There are as many different perspectives as there are unique people in this world but all too often, we are presented with one side of a story. I sat down with a teacher friend of mine who was willing to talk about her experience and some hard truths faced with education in America. More specifically, education in the south at a school with 100% of minority (black and brown) students.
There are a number of topics that people might consider “taboo” and shy away from talking about. It’s ironic that some of these topics, namely money and sex, might be the most practical of topics to learn about. Our standard public education leaves these subjects to be learned at home all while the parents might still be learning how to navigate these matters for themselves.
My ultimate takeaway from these conversations is that we would all benefit from taking a more practical, hands-on approach to educating this next generation.
About the Interviewee
Did you always wanna be a teacher?
I did not. My father didn’t graduate from high school. My mom got pregnant – she got her diploma, but barely. My parents went to a segregated school and basically, when they tried to integrate the schools – that didn’t work out for them. I’m from a small town that’s slow about change. [For example], in the year 2000 they still had segregated proms.
Really? Segregated as in, two proms for one school?
Yes! It was just understood. They were both in the same weekend but the white people went to one and black people went to another.
With that said, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be. I just knew I wanted to go to college because that was the way, you know? You go to college and you make money.
At one point before [high school] graduation, the [administrators] were organizing the students based on what college major they were interested in. I remember sitting around staring [because I hadn’t thought about what I wanted my major to be]. Then I heard “If you want to major in education, come over here” and that’s when I realized I was about to go into teaching.
Once I got into education [as a profession], I appreciated it more. I started to appreciate my family not being educated. At 22, I decided to get a Master’s degree. Then while at my best friends’ graduation, I realized I wanted to go all the way and get my Doctorate.
I turned to my sister and told her “I don’t care if I get a doctorate in basket weaving – I’m going to get one! And nobody can take it away from me.” I got my Doctorate in Health Education.
And your Masters was in…?
Educational Leadership and Administration. I thought I wanted to be a principal or an assistant principal but then I realized I didn’t want to be that far away from my students. Nor from the foot soldiers [teachers] who are doing the heavy lifting.
I feel like it’s easy to forget that as a principal. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the way they were treating us as teachers. I felt like they forgot how hard it was to be on the front line.
You’ve been teaching for about 14 years now. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your brand-new teacher self?
Honestly, I am so pleased with the way I did things. I trusted myself when it was time to take the leap and move to Atlanta. I was 23 and I had 1 year teaching under my belt, but I felt that I was ready to be in a bigger school system. Ready to do more with the students. Even though I’m still growing, I wouldn’t change anything. I’m pleased right now – learning to be a great leader.
Public vs Charter
So there are private charters and public charters?
For the most part, a charter is a charter. But since we get public funding, we have to meet certain standards to maintain our charter. We’re still servicing kids in the [public school zone] area, so they have a choice whether they go to the charter school or their home [public] school. We do try to align our curriculum with the public-school requirements but the difference is we can choose what to keep or change, instead of being mandated by whichever county. So technically we can’t be considered private but, we do make our own curriculum and have more freedom [than public schools] to make our own choices.
What are some subjects y’all teach that public schools don’t?
We have an African American studies class. We have different forms of Art. I teach an Exercise and Weight Control class. I only have 8 people [max] in these classes, so I basically personal train them every day. I help them reach the goals they’ve set. We have another class called College Success, most high schools have it now. Did y’all have it?
No we didn’t…
It’s a class where they focus on the admission process of college and requires the students to apply to a certain number of schools every semester. They match up students with schools based on their GPA and ACT scores.
You said the charter you work at receives some public funding, where else does funding come from?
We have investors. They’ll come and see our school and will pledge millions. These people with a lot of money, they’re looking for some way to get tax write-offs.
*3 snaps in fierce agreeance*
Tax write-offs all day long.
I mean, education is a business whether we want to admit it or not.
Do y’all offer any money or personal finance class at your school?
We don’t offer anything specific like that. I mean, we offer economics because its mandatory to graduate but that’s about it.
I remember my economics class…it was more macro than personal economics.
I remember economics in school too. We talked about supply and demand, but I don’t think they taught about personal finance and how to individually preserve our future or save money. Like you said, more macro than micro.
What money topics do you think would be helpful for kids to learn in high school? Like budgeting, taxes, loans, investments, etc.
I think all the above. But first, I think you have to start out discussing social classes. You’d have to be careful about how to start that [conversation] because a lot of these kids and their families are considered poor [by most society standards]. You’d have to be careful not to shame them for being in the lower class. Most of my kids [and their families] use food stamps. Some of them, when describing their future, they plan to continue using food stamps. And yet they also plan to have a luxury style car or extravagant house. So you’d have to break it down to help them realize that if they qualify for food stamps, they’re [likely] not making the kind of money that allows them to have these luxury style cars and houses. I don’t think they understand that, so it would help to start with that [foundation].
