Originally appeared in Word in Black
Black Teacher of the Year winners from coast to coast discuss what keeps them in the classroom, what worries them about K-12 education, and what it will take to get more Black educators.
It had been 10 years since they’d last seen each other — and 17 since they’d been teacher and student. But when Connie Hall was at the White House in April being recognized as a 2023 State Teacher of the Year, her former student, now a staffer in the famous building, ran over to greet her.
This is representative of the family Hall has created during her roughly 29 years as a teacher. In fact, she’s part of an ongoing group message between parents she’s “adopted” during her teaching years.
And they give back to her in return. During the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown, her adopted family was sensitive to Hall’s husband’s heart condition, and they didn’t want her to go out for groceries. So they did the shopping for her — making sure to abide by her vegetarian diet — and left groceries on the porch.
And, in Alabama, Kimberly Christian Johnson is known as the “school mama.” She keeps supplies in her classroom that students are able to help themselves to, like deodorant, dental care, and even ramen noodles.
Recently, a student stopped by her classroom and asked for some deodorant. After using the travel-sized product, he called Johnson a “lifesaver.”
These aren’t things Hall and Johnson were asked to do, but it is part of what makes them Teachers of the Year.
Since March 2020, between 25% to nearly 50% of teachers and principals have reported that they are considering leaving their jobs within the next year, according to RAND’s 2022 State of the American Teacher survey. The desire to exit the classroom is especially prevalent among Black teachers and other teachers of color, with more than 40% saying they intended to leave their jobs by the end of the 2021-2022 school year, compared to 31% of white teachers. And only 7% of teachers are Black to begin with.
Word In Black spoke with Black Teachers of the Year — both state and national, past and present — to find out what inspires them to stay in the classroom during this difficult time when education is under attack.
How did you get into teaching?
KIMBERLY CHRISTIAN JOHNSON, 2022 ALABAMA STATE TEACHER OF THE YEAR: I actually started out as a journalism major and English minor. I was not super fulfilled in that career. I did it for just a little bit. Then I started substitute teaching, and then realized that was my path. I went back to school and got my master’s degree in English language arts education. I went to the University of Alabama, a PWI. But then I got my education degree at Alabama A&M University, which is an HBCU. It was middle school language arts from that point on. I started in 1998.
KURT RUSSELL, 2022 NATIONAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR: I have to mention two teachers that inspired me to become a teacher. My kindergarten teacher, Miss Francine Toss, and the one thing about Miss Toss was that she was so intentional about her work. I remember vividly: it was storytime, and she was reading a book. She mentioned that this is a book about Martin, and she opened up the picture book, and every page of the book was this little Black boy. It was a story about Martin Luther King, Jr., which was so exciting for me. This was 1977, before Martin Luther King, Jr. was this iconic figure, before the holiday. By her reading that picture book to me, I fell in love with stories and with history.
My eighth-grade math teacher, Mr. Larry Thomas — he was the first Black male teacher I ever had. I cannot remember exactly what Mr. Thomas taught me, but I remember the image that he portrayed. He always wore a suit and tie, which I do the same today. He always greeted his students by the door, which I do every single day. It was his mannerism, his disposition about himself that really made me think about this profession and that I really want to be a part of it.
CONNIE L. HALL, 2023 NEVADA STATE TEACHER OF THE YEAR: I’m the daughter of a teacher. My mom taught for over 44 years as a teacher and principal. If it was possible, I would have been born in a classroom. I literally grew up in the classroom. I always helped around the classroom, setting up for the year, putting books out, handling their stuff. The other part, I would teach my stuffed animals and my dogs — I was teaching them how to read. They were very smart. I went to a small school, and it had multi-grade classrooms. If I finished my assignments, and there were younger students, I would help them with their assignments. At that age, I was able to find creative solutions to help them to learn and understand new work. I thought that was very exciting.
What inspires you to stay in the classroom?
JOHNSON: This is year 25 for me. I feel like it’s evolved a little bit. After substitute teaching, I realized that I really enjoyed working with young people. So I got into it for that. Then, I realized how important it was for students to have a voice, and I was really into building a community and having student ownership. Then, as I got up and years, I had kids and became a mom. I realized that opportunities weren’t always the same for students and kids.
