Call Me MiSTER

By David Snow | Photos by Nathan Morgan

Lathon Ross wears a shirt decorated by his students during a celebration of the first graduates from the Call Me MiSTER program at UT Martin.

Lathon Ross wears a shirt decorated by his students during a celebration of the first graduates from the Call Me MiSTER program at UT Martin.

Called into his counselor’s office his senior year of high school, Justyn “Jax” Johnson listened as two men told him about the Call Me MiSTER program at UT Martin and how they were looking for male minority educators who could be effective role models.

“Are you sure you have the right person?” Johnson asked them.

They had the right man.

“I will forever remember that conversation,” Johnson says. “Them offering me the Call Me MiSTER scholarship and telling me about it.”

He didn’t sign up then. But when they came a second time, it convinced him.

“That was the first time someone had shown an interest in me academically,” he says. “I was a pretty decent athlete in high school, and I got some recognition for track and field, but for someone to say, ‘No, we care about who you are and your intelligence,’ was new to me,” he says. “In that moment, there were people there who were willing to take time and energy to mold me into what I could be as a person. I think anyone who has seen me during my prime at UTM knows that is what happened to me. It gave me an opportunity to not only go to college but to grow as a young man throughout my time at UTM.”

First Class Graduates

UT Martin graduated its first class of Call Me MiSTER students in May 2023. From the left, Lathon Ross, Logan Davis, Tydarius Blackwell, Justyn "Jax" Johnson and Jonathan Utley.
UT Martin graduated its first class of Call Me MiSTER students in May 2023.

UT Martin graduated its first class of Call Me MiSTER students in May 2023.
Those students pictured above are, from left:

  • Lathon Ross of Jackson, who graduated with a degree in education integrated studies (grades K-5); Ross is teaching at Rhea Elementary School in Paris.
  • Logan Davis of Memphis, who graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary studies with a health and human performance (grades K-12) focus; Davis is teaching at Middle College High School in Memphis.
  • Tydarius Blackwell of Jackson, who graduated with a degree in education integrated studies in mathematics (grades 6-12); Blackwell is teaching at Martin Middle School.
  • Justyn “Jax” Johnson of Union City, who graduated with a degree in education integrated studies in social studies (grades 6-8); Johnson is teaching at Martin Middle School.
  • Jonathan Utley of Jackson, who graduated with a degree in health and human performance (grades K-12); Utley is teaching at Community Montessori School in Jackson.

UT Martin is the state’s only university to have the Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) program, a teacher leadership program that can be found in 13 states and provides participants with mentoring support and networking opportunities that benefit them during and after earning college degrees.

Call Me MiSTER began at Clemson University in 2000 and strives to increase the pool of available teachers from a more diverse background. It’s a criterion by which UT Martin is evaluated. The Tennessee State Board of Education measures state’s colleges and universities cohort members by race to track the diversity of would-be teachers. UT Martin’s 2022 report card found that, in the three-year cohort (2019-21), 11 percent of the cohort members were Black.

Justyn "Jax" Johnson teaches at Martin Middle School.
Justyn “Jax” Johnson teaches at Martin Middle School.

Logan Davis said, when he first heard about the Call Me MiSTER program, he was undecided about where he wanted to go to college. UTM Director of Multicultural Affairs Kameron Echols called Davis that summer and talked with him about the program.

“I was still hesitant, but we took a trip to Clemson, South Carolina, for the Call Me MiSTER retreat,” he says. “Once I was there, I made my decision to get into the program.” Davis said the camaraderie and sense of belonging of the Call Me MiSTER program attracted him. “The biggest thing for me was just the brotherhood of it and the close relations and being involved with it,” he says. “The community service that we did and just being able to be involved with youth and giving back and speaking to kids—even going to high schools and speaking to prospective students—were really great.”

Davis says it’s a calling.

Tydarius Blackwell, a 2023 graduate of UTM, teaches at Martin Middle School.
Tydarius Blackwell, a 2023 graduate of UTM, teaches at Martin Middle School.

“I’m a firm believer that, ‘For whom much is given, much is required.’ I feel like God has put me in the amazing position at this point in my life to be able to elevate, and I feel it’s just right that I help bring people along with me, whether it’s kids, adults, whoever it may be. I feel that’s a responsibility that’s been put on my life.”

Johnson says part of the training included taking part in an educational studies class.

“One of the things we did in that class was talk about what it truly meant to be a male minority leader,” he says. “We also went to other educational studies classes to learn what it meant to be a teacher, but when we went to the other class, it really was a realization of how much of an impact that me and my demographic could have on people.”

In a paper Davis wrote for class, he reflected on the few male minority role models he had in his life.

“We almost have to make a constant position that, ‘I will be here, and I will represent those who look like me so they know that there can be more for them,’” he says. “That was one of the more powerful things that they taught me.”

Johnson said he was impressed with the things that Austin Ferrell, a lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies, taught him.

“He taught me that African American men can not only go to college and finish college, but they can be successful, can be productive, can be respectful and presentable,” he says. “Those weren’t things where he said, ‘Pull out a textbook and turn to Page 27.’ He lived those things in how he acted and reacted to things going on in our lives. He is someone who I would say is just a shining example of what it is to be a mentor, and for him to be a male minority was just the icing on the cake.”

Johnson says he uses what he learned from the Call Me MiSTER program every day.

“It is so engrained in us of our importance through the program as MiSTERs about being representative of the connections I create with my students,” he says. “I feel like I am so much more purposeful as to, ‘Why do I connect with this student? Why do I do these things for them?’

“You might think, ‘It is because I am a teacher that I have to care,’ but, no, I have to care because I know there is a great power in me showing this care to these students.”

National partner schools of the Call Me MiSTER program that originated at Clemson University include:

TENNESSEE
University of Tennessee at Martin

COLORADO
Metropolitan State University of Denver

FLORIDA
University of South Florida

GEORGIA
Georgia College and State University
Georgia Southern University
Kennesaw State University

KANSAS
Kansas State University

KENTUCKY
Eastern Kentucky University

LOUISIANA
Grambling State University
McNeese State University
Northwestern State University

NORTH CAROLINA
Western Carolina University

SOUTH CAROLINA
18 four-year colleges and universities
10 two-year colleges

TEXAS
University of Houston Downtown
University of North Texas-Denton

VIRGINIA
Longwood University
University of Lynchburg