12 Years A Slave: My Experience in Public Education

Over twelve years ago, I began my journey as an Educator in the City of Atlanta. I became an educator after being inspired from experiences with racism in college. I knew that politics was my desire, but education became my purpose. I believe that education is an effective way to change social dynamics. Stimulating the mind is best done through engagement. You cannot engage people when you don’t know who they are. Sitting at the University of West Georgia, Professor Said Sewellasked us during a political science lecture, “how many of you have had a Black male teacher from Pre K until now?” There were over one hundred of us in the lecture hall and less than ten people stood. I was one of the ten. I could recall Mr. Gordon from elementary school, Mr. Davis my counselor in middle school, a few administrators who lead discipline, P.E., Band, Business Tech, etc in high school. However, it resonated with me in that moment, why aren’t there more Black male educators? I was determined to ensure that male empowerment in education would be a focus on my journey. Having a Black male teacher to me wasn’t uncommon. I come from a family of educators. Education was always an important factor in my life right next to family, financial freedom and faith. However, life had to teach me that my experience isn’t the experience of everyone. Therefore, I decided that I would become a part of the solution and not silently remain a part of the issue. After graduating college, it was clear from running the Carrollton Housing Authority summer program that the public school system was where I was headed to make change.

“Change begins within our minds first before it takes action!” Each year, I always give my students, parents or fellow educators a speech that references the The Souls of Black Folks. I use this book because it highlights the need for understanding code switching and how to overcome an oppressive system. One humorous yet impactful lesson is captured within the phase, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I learned this lesson being told no so many times in public education. I became even more determined to make impactful change possible for children. If we know and understand that the systems of America were not designed for people of color to succeed, then naturally one would think to themselves to design or build other pathways to success. In my opinion, this is not only the pain but the beauty of American culture. The realization of Black culture, Black American citizens story is that if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Simply put, we cannot continue to demand and rely on the public education system to do what it wasn’t designed to do without changing it. Education is the key to freedom. Public education can work if we work together for a common agenda that is based on and implemented for the success of all children. In household living rooms, church halls, libraries, college campus and classroom across this Nation is where minds are stimulated to embrace and drive social and economic change.

The public education system operational systems resemble a plantation model to me. I don’t agree with the political decisions that drive educational outcomes in America. I’ve seen this first hand from working as employee and advocate. The political agendas are what place money before morality and pushes cash influx over our children dreams. The educational system is used to funnel money other industries such as the prison system. Poverty makes money by attributing to crime, healthcare, housing and education. Unfortunately poverty is first a state of mind before it’s a state of being. The media, entertainment and even religion are used to distract us from the power of knowledge. If public education was to truly be supported, if teachers were compensated for making change like entertainers are compensated for making us feel good or even if schools provided food, resources and facilities that made it a place children and families wanted to be, then we would be able to have a more progressive society. We’ve become so conditioned to tragedy, crisis and the constant need for reform that normalcy is no longer expected. Here’s the big reveal about public education. The same issues of equity, resources, teacher quality, curriculum, attendance and discipline are still the same. Things get better with effort but they change with intention. 

The public education system is taxing on educators physicallymentallyspiritually and financially. I’m a witness! It’s a lot on educators try to balance personal, family, career and then the continually process of going back to school for certifications and additional degrees and it burns them out. On top of all of this, we’re not only teaching but empowering, coaching, advising, nursing, rearing, mentoring, tutoring, disciplining and correcting actions of students and some parents daily. My experience in public education has been rewarding. It has shown me that being an educator requires you to connect with people regardless of race, class, creed, religion, sexual preference or disabilities. Political tensions in education are just as high and dirty as any other field. Those with personal and political agendas, the ones who don’t buy into the vision, others that create mess, climbers and lazy workers all attribute to the crisis and failure of public education. It’s the true laborers who come in student focused that help ensure that as many of our children in public schools are provided the best education possible. Often times done without the support of Superintendents, schools and board leaders, community and families. As public school educators, 99.3% of the time we give more of ourselves to ensure our children succeed than the data or the media portrays. This often times leaves many public school educators fillings unfulfilled by data, economics and politics that attribute to poor morale, lack of resources and engagement in several traditional public schools. The consistent power struggles, inconsistency of implementing best practices, ineffective leadership leading school districts and lack of engagement from stakeholders attribute to why public education is failing . I certainly can attest to all these things in my journey in public education.

Rashiid Coleman