And so I worked. I taught eighth-grade English Language Arts for 18 years, and I would do some remediation classes for some students. I saw a need. These kids need someone to stand behind them and need someone to stand in the gap sometimes because equity isn’t always there. So I became an interventionist, working with the counselors, with social workers, and working to get kids who were absent from school, get kids who are struggling the help they need and the support they need. Now, it’s all about student support and advocacy and trying to get students to the next level and for them to see the potential that they have.
RUSSELL: Students know what they bring to the class. They bring resilience, of course, their intellect, and their personality, and the joy that I have teaching each and every day. But I have to be honest, it’s not necessarily me giving them all of the answers, or I’m teaching them so well. They are also teaching me through their stories and through knowing the personal things that they have been through. That’s why I love history so much because history, especially the curriculum, is nothing but stories, and that’s what really keeps me motivated.
HALL: What has inspired me has been the students that I’ve had an opportunity to work with over the years, and a lot of families. I was a young Black teacher, and I had to go through parents thinking I didn’t know what I was talking about. Then I had to go through some parents not wanting me to teach their kids because I was Black. So I’ve gone through the gamut of different experiences, but I knew I was there for the kids. There were times, before, I thought I was gonna walk away. And I said, ‘No, I have to stay here for my kids,’ because I was seeing the impact that was having on their lives. I don’t see myself retiring anytime soon because this is my life — as long as I have the energy level that I have now. Almost 53 years old, and I’m back to teaching kindergarten. I love it.
If and how have state restrictions or limitations impacted you?
JOHNSON: I have been lucky enough that in my district, in my school, in my small bubble, that I have been allowed to have choice. To be able to choose books when I was an ELA teacher that pushed my students. My school district is about 60% white and about 30% Black, and then other minority groups make up the other percentage. I have, probably once or twice, had parents push back on a book. But usually, when you can sit down and have a conversation about the what and the why, I usually can get it. I can say that I have struggled, because it seems like, just in the past few years, the political climate — people are really pushing back, and I just haven’t seen it in my bubble.
RUSSELL: I have to be honest, I am so privileged and blessed to work for Oberlin City Schools. The autonomy that they give me to create courses is wonderful. I know many, many teachers do not have that, and many, many teachers are disrespected in the classroom because they are the experts, but they are not treated as such. The city of Oberlin, with Oberlin College, has been founded on the principle of equity and progression. And so, therefore, my school board, my administrators, have been extremely supportive of the courses I teach.
I teach courses that some might consider controversial. I teach an African American history class; a class called “Race and Gender in the Present ” where we study the women’s rights movement, the LGBTQ+ community, and economic oppression. It’s tough conversations that we have in the classroom. I will always tell individuals that we have to stay true to our values of education and make sure that we tell the truth in all that we do. Kids are so appreciative of learning about the topics that are discussed in my classroom.
HALL: I don’t really feel that any of the books they’re trying to ban would be for the audience that I’ve had. So that has not impacted me in my classroom. But I don’t think those have even surfaced in my community. I know there are others that it has, but it has not surfaced in my district or school.
What do you think it will take to get more Black teachers in the classroom?
JOHNSON: Pay is the first thing. We are vital to the future of this country — just like you would pay a doctor or a lawyer or someone who you’re depending on to make sure that we move forward. We don’t get paid for what comes out of what we do. Support and autonomy are important. Mental health is important for students and for teachers because burnout is real with all of the stressors that we have.
It’s so different now in 2023 than it was when I first started teaching in 1998. The problems were different. Some of them circle back to the screen time, disengagement, avoidance. I didn’t see that 25 years ago. So a lot of behaviors that we see in the classroom, we might not necessarily be trained in our teacher prep programs to deal with. With kids today, there’s a lot of social and emotional and psychological issues to deal with that we’re not equipped for. So it looks scary, especially with social media: you see all the bad stuff that happens in classrooms. But it is the most fulfilling thing. I was riding in the car this morning, and I was thinking about how blessed I am to get to go to work with kids, to see what progress looks like, what success looks like.
