Each day we leave our homes with a mission, may it be a mission to be the best in life, at work, or with our families, but we leave with a purpose. However, particularly for people of color, on a daily basis, we enter a world where our images aren’t the norm and we encounter a variety of obstacles unknown to many.
One morning in the summer of 2010, I had a conversation with a White classmate enrolled in my special education master’s degree program at The George Washington University. The crux of the conversation centered around us buying the course textbook. There was always a debate about using over-priced resources or the internet to support our coursework. It was clear that our understanding of “resources” and their availability was very different. It is necessary for me to mention race this early on, as I find that race defines me, defines America, and as an educator, I realize that it also defines the progress of our students.
Let me backtrack and say that I enjoy school. I am a “lifelong learner,” as my mother would say. It wasn't always this way, but as I matured, I worked very hard for my A's, and this work ethic became habitual. I worry as a teacher and as a student that giving minimal effort might result in minimal results or judgment from my professors, bosses and those who are in positions of power, but who are culturally dissimilar. As I spoke with my classmate that morning who said, "Mere, you work too hard and need to relax," I knew that I couldn't even start to explain that, "I'm Black. I can't slack." She would never understand that I have to work twice as hard as her to earn the same A that she earns. To see her side, and how she sees me, I asked myself, am I imagining this existence? Is the world, the store clerk, the officer pulling me over, the party host, and the teacher seeing me, or the Black me? Trying to explain to her my point of view would be difficult, if not impossible.
As a student, a Black woman, and an American of West Indian descent, I have been met with the responsibility of representing my race and ethnicity throughout the years. Is it a responsibility I take on my own, or a burden that was placed on me? Ultimately, I embrace my heritage, and the responsibility that comes with being the first of many things and sometimes the only Black person in the room.
In recent years, I have transitioned from being the sole Black student to one of the only Black teachers in my school. The pressures and the role have remained the same. I live and breathe education. I have always worked in this profession in some capacity, and for the last five years I have been a classroom instructor. What has opened my eyes more to the power and role of race in academia is that I am now one of a few Black teachers standing before a class of predominantly White students. At my most recent school I was one of seven Black instructors amongst over 100 teachers. My race became even more prominent in this role as once again I found myself representing my people to a population of students where I was their first teacher of color, and sometimes the only Black instructor they might have until high school. I always want to make sure that my presence serves as a motivating agent and that I am seen as a trustworthy ally to the few students of color in the school. Once again I have found myself navigating a delicate existence.
I rise to share with [my students] that hard work prevails, and that differences can truly be embraced.
As a teacher of color, I have always wanted to prove that I am just as qualified as my white peers. Consequently, I worked harder, took work home, worked on the weekends, and pushed myself to succeed. My friends who are also educators in more diverse school districts, continually ask me why I don’t transfer to a school where more ethnic groups are represented. However, I know that my role as a teacher of color does a lot more for my students in my suburban school than it would for students in a major city. My students need to have a relationship with me, see me every day, and interact with someone who is different. The same can be said for the few students of color who gravitate to me because I am one of seven.
In summation, I rise each day for my students to do more than teach. I rise to expose them to a world that does see color. I rise to share with them that hard work prevails, and that differences can truly be embraced. My role as the sole Black person in the room changes my life and how I see the world. My role in my students’ lives, regardless of their race, makes an impact on how they see the world. Sometimes being the teacher is the lesson.
Meredith Chase-Mitchell has worked in the nonprofit sector under the education umbrella for over fifteen years in the capacity of director of programs, charter school advocate, and recruiter. During these years Ms.Chase-Mitchell has implemented the No Child Left Behind Act via innovative programming in New York City. In 2015, Meredith founded Classroom Culture, an education based startup that provides a platform for professionals in education to collaborate and lead. Learn more about Classroom Culture at www.classroom-culture.com