“For these young black boys, going to school and seeing a man who resembled them in a position of leadership, honor and respect made a powerful impression. Just by doing his job, my father became a role model.”–Shannon Shelton Miller writing for The Washington Post.
Not too long ago, I found myself browsing through The Washington Post and found an article that helped me summarize everything I was feeling. I had just been offered an opportunity to join Teach For America as a Recruiting Manager and was beyond excited to go out there and recruit aspiring teachers of color who would be placed in communities with students of color. Unfortunately, the timing was off and I was not able to join the team, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that perhaps the person who would end up taking the job would not value intentional teacher recruitment in the way that I did.
As a first year teacher with Teach For America in 2012, I was sent to serve a 7th grade classroom in the MacArthur Park community in Downtown Los Angeles at a local charter school. My first week was hell. I was unprepared for the realities some of my students were experiencing, and I was constantly harassed by many of my students who thought they could scare me off as they had their last teacher during 6th grade. I couldn’t even hold their aggression against them — they had been abandoned before so why would they expect me to be any different? The difference was that the teacher who walked out on my students was also a new teacher, who unfortunately had very little connection to the community. I can’t blame him; it was hard work. But walk out on a cohort of brilliant students? He could have waited.
I had 100% Latino students in my class my first year teaching. I looked like them and grew up in a family very similar to theirs. Their parents treated me like I was one of them and after proving myself through a whole month of “bullying,” I gained their respect.
Jocelyne, one of the leaders in the group of students who made a bet to see when I would quit, ended up being my mentee by the end of the year. I remember taking her to a local education rally one day and talking to her about the importance of always advocating for herself and to demand a quality education, and for the first time, she told me she wanted to grow up and be like me. Perhaps Jocelyne meant it as a compliment, but I took it as a responsibility. It was in that moment that my life came full circle, but I also experienced first hand why being placed in THEIR school during this time was meant to be.
Growing up, I had many teachers who I looked up to as well, and while I wasn’t the quietest student in class, it was the teachers I gave the hardest time to that I grew to love the most. It was the teachers who looked liked me that I felt closest to because they made me believe I could be in their positions one day and that I too could succeed and give back in the way that they did.
These teachers were the reasons I wanted to be a teacher.
While my first cohort of students challenged me like no other, they were also the ones who taught me the most about the value and power of being a role model. My students continue to have me on their side, but I know not every student gets to experience that with their teachers. Perhaps, intentional teacher recruitment is key. In the midst of a teacher shortage, why not go out into the communities and seek community leaders and advocates and interest them in serving students? Train them, and teach them to share their knowledge and wisdom to our newer generations. We must be more intentional in recruiting people to come into the teaching profession because there are many students like Jocelyne in our schools who are waiting to find someone they can look up to.
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