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Interview: 7th Grade Science Teacher

As a minority, have you ever considered entering the field of education? In this career interview, an African American science teacher shares how he is uniquely equipped to reach many at-risk students. He also shares how even in a liberal field like education, he sees the subtle signs of racism around him on the job.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: I am currently a 7th grade Science teacher in my eighth year of teaching. I would describe myself as caring, concerned, and considerate; like the education adage says, “kids don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care”.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am an African American male. In the educational field, especially in high school and middle school, these two things are a tremendous advantage, as both groups are underrepresented when compared to student demographics. An overwhelming majority of at-risk students are male, who lack a positive male figure in their own lives. Many aspects of my job are easier because I don’t have to work as hard as a female teacher to establish a relationship with the male students.

Unfortunately, I also encounter awkward situations in which my colleagues automatically nominate me to speak to specific students or parents based on a shared ethnic background. I know they have good intentions, but it is a little insulting and frustrating at times. Sometimes, I wish I could explain to them that being African American doesn’t mean I have an instant connection to every other African American on the planet; there is no secret code or language.

Facing discrimination requires a positive outlook and courageous honesty. Most people are acting on a subconscious level; I like to think that they are acting out of simple ignorance and not overt malice. Luckily, the educational field is extremely liberal, and I don’t deal with workplace based discrimination as often as friends or relatives in other fields. However, it is there. When I inform people that I obtained my masters degree in educational administration, I receive enough slightly surprised looks to leave me feeling disappointed about people’s reactions.

I assume that, sometime down the road, when I begin applying for administrative positions, that some districts will be “closed” to me. I would like to say I will view this as a challenge when the time comes, but it is hard to predict how I will react when confronted with overt discrimination.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: I show kids how to be adults. Most of the time, this involves helping them shape their thinking and critical reasoning skills. However, many students require help in more generalized areas. I think most people don’t really appreciate the role that teachers play in a child’s life. Unfortunately, an increasing number of students are not having their social or emotional needs met at home, which leads to a noticeable gap in their development. As an educator, you can either attempt to fill that gap in a positive way, or let them fill it in themselves through often self-destructive behaviors.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would rate what I do personally at a 10, while I would rate the system that I work within as much lower. No one is happy with the way that education in this country works right now, though I am not sure what can be done to change it. All I can do is have an open heart and positive attitude when dealing with kids.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: My first year I worked with a guy, who, when I asked how his day was in passing, would always respond with “I get to work with kids today, it’s a great day”. I think everyone wishes they could change parts of their job or work situation, but for me, at the end of the day, I get to work with kids, so everyday is a great day.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: Both of my parents were teachers, which obviously influenced my career path. You don’t always appreciate it when you are younger, but the choices of the people that you look up to obviously influence your own decisions, at least on a subconscious level.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: I have learned that no matter how well meaning your intentions may be, people don’t like to be told what to do, especially when it comes to their kids or parenting style. I had several instances during my first few years of teaching where I was a little bit more open with my advice than I should have been when dealing with parents. These interactions lead to several discussions with my direct supervisor about dealing with people in a more tactful manner.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: Life is not fair. I don’t mean that in a bitter way, but in education, you are always an easy target. We have become a society obsessed with numbers and quantifiable metrics when it comes to evaluating an individual’s usefulness or worth. So much of what happens in education is behind-the-scenes interpersonal stuff that is difficult to measure.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: It is impossible to tell what is going to happen during parent meetings. Many individuals have an uncomfortable personal history with regards to education and little experience dealing with a professional environment. This creates a great deal of anxiety when it comes to entering the school for a meeting. I have had mother’s pull up their shirts to show me their cesarean scars and father’s ask me if I want to fight them.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: Its hard to answer this without sounding like a Hallmark card, but when a kids says that you are his favorite teacher, it is an instant injection of happiness. Kids don’t always do a great job of showing their appreciation or thanks, but when they do, it is a great feeling.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: Managing personal emotional investment is the greatest challenge that any teacher faces. It is hard for people outside of the field to understand, but “burnt-out” teachers got that way because they invested too much of themselves into student success. When a student leaves your class at the end of the year and you realize you didn’t teach them what they needed to know, or you didn’t make a large enough impact on their life, it takes a permanent emotional toll.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: My personal stress level is extremely high. It is hard to be a good teacher and not be stressed out all of the time. Between teaching, coaching, and a host of other extra-curricular duties, it is difficult to maintain a healthy balance between personal and professional time. Having a wife who is also an educator does not make the process any simpler. Luckily, summer vacation cures a host of ills.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: Unlike most educators, I feel like I am fairly compensated for what I do, grossing around $35,000 a year. While I may never be rich off of my salary alone, it is enough to live comfortably, especially when figuring in benefits.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: Though educators do work extremely long hours during the school year, I am only contractually obligated to work 187 days a year. I get much more vacation time than anyone else in the country, and I am fine with it.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: To get hired as an initial educator usually requires a Bachelor’s degree or more in most states, as well as passing a state administered content area based certification exam. Being successful on the other hand, requires a special blend of compassion, discipline, and social skills. Unfortunately, as anyone who had a “bad” teacher can attest to, many people lack the correct blend of skills.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: When I speak to people about becoming an educator, I let them know that it is a great job, but it is not for everyone. Unfortunately, the only way of finding out if you are suited for the field is by teaching for a few years.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: My dream is to someday run my own charter school. There are just too many kids, especially minority students or those in lower income areas, who just don’t have a chance of succeeding in traditional schools based on the way that they are structured.