Over the past few weeks, people across the country have been glued to the NCAA March Madness tournament. Every year, the tournament brings a palpable excitement to the nation. This year though, my second as a public school teacher, I found myself thinking less about who’d take the title and more about what it would look like to bring this same energy and electricity to our effort to deliver on the promise of equal educational opportunity for our kids.
For low-income students of color in Eastern North Carolina, the shot clock is ticking.
Thanks to a community of peers and professors who changed the way I viewed both the world and the possibilities for my place in it, I was determined to be part of building a better one.
When I talk to my students in Nash-Rocky Mount, the very same district that served me growing up, I tell them how crucial education was and continues to be in my life. Here in Rocky Mount, kids who look like my students and me don’t always tend to do well. I got good grades in high school, but I still felt unprepared for the rigor of college when I got to North Carolina State. I sometimes looked around the classroom and wondered if I had what it took to be there. But my four years on campus taught me the precious value of hard work. Thanks to a community of peers and professors who changed the way I viewed both the world and the possibilities for my place in it, I was determined to be part of building a better one.
By the time graduation rolled around, I had applied to Teach For America. Now that I knew what it took to make it through college, I wanted to return home and equip the kids growing up there now with those skills. Two years later, we’re just getting started.
Every year, my kids come to my classroom below grade level. They sometimes struggle to read or do math, and often feel that they just don’t have what it takes to ever master those skills. But I know that’s not true. So I tell them about my own struggles in the classroom, about how hard I had to work to get the hang of science and how often I felt like everyone around me was smarter and more qualified than I was. Then I teach lessons in ways that feel familiar to them: “You’re throwing a party. You have a $250 gift card to Burger King to order food, and you can only use 95 percent of the gift card. What would you order and why?” They then break up into groups and solve the problem together, with one person illustrating the math on a graph, another creating a menu, the third adding up decimal places.
As they work together to break down problems, their confidence builds.
And if I see them falter as I walk between their rows of desks, I remind them: “It’s okay to struggle. Mr. Williams wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t struggled just like you. The important thing is that you keep going.”
I hope we’ll think boldly about what it would take to bring this same tenacity, commitment and passion to the pursuit of educational equity for all.
With another year of NCAA festivities in the books, I hope we’ll think boldly about what it would take to bring this same tenacity, commitment and passion to the pursuit of educational equity for all. We have a responsibility to ensure that more young men and women get the pride and preparation they need to thrive at any of the life-changing institutions of higher learning that muscled it out on the court over the last few weeks. That’s the Cinderella story I want to see. Victory never tasted so sweet.