To look at my identity and its role in my development as an educator, I can’t help but think about where my story started. My mother’s family immigrated to the United States from the small island of St. Kitts and Nevis. My grandmother came to New York to work and provide for her six children still living in the Caribbean. Her move prompted her daughters to move when they got older. And that includes my mother. In 1984, she graduated from high school and moved to the U.S. She worked hard to find a future for herself in a foreign land and had to be paid under the table because of her immigration status. In 1992, I was born and my mother, with the help of her mother and siblings, raised our family’s first grandchild. Their resilience taught me that working hard has its rewards and finding what I am passionate about can bring me a fulfilling life.
As a student, I was shy, introverted, and didn’t have much confidence in myself. I experienced multiple school settings, including two small, local Catholic schools, a public school on the Upper East Side, and a public high school in Harlem. These experiences helped influence my decision to become a teacher. The most prominent experience came after I started third grade and moved to a new classroom with a new teacher. I had spent three years at this school and enjoyed the privileges of being on 68th Street and Second Avenue. We were introduced to experiential learning, trips to the zoo, baking, music, and other great perks that all students deserve.
My First Role Model
The one thing missing in my schooling: familiarity. I identify as a black man of Caribbean descent. In education, few people share my identity. So as a third-grader, I was surprised to come across a man who looked like me: a tall black man with Robert Carradine reading glasses and a stoic disposition. In a school that referred to all teachers by their first names, he introduced himself as Darrel. My first role model, he influenced my decision to become a teacher. With his love and nurturing for us as students, Darrel broke norms and stereotypes. He was openly gay and unapologetic about his identity. He taught us what it means to be ourselves and held us to the highest standards. Darrel’s teachings became lessons for how I wanted to break stereotypes and how sharing my experience with others could help them see futures for themselves. It became my goal to influence young black men like me to reach their potential.
With the help of teachers like Darrel, I was able to break another barrier. I became a first-generation college student. My mother had earned her degree a few years before, and she praised me for my effort and focus. After graduating, I joined Teach for America and was conveniently placed at Democracy Prep Charter High School, a charter school in Harlem, within a mile from my home. There I was, a Black man born and raised in the same neighborhood as the students I was teaching. I stood firm on this notion: “If I can make it to college, so can they.”
My first year was difficult because I did not embrace all that I am to the students in front of me, the same way Darrel had done when I was a student. I felt like a failure with no clue what I was getting into. How could this happen? Why were my students not learning? What did I do wrong?
Seeing Yourself in Curriculum
During my summer break, I reflected on how I failed my students and came to realize that I didn’t fail them — I failed myself. I never saw what my students wanted, needed, or expected from me. Although I was praised for creating a thoughtful, rigorous curriculum, it did not matter to my students because they didn’t see themselves in it. To be honest, I didn’t see myself either. I took time to take a step back and think about my role as a Black male educator and the reason why I became a teacher. I went back to the curriculum and asked my 14-year-old self what I needed. That is diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom. I committed that summer to listen to my students and be my authentic self.
Sometimes you do not realize how much your identity plays a role in how you interact with others. Your values are passed to many more young minds because your words may influence their decisions. As a leader, I needed to focus on what I was passionate about, what I valued, and how to impart the same messages I was taught to my students for their growth.
Working With Students
Now, in my role as a Work-Based Learning Coordinator, I ensure that I see my students and find ways to be there for them when they need me most. Often I work with the students who want to do something outside college, who do not see college as a pathway to success or happiness and want to find gainful employment.
One student I worked with recently had a roller coaster year and missed at least a third of the school year. He was uninterested in most of his classes and knew college wasn’t for him. One of my priorities was to instill in him the same strong values that were instilled in me. We worked together to explore other opportunities, including trade schools, the military, and the civil service. Recently, he came to me exclaiming that he was hired by FedEx. I hope to continue to be an influence on him as he starts his journey, including helping him break stereotypes, like Darrel did for me. I am excited to continue leading with my identity and creating spaces for students to discover who they are.