Growing up in the historic Memphis, Tennessee neighborhood of Orange Mound is challenging. Established in 1890, as one of the first neighborhoods built specifically for African-Americans in the Jim Crow South, Orange Mound declined by 1980. Like some other communities of color, children there are surrounded by drugs and gang violence.
Tynesha White, 24, navigated her way around the the violence. She attended the University of Mississippi, where she majored in education. After graduating, White decided to return to Memphis, where she now teaches in a community similar to Orange Mound.
“I know how difficult it can be to make it out in those situations,” White told NewOne. “Being a little Brown child in a low-socioeconomic area is hard.”
White, who teaches kindergarten at Promise Academy Spring Hill, preaches education as the key to success.
She said, “I just want to give my students the best shot at getting out. It doesn’t matter where you come from, you can still do anything.”
White has been teaching for two years—a critical juncture when scores of novice educators decide whether to continue in the profession.
Teacher retention is a major challenge for the nation’s school districts, especially for racially segregated schools in low-income communities of color.
According to the National Association, within their first five years of teaching, over 40 percent of educators leave the profession. In urban, under-resourced schools, the turnover rate is dizzying: about 20 percent of teachers exit every year, New York University reports.
At the same time, teachers of color are underrepresented in the workforce. The U.S. Department of Education, in a report titled The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce, found that teachers of color represent about 18 percent of the workforce—at a time when minorities combined comprise a majority of public school students.
Teacher diversity, former Education Secretary John King has stated to NewsOne, “isn’t just a nicety; it’s a real contributor to better outcomes in school.” Teachers of color, because of commonalities with their underprivileged urban students, serve as role models, have high expectations and understand the behavior of their Black and Brown students.
In Tennessee, teacher diversity is a problem that state education officials are trying to remedy, according to the Tennessean. About 85 percent of students majoring in education statewide in 2015 were White, the newspaper reported.
Adding to the challenge, the state’s lowest performing students are educated by the lowest performing teachers, Chalkbeat reported, based on state data that show test scores for those students improved when they had effective teachers.
White said she benefitted from having teachers who looked like her and “took an interest in me,” so she wants give back.
“I live for the lightbulb moment,” she said, referring to that moment when her young students understand new concepts. To improve her skills and create more ah-ha moments, White is continuing her education at the Relay Graduate School of Education’s Memphis campus.
In assessing her own skills, White admits that there are areas that need improvement. She learned education theories as an undergraduate but entered the profession with no practical classroom management skills.
That’s common, says Michelle Armstrong, the founding dean of Relay Tennessee who oversees the teacher preparation program. She told NewsOne that Relay’s program fosters the “mindset of an effective teacher” in its students. The keys to effectiveness include knowing how to manage a classroom, as well as developing relationships with parents, students and the community.
Armstrong, a former teacher and principal, has a mantra: “Practice is premium.” That means the school’s urban education program focuses on doing—not just theories—through “deliberate practice,” mentoring and feedback from experienced teachers.
Relay, which has a residency program, partners with public K-12 schools, charter schools and colleges. Its students are predominantly African-American teachers, who are new to the profession and typically teach at low-performing schools.
The instructors coach the teaching students through actual classroom observation and analysis of recorded video of them teaching in their classroom.
“Teaching is a great profession, but it requires hard work,” said Armstrong, who said many enter the field without understanding what’s involved.
White said the program gives her access to experienced teaching mentors who help her solve the challenges she faces in the classroom.
She has no regrets about choosing to teach in a community that needs excellent educators. As a teacher, White feels that she’s contributing to the solution.