My mom’s teaching career spanned nearly 40 years, six grades, three states and took her from rural Georgia to the largest system in Virginia. I talked with her about her journey as an educator.
When did you first know you wanted to be a teacher?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a researcher. I wanted to know why things were the way they were. But when I got to college, I saw that the biology majors had to spend a lot of time in the lab. It wasn’t really me because I’m a people person and I don’t like spending time alone with beakers. It was socially isolating and I didn’t want to do that.
Why did you switch to elementary education specifically?
For women, this was a time when being a teacher or a nurse, well those were the prevalent jobs you went into . So I changed my major to elementary education. I was fortunate that I was even in college. The only role models I had were teachers. All I knew was that I’ve come to college and I need to get a job where I can take of myself. I need to get a college degree.
When I graduated (from high school), I was right on the cusp of black people getting expanded opportunities. Our school counselors played a large part in prepping students to go to college. If you showed a lot of potential, they would work with you to make sure everything was in place for you to go to college. My counselor, Helen Booth, filled out all the applications and financial packages. All we had to do was figure out how I was going to get there (transportation-wise). . . There were around a dozen of us from Lumpkin High School that went to Albany State.
What made you stick with elementary education when you changed your major?
When I changed my major, I still had in the back of my mind that I had to finish in four years. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, so it wasn’t a matter of “keep changing your major.” It was , “you make a choice, stick with it and make it work.”
After graduating from Albany State University, my mom began teaching first grade at the newly named Stewart County Elementary School, which had long been the elementary school that served white children.
You started teaching in the 1970s, just a few years after public schools were integrated. What was it like teaching during this time?
The teaching part was not hard because kids are kids. But you had white administrators who had biases about whether black kids could learn or whether black teachers could teach. Because of white flight, there were very few white kids in the school. I did not have a large number of white kids in my class. The white people had opened academies for their kids to go to.
How did you handle the biases?
As a teacher, you’re in the classroom and that is your domain and you do what you need to do and what’s best for students.
Did you have any difficulties, given the biases from white administrators?
You had to move students from one level to the next. Teachers weren’t allowed to get books themselves– you had to go through a coordinator. The coordinator at my school didn’t believe my students achieved that because it was a predominantly black class. Sometimes I would say, “I’m finished,” and request more books. You had to really press hard and help them see the kids are moving forward and what they were doing was holding them back. At the end of the year, my contract was not renewed. Nobody told me, but I suspect it was because I did not agree with the way (the coordinator) did things. The NAACP in Lumpkin (Ga.) was active and they would pick the person who could represent what they were doing. I had graduated as salutatorian of my class, so they knew that I was smart. The NAACP went to the superintendent and asked why my contract was not renewed. I got a call that summer from the superintendent. The NAACP had prepped me and said don’t accept anything less than the position I had. In the end, they did hire me back, but I did not go back to Stewart County Elementary School. I had to go to Richland Elementary School. I liked that school better. It was more integrated. I was teaching fifth grade language arts and the principal’s son was in my class. The principal recommended that I become the Gifted and Talented teacher, but I never got into the position. Then I left (and moved to Jackson, Miss.) because I got married.
What was it like teaching in Jackson?
It was different. You were always being watched and evaluated by parents and teachers. They really didn’t think too much of black people and their abilities. . . It was like you were always having to prove yourself.
After Jackson, you moved to Fairfax County, Va. What was that like?
Culture shock. Coming from Mississippi to Fairfax County, the standards were different, but I had a master’s degree and that put me ahead of the applicants and I had 11 years of experience. I got placed at Forest Edge Elementary School in Reston and I was placed in first grade.
How did you deal with the culture shock?
Anytime you went anywhere, there was always a group of black people and you find them and form a family with those people. So that’s what we did. There wasn’t a whole lot of black people out here, so we found them. The adjustment wasn’t bad. It was much more acceptance here than it was in the South.
You’ve seen quite a few changes over the course of your career. What are your thoughts on them?
Yes, there have been a lot of changes, but one thing remains the same: kids are kids and you teach to their strengths. When technology came, it was scary for teachers, but it was a tool to teach or reinforce what’s being taught. But you still need a teacher there to deal with the emotional and social things that come up. Some changes have been good. Some changes have not been as good. At one time people said you can only learn by phonetics. You have to learn how to look at context clues, and you have rote learning and sight words. Others use what they already know in the language and fill in the rest. You have to know the children’s strengths.
What was your favorite grade to teach?
Third grade. By that time, they have grown and you can leave them alone after you give them directions. That’s when you know you’ve really taught them. They have become independent learners.
Eventually you moved on to become an assistant principal. Why did you choose to become an administrator?
Everybody likes to grow. I had gone as far as I could go in the classroom and I thought I could make more of an impact if I worked with teachers. What is the best environment for teachers so that they can teach kids to reach their maximum potential?
Looking back, you said that you wanted to be a researcher because you wanted to understand why things were the way they are. Do you think you were able to apply that in your career as an educator?
Actually, I did. As a teacher I was looking why things were happening and what circumstances do you have to create to make things better. How do I set up conditions to get good results? That transferred to when I became an administrator.
You said one of your goals was to help kids reach their maximum potential. Do you think you were able to do that?
I do think I was able to do that. I taught them to be independent thinkers and to prepare early for their future. The future is not something that’s way out there. The future is something you have to work right now to prepare for.