George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston, Texas
It is my pleasure to stand here as the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. I teacher at Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center in Richmond, VA. I am here today because I represent my students who are the most vulnerable students in America. They have made mistakes and deserve a second chance because America is a country of second chances and a high-quality education is the remedy to put anyone on the road to success.
I grew up in King William County, Virginia. I became an educator to honor my mother who wanted to become a teacher but was denied the opportunities due to poverty and segregations in the rural south. She was the best teacher I had even though she only had a 6th grade education the majority of her life. She taught me the best lesson on September 9, 1993.
I finally turned 15 and could go to the local teen club. I was excited I could finally hang with my older brothers and friends in a new environment. They had been going since they were 15. My mother destroyed my hopes at the time by not letting me go. I was devastated because it wasn’t fair. In my disappointment, I made the decision to sneak out and go to the club. It was the worst experience of my life. Later that week, consumed by guilt I admitted to my mother what I had done.
She didn’t punish me severely because she said I had learned my lesson. When I asked her why she didn’t let me go, she gave me the most important piece of advice that I carry with me to this day. She said “A good parent knows her children and what they need and are ready for in life, and you are not ready for that type of environment. When your brothers were 15, they could handle it. It may not seem fair but it’s what is right for you.”
That conversation turned out to be the advice that changed my life and influences everything that I do in my classroom and should be done in education. That was my first lesson on equity. Equality said I was old enough to go to the club. Equity said I needed to grow and mature more before I would be ready to go to the club environment.
This is what our schools need. We need equity. We need to understand that not every child in America starts at the same place in life and some need more help achieve.
We need economic equity. A one size fits all model of equality does not work in education and education funding. Equity ensures that the students suffering from multi-generational poverty receive the same resources and education as those born with a silver spoon in their mouths.
We can ensure that every student in America receives a high-quality education by restoring educational funding to pre-recession levels. The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world but our funding cuts to public education since the Great Recession of 2008 have crippled education in this country. This has disproportionately impacted the schools and the children who need the most resources and are the most vulnerable. The national economy has recovered from the Great Recession and is surging at record highs. It’s time the children of America received their fair share of the nation’s resources. We must increase our funding and make equitable changes to education funding to ensure every student and teacher get the proper resources to guarantee success for them all.
There is another equity that needs to be discussed in educational planning and that is cultural equity. The education field has a big problem with cultural inequities. Half of the school age children in America are students of color while 80% of the teachers in this country are white. We need to make sure students have teachers who look like them and values their cultures. All students deserve teachers and role models who appreciate and understand the unique gifts they bring to the table no matter their race, religion, gender status, or sexual orientation.
Research from multiple sectors of society show that there are many benefits to having a diverse workforce; diversity enhances organizational effectiveness by increasing levels of creativity, problem solving skills, and flexibility. A study found a positive relationship between the presence of teachers of color and the achievement of all students. Teachers of color serve as role models and cultural liaisons for their students. When teachers of color are present, there are several benefits for ethnic and minority students in particular; they are represented in fewer numbers in special education, there is a decrease in absenteeism, and parents and students are more involved in school activities. Increasing the number of teachers of color will help meet the needs of all students. To truly tackle the issues of inequality, the achievement gap, culturally relevant education, and toxic masculinity that are destroying society, we need more teachers of color in the field of education.
This is extremely important to students who look like me. A recent John Hopkins study said that all children benefit from having teachers of color in the classroom specifically black children who get a black teacher in the elementary grades. Those students are 39% less likely to drop out of high school and 19% more likely to go on to college.
Cultural inequities contribute to other problems we have in the teaching profession such as a teacher shortage. The biggest areas of need for teachers are teachers of color and exceptional education teachers. It’s no coincidence that these are the students who have the worst experiences in school. No one wants to return to the scene of their trauma as a career field. WE NEED MORE TEACHERS OF COLOR IN AMERICA BECAUSE EVERYONE AND I MEAN EVERYONE BENEFITS FROM DIVERSITY.
I want to tell you a story about a student I taught earlier this year named TJ. TJ was born in 2004 to a drug addicted mother. He was placed in underfunded special education program at an early age like so many young black males because he was misunderstood by teachers and administrators who characterize his youthful exuberance as an exceptionality. He is 14 years old has the reading level of a 3rd grader. He goes to an overcrowded school on the southside of Richmond, Virginia. He is criminalized every day when he gets to school every day. He has to stand in the rain, cold, heat, or whatever conditions the weather permeates that day while six security guards search him and the 1,000 other kids for weapons. Then he along with his classmates walk to class in a dark building full of mold and rodent infestations. He gets to a classroom with his 15 other exceptional education students with exceptionalities ranging from developmentally disabled to autism. There is no teacher’s aide and no reading specialist to give
him the attention he needs to bring up his reading level. His lack of interest in school has led to poor attendance and becoming involved in gang life because there are no afterschool programs for him to get involved in due to budget cuts. One day a rival gang did a drive by shooting on his house. He wasn’t hurt but his grandmother was fatally shot and died in his arms.
