During Teacher Appreciation Week, I find myself reflecting on the teachers that have impacted not only my education but also my life.
In nursery school, it was Miss Thrasher. I was dropped off or walked to her daycare every day and my number one goal was to get a gold star for good behavior and to reach snack time, playtime, and nap time. As I moved to elementary school Mrs. Johnson was by far the most impactful and influential teacher in my life. She required our class of “gifted” students to draft a thirty-page research paper with three hundred note cards from the library. It is still the most difficult paper I have ever written and that includes a doctoral dissertation.
Mrs. Johnson’s expectation for excellence changed my high school and college expectations for myself and gave me the courage to go to a magnet high school in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods. Each day I had an hour commute from my home to the school. Then in high school, it was Ms. Ford, my French teacher, who transported our class to Paris with her love for the French language and dynamic teaching style. In graduate school, my dissertation committee chair Dr. Cherese Childers-McKee pushed me to love action research and encouraged me to write about and present my research at conferences and seminars from my first year until graduation. She still pushes me today.
Throughout my life, I’ve witnessed teachers serving as gatekeepers, door openers, and community navigators. As gatekeepers, they open tremendous doors of opportunity for their students, or equally, they close them to teach them life lessons. I think of Dean Michael Jeffries often, who served as Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Equal Opportunity Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign when I was an undergrad. For 35 years, Dean Jeffries facilitated the opportunity for thousands of Black and brown students to attend the university. He has gone on to serve as the Director of the Mcnair Scholars program at the University of Illinois and Special Assistant to the President at the Council for Education Opportunity. Dean Jeffries will always be known to me as the man who told me to go to the local junior college in Champaign after the second semester of my first year because my grades had dropped significantly after pledging a fraternity. The words he shared with me, “Young man, do you want to major in partying or in communications and marketing? Stop wasting your money and our time,” was his way of tough love but it changed my life.
With the challenges educators face, teachers are leaving the profession in droves. I witnessed the dedication of principals like Juan Gardner at Madison Senior High School in Madison Illinois. During the pandemic, Juan caught COVID, his brother caught COVID, and his 100-year-old mother caught COVID. Juan continued to serve as a door opener for his students while caring for his mother, being separated from his wife and family, and obtaining his doctoral degree. When speaking to Juan recently, he got excited talking about his forty seniors who will be graduating and going on to college, trades and the workforce. Door openers live to open doors for others to succeed. Juan said during the pandemic, “People lost hope about their future. They were seeing people parish daily. The hopelessness must be countered by door openers who see the way out. We must set our students up for success. Our students of color must be highly skilled and highly specialized just to compete. Black educators must be that light on the post of education.”
Teachers are at the heart of the educational enterprise. I met Travis Williams when he contacted me about helping him to develop his nonprofit the Urban Prosperity Initiative (UPI). You see during the day Travis served as a Continuous Improvement Coach at Spartanburg School District 7. A scientist at heart, Travis loves teaching students about science and STEM. At night he runs his nonprofit which focuses on equity, equality, and economic growth. One of the great programs that UPI runs is the restorative justice program in which Travis and his team work with local law enforcement and the school district to help young men who commit minor crimes get their records expunged and to provide mentoring, tutoring and job and career readiness counseling to help these young men get into college or obtain a job. Travis’s work has garnered national attention and he was recently named the Program Director for the Teacher Enrichment Program at the Center for Excellence in Education in Washington, DC. Travis has been a tremendous community navigator for students wherever he has served, and his students have found clear pathways to success because of his work.
We need to celebrate the phenomenal work of educators who serve as gatekeepers, door openers, and community navigators. Thank you to all the teachers who have and are making a difference in my life and in the lives of students everywhere.