People choose to become educators for a variety of reasons, and become them in a variety of ways.
Mr. Stevens became a physical education teacher because he wanted to bring together helping people with his passion for sports and physical activity.
Ms. Long became a teacher as a result of her interaction as a youth with the foster care system. As a foster child, she found herself helping other foster children navigate their way through difficult times. As an adult, she believed that she could enhance this support for children by becoming a teacher.
Ms. Cunningham migrated from being a social worker to becoming a teacher. This was in many ways a natural transition.
Ms. Washington began her career as an educator as a substitute teacher. Unlike her experience as a student, she witnessed in that moment a deeper caring about students taking place. As her misconceptions about teaching disappeared, she decided to enter into the profession on a permanent basis.
As for me, teaching was coded into my DNA. I just didn’t realize it right away. My mother was the first Black teacher on Long Island. Not one of the first, THE first – with the assistance of The NAACP. My father was an adjunct professor from time to time. My eldest sister is a recent retiree after a 30-plus year career as a math instructor. My brother is a recently retired pediatrician who spent part of his career as a medical school professor. His twin, my other sister, is currently a college president. My daughter is continuing the tradition as a special education teacher.
My path to becoming an educator was indirect to say the least. Notwithstanding my DNA, I was a corporate accountant for over twenty-five years. However, as I began my journey, there were a couple of roadblocks along the way. In fact, barriers that still anger me to this day.
Sometime after leaving the corporate world, I applied to The New York City Teaching Fellows. I thought I was a natural fit to transfer my accounting background into becoming a math teacher. After all, I applied mathematics in the real world on a daily basis. I was ceremoniously rejected. In fact, I received what was to me a most insulting rejection letter. I don’t remember the exact wording, but to me it said that The Fellows did not believe I had the ability to enter such a challenging program.
They took no account of the measure of the man, or the professional that I’d become, nor the career that I’d engaged in. The Fellows didn’t even grant me an interview. Over the years of my teaching career, I’ve seen some wonderful teachers through The Fellows Program (my daughter included). But I’ve also come across a few that I shake my head at. Yet they were selected and I wasn’t.
But I didn’t really want to teach math. I was sick of numbers. I’ve always loved history. This led to an encounter at The City College of New York with the head of their graduate history program. My goal at the time was to earn a Masters Degree in History – just for me, no other underlying purpose.
I met with Professor H. the head of the Masters program one fall day. After a bit of discussion he said to me,
“May I speak frankly?”
I responded, “Of course.”
“You are rather long in the tooth these days. If you earn a Masters Degree in History, what do you plan on doing with it? No college or university is going to hire someone your age as a tenure track professor.”
I let him know that I understood this, and quite frankly agreed with this perspective.
“May I make a suggestion,” he went on. “Why not pursue a Masters Degree in Social Studies Education. Many of the courses that you will take will be the same as the history degree, and at the end of the day, you will have a piece of paper that you can actually do something with.”
I thanked him and told him that I would consider his thoughts. Actually, I did more than consider them, I actively pursued the idea. Teaching was back on the table. I contacted the head of the Social Studies Education Department at The City College of New York, applied – and was duly rejected.
According to Professor S., the head of the degree program, my undergraduate degree in Accounting did not have sufficient courses in history to move up to a Masters Degree in Social Studies. However, if I could prove my history knowledge by passing the State examination in history that teachers must pass in order to qualify for their teaching license, she would accept me into the degree program. This seemed a reasonable compromise.
I tried to find resources to study for the exam, but I wasn’t able to (this was before the age of the internet). So, I pretty much went in cold and took the test. When I left the exam I felt confident. When I received my test score, I was honesty proud, but not really surprised. Let’s just say I had a much more than passing score. Professor S. accepted me into the program and became my biggest supporter.
But the tale doesn’t end there. As I was pursuing my Social Studies Masters Degree, I reapplied to The Fellows. I was simply eager to get started teaching. I was accepted this time, as a math teacher. But I’d moved on from that part of life. They subsequently agreed to accept me as a special education teacher. In my mind, I could teach history to special education students. I would enter The Fellows Program and complete my Social Studies Masters at the same time on my own dime. Or so I thought.
One week into the summer orientation for The Fellows at City College, I was called into The Fellows office. They said they noticed that I was enrolled as a Social Studies Education Masters candidate. I told them yes I was, and that information was in my application to the program. They proceeded to tell me that I would have to either withdraw from the Fellows or put in writing that I would not accept a degree in Social Studies Education from City College now or in the future.
I was incredulous. I clarified what they were requiring me to do. I was within a year of obtaining my Social Studies Masters degree with my own money and they wanted me to throw it all away. Mind you, they didn’t ask me to delay that degree they said that I must forfeit that degree. Why were these people still messing with me?!
I promptly resigned from The New York City Teaching Fellows. I’m as angry today as I was in the moment about their nonsense and insensitivity. Let’s be clear, I was at the time a forty-something-year-old Black man choosing to enter into the teaching profession. There was a critical shortage of teachers who looked like me and The Fellows rejected me in essence not once, but twice.
I doubled down on my resolve to become a teacher. Graduating near the top of my class, I earned my Masters Degree in Social Studies Education in the spring of 2006 and joined the New York City Public School System that fall. Thankfully, someone saw my value. Overall, The New York City Department of Education (DOE) has been very supportive of my teaching career. The DOE provided workshops and mentors to strengthen and expand my abilities as an educator. I’ve encountered teaching colleagues who added to my career as well. I can’t count the students and their parents who thanked me for my contributions. Why couldn’t The New York City Teaching Fellows recognize the potential and the possibilities? Why did they choose to become a roadblock instead?