Teachers make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population, but they impact the lives of 56.4 million students in just a single year. To get a personal perspective behind these numbers, I met Kendra Brown ’19 to learn how she came to this career path and what the challenges and rewards are.
Brown teaches 11th and 12th grade math at Simmons High School in Hollandale, Mississippi, a rural African American community. The school is a brisk five-minute walk from a nondescript building owned by the agricultural biotech behemoth Monsanto, but a 30-minute drive to the grocery store. The remainder of the neighborhood is a mix of brick buildings mostly shuttered and scarred with fading signs. I share these details because teachers often have an intertwined relationship with the community and feel a responsibility for in elevating it.
Brown was unlikely to end up teaching in Hollandale, given she grew up over a thousand miles away near tourist-filled Mammoth Lakes, California. A recipient of the William P. Held Endowed Scholarship, she majored in public policy and international relations at the University of Redlands. Yet, shortly before graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she signed up for Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that trains recent graduates to work in the country’s most impoverished schools. In the application process, Brown was able to select where she would prefer to be assigned. She chose “wherever,” desiring an adventure. So, she got one. Reflecting on her first few days in the classroom, Brown said, “I just wish I had known it was OK to not be perfect. Education is a scary thing–I’m responsible for these kids’ math education!”
Then the pandemic hit, forcing Brown to navigate an environment where even veteran teachers were at a loss. “We’ve been virtual, we’ve been hybrid, back to virtual, we’re hybrid again, we’re staying hybrid,” she says. “This year has been an insane rollercoaster.” The wild ride also meant Brown found herself working longer hours and trying to orient herself in a new community without in-person human contact. “I was an outsider, and I don’t necessarily know the way things work in the community,” explains Brown. “I went in and didn’t assume anything.”
Quickly finding a mile-wide digital divide in the midst of a virtual format only meant she had another challenge. “I have students who still don’t have wifi,” she says. “Virtual learning assumes a lot.” But Brown found an open-minded perspective and empathy for her students key to an equitable learning environment: “I told my students today if you want to retake anything, turn in anything, even from January, that’s fine.”
When Brown is asked if, despite the challenges, she would recommend education as a career and if she will pursue teaching after her contract is complete, she says: “I’m really happy with my choice of becoming a teacher. I think it’s a great career and I love working with kids and having those ‘a-ha’ moments. That makes it all worth it.” Her answer was my own “a-ha” moment. A career as a teacher isn’t for someone who is easily disgruntled by politics, low pay, or economic inequalities. Until the system changes, it’s for someone like Brown, who pushes through the challenges and never gives up.
Even though Brown is about to finish her Teach for America contract, she will continue her career as an educator. She will be relocating to her home state to teach high school math in Richmond, California, where students will gain an exceptional teacher with empathy, patience, and perseverance.
Prior to the official interview with Teach for America in 2019, Brown visited the U of R Office for Career and Professional Development (OCPD) to practice her interview skills. She recommends other students give it a try; students and alumni are welcome to schedule a mock interview. The University of Redlands also offers programs for aspiring educators through its School of Education.