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How these Black elementary school teachers are trying to inspire

A pair of elementary school teachers in Oregon share what drives them as two of the few Black male first-grade teachers in the state.
/ Source: TODAY

A pair of elementary school teachers in Oregon are so rare for their state they call themselves "unicorns."

Lionel Clegg and Anthony Lowery, two first-grade teachers at Woodlawn Elementary School in Portland, spoke with TODAY's Craig Melvin on Martin Luther King Jr. Day about their drive to inspire students as two of the few Black male elementary school educators in the state.

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"I came up with that (unicorn) name for us because I don't think you'll find two Black teachers in first grade in the state of Oregon," Lowery said.

Only 2% of public school teachers in America are Black men, but that total is 18% at Woodlawn, a school that NBC affiliate KGW has been profiling since before the pandemic began.

"I firmly believe that sometimes just that connection of having someone that looks like you gives these kids the trust to be able to come to me, speak to me about things maybe they're having problems with," Clegg said.

"For a white kid, I think it's also important," Lowery added. "When a white kid sees a Black kid as their teacher, we can let them know that we're more than just actors and entertainers, we are people of substance."

The racial makeup of Woodlawn has altered in recent years after being traditionally Black, but 40% of the teachers at the school are people of color.

Many of the teachers are products of the Portland Teachers Program, which has brought teachers of color to the Portland and Beaverton communities for the past 30 years by offering full tuition waivers and training to minority education students.

Clegg was Lowery's mentor in the program, which is currently in jeopardy of ending due to funding issues.

"He was a role model to me, even though I'm five years older than him," Lowery said. "He's still a role model to me because he gave me the courage to do the things I do."

The two teachers have also not shied away from speaking with their young students about the widespread protests in Portland in recent months over racial injustice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

"That's what's going on in life, and I'm not wanting to sugarcoat anything," Clegg said. "It helps our next generation learn how to encounter these situations, as well if we don't teach them the history of our country, then we're bound to repeat it."

Clegg and Lowery spoke about how they approach a difficult topic with students who are so young.

"It really just starts with trying to relate, make it relatable to them," Lowery said. "One of our key things we typically do in the first grade is talking about Ruby Bridges, who was one of the first African American little girls to go to an all-white school (in Louisiana), and ironically she was in the first grade.

"The beauty of our children, especially primary children, is they're not born with racist tenets and ideas."

Camryn Green, 11, is a former student of Clegg's who has taken his teaching to heart as she's gotten older.

"He always used to say, like, 'Don't think about the negative stuff if you're in a negative situation, always think about the positive things,' which is something that I always just kept with me," Green said on TODAY. "I was like, 'Yeah, let's do that.'"

That is the type of lasting impression Clegg strives to achieve with his students.

"Greatness is the impact of the service that you leave," Clegg said. "I'm not in this for people saying, 'Mr. Clegg is the best teacher,' I want to see my children grow up and be successful. I want them to want it for themselves, and to understand why that's important, to understand why education is gonna be the key to their success in the future."