After you’ve explained the socioeconomics of it, then talk about their goals and how they can achieve those goals. Because at the end of the day, most of us are not born with the [resources] to get everything we want at once. It takes time and focus.
Help them to understand the amount of work it takes to sustain a middle-class life. And possibly upper class. Because most of us don’t wake up like that.
Man. That is so important because as I’m writing this book, I’m thinking about the technical side of financial literacy but you’re right – before we even talk about ‘how’ to be financially responsible, we’d have to explain what it means and the socioeconomics of it.
Yes and help them to understand…because they see rappers that quickly become rich and famous but that’s not real life. I’m not saying they can’t make it because I will never down a child, but I let them know what the odds are. I tell my students all the time – there’s nothing wrong with staying at home [after graduation] but I still encourage them to get out and grow and start making their own plan.
What did you know or think about student loans when you were first introduced to them?
I had a track and field scholarship for my bachelors so [at first] they were for me to have a little extra [spending] money here or there. I started to understand more about debt once I started my masters and my doctorate.
My thoughts? If the student doesn’t already have the means [to pay for school], of course they might have to get into a little debt to progress in their education. But when they accept these loans, they should already be working on a plan for how to forgive that debt. I believe if your education is not going to bring you more [income potential] then I don’t know if that’s a smart move. I hate to say it but… if you’re going to put yourself in more debt and make less money, that doesn’t make sense [to me].
When do you think will be the best time to start teaching kids about money?
I think we should start in high school, an 11th or 12th grade course. We have a whole team of people at my school that helps them find money [for college] and all [the student] has to do is apply for these grants. Our kids get millions of dollars worth of scholarships each year. We could do them one better if we taught them about the importance of money while they’re juniors and seniors – that way they enter the world as adults with this fresh on their brains.
Yes! I know a class like that would definitely have been helpful for me.
So, tell me more about the classes you teach.
I teach [Health and PE] because I felt it was the most outside of the box, without being too far out there.
I get it. The kids need structure (in a sense) but also need enough freedom to explore themselves.
Exactly. I chose it because [when I was in school] I enjoyed health and PE – I felt the most free there. I didn’t feel like I was trapped in a box. Like in math – I knew there was a right or wrong answer. [In health] there might be a right or wrong answer, but we can talk through it or have a dialogue about it.
And it’s applicable to real life – arguably the most practical of all the subjects.
Yeah it is! And when you think about even with the games, winning and losing, or tournaments – we teach life long skills.
I’m glad I picked the subject that I did because in Health I teach a lot of topics. I teach about grief. I teach about stress. I teach about sexual education. I love my job because it’s real life.
I’m thinking back to my health class. I want to say it was like a short insert into one class. I just remember they showed us these graphic pictures saying these are herpes, DON’T get them, and that’s about it.
That’s because they have to offer it to you like that in [public school]. But I design my own curriculum. Because I teach high school, I look at what the standards are, what the expectations are, and subjects to cover. For example, some students will talk about how the person with herpes is “so nasty” and that’s when I explain how simple it is to get them. I tell my students – “I’m here to make you aware. I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong. I am here to make you aware of the consequences or what could happen if you make this choice.” I want to be honest with them.
It’s ironic because at one point when they were preaching abstinence, the number of teenage pregnancies ended up being higher than before…
Yeah [because] kids are curious. I do tell them, “abstinence is the only way you can avoid all this, but people slip up.” If they have unprotected sex, they should be able and knowledgeable to have that conversation with their partner. Some of them [students] will say “I can’t have that conversation.” That’s when I’ll say, “Well then you know you’re not ready. You shouldn’t be doing ‘anything’ if you can’t have that conversation.”
Especially because you know these topics are typically the taboo conversations. Even when parents have “the talk,” I can only speak from my personal experience, but my sex talk was “Don’t do it, don’t get pregnant and stay in the books.”
See I didn’t even have that… mine was “well you know what Keisha did to get pregnant, right?”
“[Well] you better not be doing it!”
They never told me anything else. Never told me how to protect myself. I wasn’t active until my senior year and thank God me and my boyfriend at the time were both virgins, and we protected ourselves. But had I known more, I might have been a little more cautious.
So yeah, I love what I teach. I get to have fun conversations like that all the time.
Suggestions to do better
What do you see as the biggest problem faced with education in general?
…I’m trying to find the best way to word it. I feel like we have created – I’m sorry – a generation of students that feel overly entitled.
