS Teach as a model aimed at boosting diversity in the teacher workforce.
"About 45% of our students are students of color. Our teachers, we have about 15% of our teachers [who are] are teachers of color, and when we look at our student demographics and think about really what we want our students to experience in a school, we want them to experience all of what the world brings, and that's diversity," Briggman said.
On the other side of the Palmetto state, another program has been working to recruit and retain Black male teachers for the last 23 years. The Call Me Mister program, headquartered at Clemson University, has now expanded to schools in 10 more states, and one of its keys to success has been to build a strong network of participants and alumni.
"Many teachers will say they don't feel supported in their buildings, they don't feel supported by administration, by parents, by fill in the blank, but misters know support is always a phone call away," Winston Holton, the program manager for Call Me Mister, explained.
Call Me Mister is a supplemental program to existing teacher education programs at universities, and at Clemson specifically, it's centered around a living-learning community model where students majoring in education live together in the same dormitories and participate in the same mentoring and professional development initiatives. The students also get tuition assistance through student loan forgiveness programs.
What Call Me Mister emphasizes for young Black male students in their schools' teacher education programs is the need to be open-minded.
"Being an African American male program, often when they go into those school settings, they're going to be minorities among minorities in a school building, and so being able to get beyond yourself and understand the perspective of someone from a different age group, different generational situation, different ethnic situation, different religious situation, that's critical if we're going to be able to team build within our schools to address the kinds of critical issues and problems that ... our students are struggling with," Holton said.
Call Me Mister's executive director, Roy Jones, a provost distinguished professor at Clemson's College of Education, said the program is hitting the mark, with some Call Me Mister alumni teaching new cohorts and creating new Call Me Mister programs in other colleges both in South Carolina and in outside states.
"We calculate at least 85% of the misters that have graduated since 2004 in South Carolina and beyond are still in the classroom and 12% are either principals, assistant principals, serve as professors in teacher education programs but [are] still engaged in education," Jones said. "Our record on that is actually remarkable."
Robert J. Hendricks III was also one of a few Black male teachers and administrators in his Boston school. He started the He Is Me Institute to bring more teachers like him into the classroom. The He Is Me Institute partners with school districts and currently runs free programs in Boston and Cincinnati that inspire and encourage young Black male students -- from the high school level to college -- to pursue teaching as a career.
"What I'd come to realize was the impact that I had, the perspective that I had in the school and working with students and other staff members, for that matter, was unique and uniquely impactful in a way that some other administrators or central office folks didn't quite understand," the chief executive officer of the nonprofit told "GMA."
According to Hendricks, another major reason why there aren't more Black male teachers in classrooms is a lack of confidence in existing schools and systems, something he experienced firsthand when he was a teacher and later, a school administrator.
"A lot of those misconceptions [other school administrators and teachers] had of students, they had of me, too. It took me a few years to see the clicks like, 'Oh, that's the same thing you said to me.' So we need to be trusted," Hendricks said, adding, "It's hard to ask a Black male to come back to an institution that probably didn't serve him in a way or see him in the way that he wanted to."
With the He Is Me Institute, Hendricks said he is looking to build up that trust by partnering with school districts and colleges to build a "long-term pathway in [the] pipeline into the education profession," guiding young Black boys throughout their school careers and into their desired career.
"We ... try to build coherent and sustainable pathways for Black men to become teachers from kindergarten all the way through their career. So we actually use the phrase, 'Recruit, retain and retire Black male teachers,'" Hendricks, 33, said.
"A lot of districts are starting to build their grow-your-own teacher pipelines, which is something that we want to capitalize on. We're not coming in, bulldozing and taking over and creating a pipeline. These are supposed to be supplemental and supportive for a district," Hendricks said of the He Is Me Institute model.
At the end of the day, the educators behind He Is Me Institute, Call Me Mister and Men of CHS Teach agree that having more Black teachers in classrooms is good for all students, not just Black students.
"It's for all children to see that these individuals, that men can be in positions where they are teaching and nurturing and loving children," Middleton said. "It's about having a portion of the community that that in a sense has been disenfranchised, and so now we're now making amends for that situation by providing this platform, which then improves the educational environment for everyone who's involved."