What I Learned From My Students Who Became Teachers
I rarely see authentic or endearing stories in the media that show the impact teachers and students have on each other. While shows like Abbott Elementary – which I especially love as a graduate of Philly Public Schools – try to show teachers as real, dynamic people with complexities and contradictions, few educators get to narrate the true power of the relationships we’ve been able to cultivate with our students.
After 13 years of teaching, I’ve had just over 1,700 students walk in and out of my classroom. Even more astonishing, five of my former students decided to become high school history teachers, just like me:
Paula Katrina Camaya: a former Chicago Public Schools educator currently teaching civics and humanities at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) in Evanston, Illinois. This is her third year in the profession. Paula was in my Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History class during the 2014-2015 academic year.
Victoria Kosiba: a current seventh, eighth, and ninth grade U.S. and World History teacher at Art in Motion School in Chicago. Victoria formally taught in New Orleans, and this is her third year in the profession. Victoria was in my U.S. History class during the 2014-2015 academic year.
Gariecia Rose: a current World History and Government/American Law teacher at Glenbard East High School in Lombard, Illinois. This is her second year in the profession, and the Illinois State Board of Education recently recognized her as the 2023 Outstanding Teacher of the Year! Gariecia was in my Sociology of Class, Gender, and Race elective during the 2016-2017 academic year. Paula Katrina, Victoria & Gariecia are all Golden Apple Scholars.
John Lee: currently an Asian American Studies, World Religions, Civics and Modern World History teacher at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ilinois. This is his third year in the profession. John and Paula were in the same AP U.S. History class.
Nick Davis: currently a World Studies, AP Psychology and Black Studies teacher at Von Steuben High School in Chicago. This is his second year in the profession. Nick was not a student in any of my classes, but I consider him an honorary student after informally supporting him through the process of becoming a teacher.
While ETHS connected us, none of us had ever been in the same room to share and narrate our stories. Inspired by the late Grace Lee Boggs, who used conversation as a way to deepen understanding, my partner Jon and I decided to invite each of these amazing human beings to our home to break bread, catch up and dialogue about our individual and collective work as teachers.
Pictured from left to right: Corey Winchester, Paula Katrina Camaya, Victoria Kosiba, Gariecia Rose (on Zoom), John Lee and Nick Davis. Photo courtesy of Winchester.
After dinner, we sat together and reflected on what has kept us all in the classroom, despite the challenges of the education profession. In 2018, a report conducted by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania found that 44 percent of new teachers left the classroom in five years. Fortunately, that has not been my story, but increasing threats to our profession leave us wondering if we’ll be able to sustain ourselves as classroom teachers.
After nearly two hours of laughter, tears and thoughtful discussion with students who have become teachers, I walked away with two important messages that affirm why teachers decide to stay and why our stories deserve to be heard.
Building Meaningful Relationships Is Key to Teacher Retention
My success as an educator has had little to do with how much of a historian I am and everything to do with how I have cultivated meaningful relationships. During my career, students and their families have trusted my knowledge and expertise to create opportunities to learn and build community. This relational work includes everything from learning to ask questions humbly to engaging in storytelling rooted in love, care and empathy – aspects we all value as history teachers. At dinner, Victoria mentioned that her ability to cultivate meaningful relationships predicated on love is most powerful in her work. She shared:
“My why is to spread or give love in any way. I think that is a profound idea that a lot of people don’t talk about, especially in education. [In my daily objectives] I always try and put one sort of idea about joy, laughter, love or some act of kindness, something that we can do to really be brave in that space because right now, I think one of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that people do not like to see kids happy, especially Black and Brown children.”
We all spoke to the importance and role of love in our work, despite the fact that it is often absent in public discourse. Even more, relational work does not end with students and should also be experienced among colleagues.
Our gathering showcased our ability to sustain meaningful relationships over shared identities, mainly as high school history teachers of color. During dinner, I appreciated how Paula Katrina reflected on the power of building affinities with her colleagues as a newer teacher, especially given the underrepresentation of educators of color in the profession. She said, “I think what currently keeps me doing the work is actually [the relationships] I’ve made with coworkers that became cool friends. [They are] awesome educators and cool women of color.”