RUSSELL: Data shows many Black adults, when they were in schools, really faced trauma with high disciplinary actions against Black children: suspension, detention, and so forth. Black children hardly see themselves in the curriculum. So Black children have had a very bad experience in school.
The first thing we have to do is to provide a great experience for Black children. I’ve had that through Miss Toss, through Mr. Thomas, where they were intentional about showing myself within their classroom. My experience was great, and that’s why I continue this journey of being an educator. But there are so many experiences that are not right. So that’s the first thing: making sure that we provide a great experience for all children versus Black children.
Number two, we have to make sure that we create an opportunity for Black leadership within our schools and take away the microaggressions taking place in our schools. Finally, mentors. It goes for every teacher, but especially Black teachers: Create mentorships to guide young Black scholars to the journey of being a teacher.
HALL: One of the things is giving them support when they start out. I wish I had opportunities to have others to support me. There’s times you go through those situations that, if you ask for help, people think of it as a sign of weakness. I want to see more mentorship at the college level: you want to go into education, let me partner you with this seasoned teacher that’s going to be mindful. You can ace a methods class, but if you don’t know how to relate and work with kids, that A in a class showing you know how to teach math isn’t gonna help you teach it to a roomful of moving kids.
But having a strong support system, that is what I want to see for our Black teachers. Now, seeing in the Teacher of the Year program, there’s 10 or 11 teachers of color who are State Teachers of the Year. Before, that really didn’t exist that you were even seeing teachers of color. The diversity actually in my cohort this year is amazing.
What worries you about K-12 education?
JOHNSON: I worry that people who are not educators, who have never set foot in a school door or talked to kids who don’t look like them — I worry that those people are in control of what happens in education. Teachers go to school for so many years to learn about people, about children, about how to teach their content. But I feel like people who have not done that are becoming the people who are totally in control of what we do. They’re taking it away from us. We really do know what’s best for kids, we know how to teach, and we know how to make them good people and good citizens and to have opportunities. People’s personal opinions and their personal beliefs are spilling over into education. Those things have nothing to do with each other because we teach kids how to be critical thinkers.
RUSSELL: That educators do not have a seat at the table to shape policies. Educators are trained experts in their fields, and it seems to me that educators do not have the opportunity to share what’s really happening in the classroom, to shape policies. So what worries me is the disrespect, the lack of authority that teachers have in the policies that are being made.
That worries me because, without teachers’ input, and if teachers are not well, then students are not well, so it’s one of those trickle-down effects where teachers do not have a voice to create policies to make sure that they still are receiving the best educational opportunity possible.
What do you see and hope for the next five years of K-12 education?
JOHNSON: I wish people would listen to the kids. Ask them what they need and what they want, and what they want their futures to look like. These kids are so smart and so bright, and I talk about preparing them for their futures, but they are changemakers right now. I wish people would give that autonomy to kids.
I would like people to trust kids and let them have more ownership from the beginning. That’s where I started, with student ownership. That’s why I connect with my students, and I have for so many years, because I’m like, OK, what do you need? What do you need me to do? How can I help you? What do you need to see me do?’
They’ll pause for a minute because nobody usually asks, because people always tell them what they need. So I think ownership, more real-world experiences, and letting them have more control over what they learn and how they learn. They may want to be in class more because they get some decision-making.
RUSSELL: Number one, a more diverse faculty and staff within our schools. All students could benefit from having more men in the primary years, having more women in the STEM courses, having more teachers of color, period. Number two, I hope that teachers are compensated for their work, or, hopefully, that teachers are receiving the pay that they deserve. Then, a final one, I’m hoping teachers are able to have a seat at the table to create policies to help children.
HALL: I would like to see, and this is my bandwagon, smaller class sizes. I really want to focus and help my students to learn, and having a smaller class size so you can reach those kids will be able to give the students that need more support. No matter what grade level, if you’re getting more than 20 bodies, after a while, you’re just doing crowd control. It will reduce behavior issues that are becoming a concern, because the more kids you get, there’s going to be more different personalities. So my perfect scenario is to reduce the class sizes, to be able to have teachers getting the materials and the supplies that they need, and making a good school environment.