This is part of a series of first-person pieces written by Black men in teaching talking about their educational journeys and the importance of making all of our classrooms–in big cities and small towns–more representative and more responsive to the needs of our students. Recent research has reinforced how important it is for schools—especially elementary schools–to aggressively recruit and support teachers of color.
As I stand in front of 25 first graders teaching English Language Arts, I try to grasp that this was me years ago, sitting at my desk and eager to learn.
Who would have thought that this 27-year-old black man from the South Bronx would become not just an educator, but a role model to students in this elementary school community?
I did not consider a career in education when pursuing a degree at Emmanuel College in Boston, Massachusetts. My goal was to study business and communications, put on a tie every day and travel the world. Still, I wanted to have a positive impact, so even though being a teacher was not the path I envisioned when attending college, I know I can make a difference as a Black man teaching in an all-black elementary school. I know I can help my students thrive academically and emotionally.
Race and equity played a major role in my life growing up, although I don’t recall talking much about the injustices I would face as a Black man throughout my life. I was not exposed to racism growing up. Many of the staff members at the charter school I attended were people of color, so my personal experience demonstrated the positive impact of being surrounded by educators who looked like me and valued my individual strengths and talents.
I know now that I could have benefitted earlier from talking about these important truths about race and equity, so I strive to reflect those lessons in my classroom. One of my favorite books to read to my students is Chocolate Me by Taye Diggs. This book illuminates ideas like self-identity and self-love, which are so important for children–especially students of color– to absorb at a young age.
A mentor who believed in my every dream
Throughout my schooling I had memorable teachers, both black and white, but it was my teachers of color who inspired me most.
One who inspired me as a black role model was my high school principal Fred Givens. Fred pushed me academically and became a mentor who believed in every dream I had. This supportive relationship continued past high school, through college, and continues even today as I launch my own education career.
All paths in my life led to education. When I graduated I decided to spend a year in an AmeriCorps program at Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School, working in classrooms as a fellow, and later moved on to work in another Boston elementary school for three years. It was during my year in AmeriCorps that I realized teaching was more than just a job; it was my passion to work with students in unrepresented communities like the one I grew up in and be a Black role model who can inspire students who look like me to dream big and do the impossible.
For students of color, it is so important to see yourself reflected in your teachers, to have leaders of color supporting you and pushing you to be the best. We also know this is not the norm for young people to see career-oriented and educated black people, aiming high and making a difference in their communities. The students I serve are coming from less-than-ideal circumstances, so I strive to create an environment that feels like home.
When I look at my class I do not see 25 6-year-olds. I see 25 smart, capable, loving future black leaders who will also pave the way for those who come after them. I strive to give them a place where they can be their best selves. I want to be the teacher who makes them feel that anything is possible.
Photo of Isaiah Mulligan with students provided by author