In Illinois, only 18 percent of public school educators are of color. Recognizing the importance of building community among educators of color, Illinois launched a $2 million initiative supporting identity-based affinity groups. Supportive and affirming environments for early career educators like Paula Katrina are essential for retaining new teachers in the classroom, and part of that support and affirmation lies within the relationships we cultivate with students and colleagues.
Reality Informs How We Teach Students
As the conversation continued, we each offered thoughts about what it means to be receptive to the needs of young people as they make meaning about the complex and contradictory world around them, and how certain standards and mandates restrict teachers from doing that. I learned that John understands his work as a teacher to be about building empathy for one another’s lived experiences while cultivating the ability of students to listen. John then recalled a very specific moment from our class nearly a decade ago when he learned about the power of empathy. Reflecting on how we all processed the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown, he said:
I remember that was a time where there were so many conflicting ideas within the student body, but giving us the space to be able to talk about that [was important]. Even when you shared your own personal experiences of being a Black person and your relationship with cops in America…I would never have had the opportunity to talk about that.
John’s reflection on that experience showed me how much he values opportunities to empower young people to talk about the realities of the world around them, especially about events and issues that are not in our curriculum.
Much of our pedagogy as history teachers emphasize and center on human experiences. Nick shared that he makes it a routine practice to listen to his students and ensure that they feel affirmed, something his students have acknowledged and appreciated about him. Reflecting on difficult days in the classroom, Nick revealed that “[when I feel like] I’m the worst teacher ever, the kids affirm me and say ‘you’re good at this.”
Nick also shared that he felt no professional teacher evaluation could capture the impact of our work, and honestly, it feels like those relational practices are being written out of our work. For example, Arizona’s Superintendent Tom Horne pushed for establishing a hotline to report instances of critical race theory and social-emotional learning, now deemed “inappropriate lessons that detract from teaching academic standards.”
While that example may not apply to us, much of the work educators do daily is under threat. Gariecia shared a difficult moment about how she and her students processed the sudden death of another student. She discussed how she provided a place of refuge for students who did not have anywhere else to go, a moment that ultimately kept her from resigning:
The fact that I had kids that had to go searching for a space where they felt like they could fall apart is insane. They shouldn’t have to look that far, they should be able to walk into the building and feel like any adult they see is a safe space…The last thing these kids should be having to worry about is ‘where can I go that’s safe,’ you know? But so many of his friends came to my room and fell apart and I just sat on the floor with them and fell apart with them…So, after all that happened, I stopped writing resignation letters, and it was just like, okay, like, this is a space where I am needed.
While unfortunate that it has to be iterated, schools must be environments where curriculum, testing and policy do not interfere with teachers’ and students’ ability to engage with our humanity and the reality of the world around us.
Why Our Stories Need to Be Heard
My first, second and third grade teacher, Mrs. Andrea Gray, in my history classroom in 2019. Photo courtesy of Winchester.
It is extremely humbling to be able to tell this story about and learn from former students. While our connections and relationships are unique, I’m certain there are a number of educators that have inspired former students because of the way they chose to teach and the meaningful relationships they developed. To this day, I am fortunate to have a two-decade-long relationship with my former elementary school teacher, Mrs. Gray, an educator that inspired me to become a teacher.
Our dinner conversation revealed that sometimes, it feels like we’re swimming against the flow of what we know is right for students and ourselves, while our education system emphasizes laws, mandates and standards purported to guide the next generation. Because of that, I worry that too many educators – newcomers and veterans alike – feel like they won’t be able to sustain the work. Now more than ever, educators need to be acknowledged and celebrated for the important work we do, especially when stories like ours reveal that meaningful relationships matter, especially when we have the ability and support to meet young people where they’re at.
Being a part of inspiring former students to become teachers is an immense honor. These relationships have kept me grounded in this profession, despite the messiness of it all. It is my hope that more folks care to value the work we do. Our stories are much more dynamic than what people believe. If you don’t believe me, just chat with my former students – they are teachers, after all.