Oh man, the ‘blue ribbon effect‘.
SO entitled. They feel like the world owes them, and they’re surprised to learn how hard it was to get to where we are [today] as a society, [and more specifically] as women. That came up when we talked about voting earlier today. I heard some kids saying “I ain’t voting, my vote don’t count anyways.”
I had to dial it back to: not only have people fought for us to even to stand in that line as African Americans – but they’re trying to take women’s rights away. [Regardless] if the person I voted for wins or not… if we don’t exercise that right to vote, we [might as well] revert to the olden times when these certain groups didn’t have a voice at all.
We’ve created this entitled generation and I feel like [it would help] if we established smaller schools then we could honestly get to know them, character wise. [So when we see the kid having a bad day, we could approach them with better understanding to] say “Hey – shake it off”. But when we have a thousand kids in a school, some are going to get lost in the shuffle.
I believe we have done them an injustice by just passing them along. Another problem results from the fact [that] we haven’t properly prepared our teachers, and yet we hold them to these testing and work quality standards. Which means the students, how can I say…
…they fall on the priority list!
Yes exactly! My school has AP coursework for all our students. It works out nice for the school meeting their academic goals but half these kids don’t care about AP. They have to take AP exams at the end of the year, so teachers are under pressure to get them to perform because we [the school] have to look good. But [at the same time] we got a million kids that skip class.
We have 99% graduation rate, which is phenomenal… but somehow we’ve taken the accountability off of the children and put so much on us [teachers] and sometimes it’s like we’re doing all the heavy lifting.
I feel that.
I feel like [in order for teachers to perform] something has to give. They want ‘No Child Left Behind’ but you got little ‘Moniqua’ over here who doesn’t want come to school. She comes in class like “Man f*ck you Miss, I ain’t doin this sh*t.” And when I send her out of class for being disruptive, they [administrators] send her right back, so now I’m trying to figure out how to teach the rest of the other 22 kids.
I think we should learn how to put the accountability back on the kids, so they don’t feel so entitled. [Ultimately] teach them how to be successful members of society. I think that’s the biggest problem. We’re putting too much pressure on the teachers and not enough accountability on kids and parents.
AND parents. That’s the keyword there.
Yes, accountability comes from the parent too.
And with the heavy lifting and accountability, we scare a lot of good teachers away because of that.
If you could implement any magical solution to fix this problem, what would it be?
It would definitely be going back to smaller schools. That way we can focus more on the character piece to [better] help those students who might not have that guidance [outside of school]. At the end of the day, we put all this knowledge in their heads but if it doesn’t translate over to real life and being a useful member of society, then how are we really helping them?
We might have those kids that are on the cusp, but they go the wrong way because they see 1 or 2 other kids getting away with stupid sh*t. Smaller schools would help because we could really drive home that character piece. Plus, we’d have more time to build relationships with the families. If I had 100 kids in a grade level, which means my class size would be no bigger than 25 or whatever, I can make those phone calls and make those home visits. But when I have 35 kids in my class, I’m only gonna call when there is a problem.
Smaller schools could also help us draw in the community and draw in the parents more. By involving the parents more, it would help to get our students to buy in. Yeah there still might some kids that get lost in the shuffle but it won’t be as many. In my opinion.
Quality over quantity, I see that.
We have this system that is structured and standard, and yet we have these kids that are individual and unique. It only makes sense that the same approach doesn’t work for all of them.
And [then] we don’t have the manpower to [effectively] serve all the kids that require more time and assistance.
That’s when the snowball effect comes in because there would be more teachers if they paid them what they’re worth and supported them. And if we supported them properly, they could serve the kids more effectively.
What other topics or subjects do you think the kids could benefit from learning about?
We do this thing called restorative circles. Instead of just kicking the kid out [of class], I ask for a circle and within the next couple days before they [can] come back to class, the teacher, student, parents, administrator and the restorative coordinator sit in a circle and talk.
We create a space where everybody can say how [the situation] made them feel. Get everything out in the open and then come up with a compromise that works for everyone. With the parent there, I feel like that will help to better hold them [student] accountable. With these circles we would have a better opportunity to build relationships and it teaches them how to talk through adversity. Teaches how to coexist with people you might not care too much about.
Ultimately, the teachers can teach all day long. But if the parents are not being supportive [of the teachers lessons] at home then it makes it more difficult to get through to a child. And if we were able to build that relationship with the parents, they could address the issue before it even gets to the classroom.
That’s what I would change. It would be a lot of work on my part as the teacher but in the long run it would pay off. What’s two or three parent conferences a month just to make sure my year flows smoothly?
I can see it, in an ideal world.