My Journey as a Black Teacher in America

This former teacher of color shares his experiences before ultimately leaving the profession. His reflection offers insights on the value of equity and empathy that we hope we hope will inspire and inform all educators.

By Ryan Edwards

XQ gathers and shares voices from educators, families, students, and communities to illuminate the inequities in education as individuals see and experience them. This week former educator Ryan Edwards shares his experiences as a teacher of color before ultimately leaving the profession. His reflection offers insights on the value of equity and empathy that we hope we hope will inspire and inform all educators. 

As I reminisce on my tenure in the classroom, memories rapidly rush forward: I remember finishing lesson plans; taking part in meaningful, professional development training courses; hearing the inaugural introduction of ‘Mr. Edwards’, a co-instructor of twenty or so little people—ages five to seven. More importantly, my teaching experience provided a life lesson I truly cherish, the art of resilience.

New Path, New Mission

In truth, my call to teaching came at a moment of personal upheaval. During my final days at Morehouse College, I felt full of fatigue—as if I soaked in the smothering sun of a red hot summer day in Georgia.

Finding my place in the world was not as straightforward as I had once anticipated. It was with an immense sense of disappointment that I would not depart from college as the commissioned military officer I envisioned four years earlier.

With a dream denied, questions soon whirled around me: Did I disappoint my village of family, mentors, and comrades? Had I failed myself? Failure, at the time, was a visceral force of uncertainty to which I was unaccustomed. For the first time, I felt isolated because I could not speak to what I was doing or where I was headed. Though I fell short of the mark needed to be a member of the armed services, I eventually found comfort from the support of my village and focused on a new task needing attention: how I should choose to redefine self without sacrificing my core convictions of inclusion, integrity, and teamwork.

Days before graduation, I received a phone call from a seasoned elementary charter school principal in New York, who had come across my resume from a recruiter I interviewed with months prior.

We chatted for half an hour or so about our HBCU backgrounds, her vision for students’ success, and why the mission of reimagining education outcomes for minority students was so crucial. As we talked, I began to think about my own education and the opportunities afforded to me.

I thought about how privileged I was to attend an elementary school where my grandmother worked as the lead librarian; how my father was a high school English teacher; how I was selected for a high achieving magnet program in 4th grade. In my mind, this seemingly random call was the beginning of a chance to pay forward those early investments others made in my education.

I listened carefully as she espoused the values of the school, spoke highly of recent student achievement data, and rattled off local investors contributing in a myriad of ways. However, my moment of clarity came when she shared her vision for the school: “I want folks on my team who believe in themselves, who can believe in and support our kids. We are the ushers of the civil rights movement, today.” With those words, I was hooked and agreed to be a part of her team at this extraordinary moment in my life. 

A Different Campus

From my first day on campus, I knew I belonged at Rochester Prep. The school was a converted, but still rickety church in a dilapidated part of town. While the edifice and neighborhood may have needed more repair, the spirit of the school was a sturdy source of strength for students and teachers. Teaching at Rochester Prep felt more like a political statement than a job. 

It was empowering to witness the transformation in students’ thinking, from how they processed information to how they internalized the meaning of words and applied their learning to how they engaged with their peers. I watched students create and lead motivational chants in the halls. Colleagues and I often visited the homes of our students to reiterate a message of partnership and accountability. Older students, who recently moved on to middle school, returned to tutor and assist with after school programs. From my perspective, Rochester Prep served the community by providing a space where students saw the world differently. Moreover, at Rochester Prep, I felt whole as a professional and committed to learning under the school’s mentorship.

Upon completion of my first year of teaching and at the recommendation of the school leader, I applied for a new teaching role, outside of Rochester, but within the same charter school network, in New York City. I was hesitant to leave at first. Over the past year, I had shared innumerable positive bonds and experiences, but I was persuaded to do so to further my career. However, my teaching experience in New York City could not have been more different and defeating. 

In contrast, the school in New York City did not have an inkling of the charismatic tone I had encountered in upstate New York, nor did the environment lend much to the student body except a warped, militant view of education: Students were tasked to walk and sit in a certain style at all times and any difference was met with questionable—if not Draconian—discipline practices. There was a limited time for students to socialize with teachers or peers. Parents were kept at bay from visiting during instruction time and staff members trained to teach to the standardized tests. If my time in Rochester represented a continuation of the civil rights era, then the school in New York City leaned heavily into compliance. I found my time in New York troubling and could not support, especially as the only male teacher of color on staff. After a couple of months on the job, I needed to go back to my core values, again. So, I left. 

Classrooms Devoted to Equity 

A few years later, I relocated to San Jose, California, to continue teaching, albeit for a different charter school network, which explicitly borrowed techniques and training from the school in the Big Apple. Suffice to say, I was not there long and figured this to be an unfitting, but timely end to my teaching career. It is worth noting that I did not experience the same disillusionment I had before graduating from college as I forged a new career path outside of the classroom. In my pivot to new opportunities, I returned to lessons I shared with students in Rochester and gleaned the fortitude I needed—that I was strong and more than capable of overcoming any set of circumstances.

In the time away from my teaching experience, I’ve often pondered about whether to return to the profession or not. Without question, I would only be willing to work in a school that is wholly invested in supporting the emotional, intellectual, and social outcomes of students of all backgrounds and abilities. I learned that while a school’s leadership and educational philosophy are key factors that contribute to students’ success or otherwise, their value is only substantiated in classrooms that are home to equity.

Equity in the schoolhouse requires teachers to constantly self-reflect to disavow assumptions, biases, and prejudices that hinder their cohort’s growth. Moreover, this equity is rooted in empathy. Empathy, in an equitable classroom, holds students to high standards without treating them like numbers or results, but instead like young people deserving their teachers’ respect and care.