After her death, his grades began to suffer more. He went from being a C student to all F’s. he couldn’t sleep at night because of the nightmares about his grandma. He suffered survivor’s remorse because he felt the bullets were meant for him. He began to get suspended because he kept getting into fights at school because of his anger. One day a student made a comment to him that he wished the bullets had hit him too. Afraid to fight the young man because of his small frame, he went to the street and bought an illegal gun and proceeded to do a drive by shooting on the house of his bully. Thankfully no one was injured in the shooting.
He was convicted and sent to our 6-month diversion program because of the circumstances surrounding his crime. I immediately noticed he was malnourished and he was extremely paranoid. The first two weeks he didn’t do any work because he couldn’t focus for two seconds without being distracted. My mental health training alerted me to the fact that this kid was in crisis because he was showing the signs of severe PTSD. One day he slid me a note saying I need help. I talked to him after class and he told me about his issues. I asked him why did he commit a drive by shooting in response to a comment someone said and he looked at me and said I was angry and just needed to talk to someone.
Luckily, we have a full-time psychologist on our staff. She began to talk to TJ and he began to calm down and focus on his work. Every day I would come sit with him and work with him one on one during class. Our English teacher and literacy coach improved his reading level by 4 grades in the six months he was in our school. His grades improved from All F’s to honor roll. He has even started playing AAU basketball as part of his diversion program. He left our facility two months ago, mentally and physically healthy and a new kid. Its no secret what worked for him. We are a fully funded school and we were able to give him the academic, mental, and social help he needed to be better because we are a fully funded school with teachers who look like him and understand his culture.
However, I fear for him. He is going back to the same home situation with the addicted mother. He is going back to the same high school that lacks the physical and academic resources to inspire his learning. He doesn’t have any counseling at the school to improve his mental health. I hope it works out for him but it doesn’t look good. He needs special resources and they are not available to him. This is a major problem, WHY DOES A KID HAVE TO GO TO JAIL TO GET A FULLY FUNDED SCHOOL AND THE RESOURCES THEY NEED TO BE SUCCESSFUL?
Today is the time to call our legislators to task and ask a moral question in the words of Dr. King, When judgement day comes, What is your life’s blueprint when it comes to the children of Virginia?
I know the blueprint of everyone in this crowd because they are on the front lines everyday fighting for what is right and preparing our kids for the future despite being underpaid, underfunded, and under supported by those who claim to value education.
But as MLK said, everyone has a breaking point and there comes a time when people get tired, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of legislative oppression. There comes a time when people get tired of being dragged across the abyss of exploitation where they experience the hopelessness of despair. There comes a time when people scream at the top of the lungs I have had enough and now is that time.
We have hit the point of a national emergency as we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters all over this great nation and we need leaders who are willing to stand with us.
We need leaders of wise judgement and sound integrity—leaders not in love with money but in love with justice: leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. Leaders not in love with saying they care about kids, but leaders who actually write the checks that their mouths are cashing every day.
To Quote Civil Rights Icon John Lewis, “If (we) come together with a mission, and its grounded with love and a sense of community, (we) can make the impossible possible.” We can get everything our kids deserve.
We need more funding to ensure that the students suffering from multi-generational poverty in the cities and rural mountains of Virginia receive adequate resources to get the same quality education as those in Silicon Valley and the suburbs of New York and Connecticut. We need to make sure our teachers do not have to take second jobs to make ends meet. A teacher should be doing lesson plans on the weekends not working another job.
We need funding to recruit, train, and retain the best of the best for the children of this nation and we need funding to make sure our kids have teachers who look like them and values them and their experiences.
So once again, I ask the legislators of America, when judgement day comes, what is your Life’s Blueprint when it comes to the kids of this country? When you say you care about kids, I ask what is your evidence because if you ask the thousands of people out here today; you would get a giant failing grade.
There comes a time when you have to make a decision in your life. Do you stay with the status quo or do you step up and fully fund our future? Thousands of students, teachers, parents, and administrators are stepping up and saying enough is enough. And I promise you, your judgement day will not be on your final day on this earth but on election day when millions of Americans led by every single person in this crowd march to the polls, break down the doors, kick you out of office and say OUR KIDS DESERVE BETTER.